Saturday, January 11, 2014

Udupi hotels are going down the Irani cafe road

Brun, butter, and a bite into history

While most Irani cafes in the city are fighting the battle hard to stay afloat, Sassanian Boulangerie in Dhobi Talao has a reason to celebrate as it completes a century tomorrow

March 20, 2013

Dhara Vora

When Dukes re-introduced its trademark raspberry soda in 2011, it brought the smiles back on the faces of several city residents, who loved their trips to favourite Irani cafés around the corner. These cafés were the perfect place to get one’s fix of this sweet soda.

The eatery sells different types of cakes with special batches made for Christmas and Easter
The fate of these Irani cafés, however, has been on shaky grounds; several have shut down, and chances of their comeback appear slim. In times like these, the news of an Irani café celebrating its 100th birth anniversary comes as a breath of fresh air (freshly baked brun, actually) to those who love the old world charm of the city.

(Left) Adi Yazdabadi and (right) Meheraban Kola with Kola’s daughter Zeenia. Pics/Dhara Vora.
Sassanian Boulangerie near Gol Masjid in Dhobi Talao has much to cheer. “1913 yes…but we don’t know of the specific date, so we are sticking to celebrating it on Navroz tomorrow,” confides 61-year-old Meheraban Kola. Settled in a Polish bentwood chair with a marble-top table, that seated the likes of journalist and writer Behram Contractor (Busy Bee), we sip on our chilled soda, while Kola along with the other partner, 74-year-old Adi Yazdabadi (who resides in the UK) narrate the history of this café named after an ancient Persian empire. Started by Rustom Yazdabadi in 1913 (then known as KR Sassanian), the café had three partners initially, which moved to just the Yazdabadis and the Kolas. It was in 1947 that Kola’s father Khodadad took over the reigns.
Daily bread and butter

Kola, also a one-time college professor, visited the eatery ever since he was kid. Like several other Irani cafés in the city, Sassanian too functioned as a local provision store stocking items of daily necessity, “We sold a lot of Polson butter as we would sell for a smaller margin as compared to other places,” shares Kola. “Meheraban’s father would stock imported chocolates too, stored under his counter cut neatly into pieces, he was lovely person.

The eatery has retained its vintage interiors, which includes this clock that has to be wound everyday
As a kid, I remember he would happily give us kids biscuits for free,” says city historian Deepak Rao, a regular at the eatery since his days as a student at St Xavier’s School and College. Yazdabadi’s younger brother Shahrukh Irani (who passed away last year), ran the store along with Kola.
He was known for his jovial nature and was affectionately called ‘Uncle Sam’ by the eatery’s patrons. “Together, we were called the two fatties of Sassanian,” quips Kola. “I went to the UK for my studies and stayed there; it’s what I wanted to pursue; this wasn’t my cup of tea – I told my mother to let Shahrukh run the café,” recalls Yazdabadi.
Shelf life stories

The eatery would open doors at five am, and their breads and brun pavs would be wiped off the shelves in minutes. The eatery was also a place where horse trainers stopped by before their morning training sessions, “It attracted lots of people during the derby days for tips, as everyone knew it was a joint where owners and trainers would visit,” reminisces Rao. Marine Lines railway station, which was previously located much closer to the café, also helped get customers.

Evolving with the times, Sassanian has also introduced healthier options of Brun but the pudding (right) remains a favourite
But a café can’t survive by just selling chai, bread, omelette and masoor dal. To keep things running, Kola’s wife Ruhangeez assisted him and they turned the café into a boulangerie, selling chicken pattice, vegetarian pattice, pastries, Parsi specialties like dhansak as well as sizzlers and Chinese dishes. The locality with a sizeable Roman Catholic population also demands fresh batches of hot cross buns, cakes, Easter eggs and marzipan during festivals.
Kola, whose children reside in Canada says that after him, he isn’t quite sure about who will man counter at the café, and hopes that it will continue to run, by God’s grace. “He will be the last Parsi standing,” summarises Rao.

90 Udupi eateries shut shop in 2 years

MUMBAI: Vijay Kadam does not judge customers who enter the McDonald's outlet near Mulund station and ask for a masala dosa. He simply tells them that Vishwa Mahal, the Udupi restaurant they were looking for, had shut. The image of nostalgic customers makes Sudhakar Shettie, owner of Vishwa Mahal, smile from behind the cash counter at a nearby hotel. "We had to lease out the space a year ago for personal reasons," he says.

All over the city, several Udupi restaurants have begun to lease out their properties to fast food chains and banks. The pace at which they have been shutting down has quickened in recent years due to rising costs and manpower shortage. If, as TOI had reported earlier, 150 restaurants shut between 2007 and 2011, in the past two years alone, 90 have folded up, many of them in south Mumbai, says Shashikant Shetty, secretary of AHAR (Association of Hotels and Restaurants).

Chandrasekhar Shetty, who leased out the premises of his two-year-old establishment 'Flames' in CBD Belapur to McDonald's, says, "Four years ago, the restaurant's gas bill would come to Rs 50,000 a month; today, it is in the region of Rs 4.5 lakh." Besides, for grade two and grade three Udupi hotels, which boast a lower middle- class clientele, competition from roadside hawkers is another concern.

There is fear that several Udupi hotels are threatening to go down the Irani cafe road. Several are therefore now on the verge of shutting down. "They are all on ventilators in the ICU," is how hotelier Shrinivas Shetty puts it.

What's choking these idli-dosa enterpreneurs is not just the hike in various taxes but also red-tapism, says Shrinivas. Getting a registration licence, he explains, involves negotiating at least 45 to 50 municipal departments. "It's probably easier to get clearance for an AK-47," says the disenchanted Shrinivas, who owns the famous Aditi Restaurant in Parel, which made headlines in June this year for adding a footnote in the bill that poked fun at the government's policies. "It was frustration that made me add that footnote," confesses the hotelier, who had to shut down the AC section of his restaurant after the government included all AC eateries in its purview for paying service tax.

Moreover, the enduring image of the Mangalorean waiter with the trademark towel on his shoulder and pencil behind his ear, is growing scarce. "As literacy is growing, the younger generation finds it beneath them to clean tables and floors," says Chandrasekhar Shetty.

"It may not be a profitable transaction but it spares me the headache of finding staff," says the hotelier, adding that even the existing staff from Mangalore is starting to migrate back home since they own houses there and can earn almost as much as they do in Mumbai. Also, since property taxes and other expenses such as electricity and gas have increased, "it is difficult to provide accommodation to staff," says Chandrasekhar who runs hotel Ramakrishna in Vile Parle.

"Since the common man has to pay 5% service tax and 5% VAT for eating in these restaurants now, he prefers eating on the streets instead," says hotelier Santosh Shetty. "So these restaurants are leasing out premises to banks and smaller establishments that promise not only a good rent but also overdraft facilities," adds Santosh who misses the golden period of Udