Mumbai breakfasts

Mumbai does breakfast like nobody else in India, or so my limited data points tell me. No, I’m not talking about the vada pav places here. I’m not even talking about the “Udipis” (sic, for that is how Mumbaikars spell and pronounce “Udupi”). I’m talking about the kind of places where you get poached eggs with yoghurt. Yes, really, that is a thing, and the number of such breakfast places in Mumbai is not funny.

I’d been to Cafe Zoe in Parel once before, a couple of years back when I met a friend for drinks and dinner there. I remember it as this “happening” place in the middle of this old mill complex, with loud dhinchak music and a rather youngish crowd. So when it was suggested that we begin our series of meetings with breakfast at Zoe, I wasn’t sure it was a great idea.

But the place inside was different (I have very hazy memories of my first visit there, thanks to the quality of its alcohol, I guess!). The skylight meant that it was rather well lit, and the music was soft and of the pleasing variety. The tables had been sparsely occupied (it’s a large place), but among those that were there, it seemed like people were working there. Laptops were out, though it was hard to find a single one not made by Apple. The place had a leisurely unhurried feel to it, and I could wait for a while without being hassled to place my order.

And the menu card told me that the place opens at seven thirty! Seven thirty! Nothing save the Darshinis are open in Bangalore at that hour. Even the Egg Factory, that wonderful set of breakfast places here, opens only at eight. And thinking back, Zoe is hardly alone. I’ve been to at least two or three similar places in Bandra that serve “hipster breakfast” well-at-a-leisurely-pace. It seems like such breakfast places are more like the norm in Mumbai.

And it is not hard to reason why – simple revenue management explains it. Real estate in Mumbai is so prohibitively expensive that rents form a huge part of restaurants’ costs. And given that it is a fixed cost (you pay the same rent irrespective of how many customers you serve), a good strategy is to “amortise” it – across a larger number of customers. Other costs of running a restaurant, like labour and cost of food, pale when compared to the cost of rent.

In a situation with high fixed costs, it makes no sense to utilise your resource only part of the time. Whether your restaurant is open for four hours a day (as some are) or for all the time local regulations permit you to be, the rent you pay is the same. And in the latter case, you are making much greater use of the fixed-cost resource at hand, which is a prudent strategy!

Opening for breakfast probably means adding an extra shift (or half a shift) for staff. It means running the restaurant at a time when there is no chance it is going to be full. It means keeping the kitchen open all the time, and “normal” principles of restaurant management probably suggest it’s not a good idea. But when your fixed costs are as high as they are in Mumbai, it makes sense to marginally increase the fixed costs (by paying for additional staff cost) in exchange for making significantly superior revenues.  And that is what the likes of Cafe Zoe do!

Utilisation at non-peak (non-lunch, non-dinner) hours is never high (except maybe on Sundays), but what matters is it being strictly positive. Low utilisation means it gives a leisurely feel to the place, and customers can be allowed to linger. People use the place as a meeting spot (coffee is very reasonably priced there, and you can get beer to fuel your meetings!). From the looks of it, some others use it as a workplace. And all this results in revenues for the restaurant, valuable when real estate costs are so high!

Surely other cities, such as Bangalore, can do with such places. In Bangalore, for example, there is a severe paucity of places to do breakfast meetings at. Traditional South Indian places are too hurried, and buffets are never a great place to do meetings (five star buffets have turned out to become a kind of “standard” place for breakfast meetings). There is the egg factory, of course, but there is none else! We could surely do with some of our “lunch restaurants” opening up for breakfast. Just that real estate costs here don’t offer as compelling a reason as they do in Mumbai!

And for the record, the poached eggs with yoghurt was absolutely outstanding. At least I hope the Egg Factory manages to replicate that here!

Networking eatings

Given that I’m a freelancer and do several things to earn my money, and that there is no consistency in my income flow, I need to do a lot of “networking”. Essentially, this is about generally catching up with someone over an informal chat, discussing what we do, and exploring if there were any synergies to exploit. I think this is great option value, for meeting people and getting their perspectives makes you think different, and that can give you ideas which you can potentially make money out of at a later point in time.

The point of this post about the venues for such networking meetings. I don’t have an office – I work from home, and my home office is not particularly suited for meetings, so I prefer to do my meetings outside. Sometimes, when the person I’m meeting has an office, we end up doing the meeting there. I’ll leave out those meetings from this discussion, since there is nothing really to be described about the venue. Most other occasions, though, meetings happen over food and drink, more likely the latter. This post is about good and bad places for networking meetings.

Most of my “networking meetings” so far have happened at the trusty old Cafe Coffee Day. The city is littered with several of these outlets, and for the price of two cappuccinos, they offer excellent place to sit and talk for hours together. The problem, though, is that they have now (for a couple of years or so) gone pre-paid. You need to order at the counter before you settle down at a table, and each time you want something more you need to go up and order again. There are two problems this poses.

Firstly, if you reach before the other person (chances of both reaching at the same instant are infinitesimal), you will need to wait. And in the time when you’re occupying a table and haven’t ordered you have to deal with strange glares from the cafe staff. You need to keep telling them “I’m waiting for a friend”. The next problem is with payment dynamics. It is so much easier to split the bill when you’re paying at the table. It gets complicated when you’re paying at the counter, with the effect that more often than not one of you will end up paying for both of you. That’s not exactly a problem, but starting a meeting with discussions on who will pay is not exactly the best way to go.

My initial meetings with the person who has turned out to be my biggest client so far happened in the coffee shop of a five star hotel. I must mention here that in most five star hotels in Bangalore, you get remarkably good filter coffee nowadays. Coffee shops of five star hotels are good places for these meetings, for they are usually quiet and you are served at your desk. They come at a cost, however – though you might argue that paying two hundred rupees for filter coffee at Vivanta is not so much more than paying a hundred rupees for a cappuccino at Cafe Coffee Day.

Breakfast at a five star hotel, however, isn’t that great for networking. Recently, I did a breakfast meeting at a five star hotel. As you might expect, we had the buffet. However, the problem with doing a meeting over a breakfast buffet in a five star hotel is that you simply can’t do justice to the spread! You can’t keep going for refills, and you would want to stick to things you can eat without creating much of a mess. And when you’re doing a professional meeting you don’t want to be eating too much also.

Then there are South Indian restaurants. I’ve done some meetings in those, also. The problem, however, is that such restaurants rely on quick table turnover and even if you go in off-peak times you get strange looks if you stay too long. This has to be mitigated with staggered orders through the course of your meeting. The advantage is that these places are cheap and the food is great.

I don’t usually do networking meetings over drinks. It has nothing to do with my capacity – it is just that most pubs are loud and not particularly conducive for conversation. And you don’t want to be screaming at the top of your voice in a professional meeting. That doesn’t mean I haven’t done meetings in pubs, though, but it’s usually after a certain degree of familiarity has been established.

Finally let us come to the lunch meetings. Here, it is important that you choose a cuisine that is high density. Again you don’t want to spend too much time eating, so you should prefer food that you can eat little of but will still fill you up. Also, you need to choose a cuisine that’s not messy. On both counts, North Indian is NOT ideal – it’s not very high density, and you need to eat with your hands which can become messy and that’s not something you want at a meeting. A further problem is that North Indian food in most restaurants comes in shared portions – and when you’re meeting someone professionally it can get a little uncomfortable.

These problems are there in East Asian also. South Indian restaurants (in Bangalore) are mostly quick service and thus not great for networking lunches (and south indian food is low density). So the ideal choice in this case is European – portions are small, the food is filling, you can eat it all with a knife and fork and it comes in individual portions.

I’ll put more fundaes on this matter as I get more experienced in the matter of networking eatings. I’m off now – need to rush to a lunch meeting!


Search Phrases – February 2009

I don’t plan to make this a monthly feature, but will write this whenever I find enough funny search phrases to make a post on  them worth it. Googlers and google seem to have had a field day this month,

The top search phrase that has led to my blog is of course “noenthuda“. In second place is the fairly boring “” .  Third place is extremely interesting – top reasons marriage engagements break in pakistan. And I’ve got over 50 people who have searched for this phrase in the last month and then landed up at my blog! Now it makes me wonder what the top reasons are for marriage engagements breaking in pakistan.

Here are a few other gems from the month gone by.

  • gay in iimb (17 hits)
  • 3-letter word for pertinent
  • aunties in chickballapur (chickballapur is my father’s native place, for the record; it is famous for its extremely spicy chillies)
  • best english speaking course in north india
  • can we put the shoes and chappals near the entrance of the house
  • cricketers animal names
  • funny message for my cousin who wants to move back to bangalore
  • i am working in singapore what do i need to do to buy a car in delhi
  • i don’t know how to speak english but i know hindi can i work in delhi
  • iimb course to be on your own
  • job interview edition on
  • karwar muslims
  • matha amritha, things she does
  • number of north indians settled in south india
  • societal influence on a bastard child
  • the true story of a man who learnt fluent spoken english
  • which indian breakfast item can be made with bread?

Ok that has been a very long list indeed. Much longer than I intended it to be. But it only reflects the brilliance of googlers and google in the last one month.

Why Breakfast is an integral part of South Indian cuisine and not in North Indian

I suppose the more perceptive of you would have noticed this – that breakfast forms an integral part of South Indian cuisine, while it is totally absent (apart from parathas) in the North. The more inquisitive of you would have asked yourselves this question, and would have perhaps asked some friends and relatives and acquaintances also. The luckier among you would have found some answers. I think I belong to this category, too. And I hereby share my theory with you.

The fundamental concept here is that South Indian food is predominantly rice-based while North Indian food is roti-based. Yes, you have the accompaniments – sambar and dry curry in the south, and dal and sabji in the north. But let us focus on the staple component here. Let us think back a few generations, when large joint families were the norm. Division of labour meant that most women would spend most of their time cooking.

Now, those of you who have cooked, or even observed someone cooking, would have noticed that the process of cooking rice is “scalable”. On the part of the cook, cooking 10 kilos of rice takes only marginally greater effort compared to cooking 1 kilo of rice. On the other hand, rotis are non-scalable. There are minor economies of scale in terms of time taken to get the stove going, but the amount of effort involved in cooking is directly proportional to the number of rotis to be made. Roti-making is thus non-scalable. Also, observe that roti-making is high-involvement. It requires the undivided attention of a cook. On the other hand, you can just set rice to boil, and go sing a song while it gets cooked.

So the funda here is that given the non-scalable process of making rotis, whenever there were large families involved, North Indian women would have to spend a large part of their time making rotis. The long and tedious process meant that women had little time left over after cooking lunch and dinner. Contrast this with the rice-eating South, where due to the scalable process, women had a lot more free time compared to their Northern counterparts.

Another thing we need to remember here is that rice is more easily digestible than wheat, and hence doesn’t “last as long”. Hence, the rice-eater will need to eat at more regular intervals as compared to the wheat-eater. The wheat-eater can easily survive on two meals a day, but this is not the case for the rice-eater. There is the need for that one extra meal.

So, people, this is why breakfast, which is an integral part of South Indian cuisine, is practically absent in the North. There was demand – rice-eating south indians couldn’t survive on two meals a day. There was also the requirement for variety, for one couldn’t eat the same thing thrice a day. And there was supply – the free time the South Indian woman had, thanks to the scalable process she adopted for making lunch and dinner. This explains why South Indians evolved such an excellent breakfast cuisine, while people in the North eat bread.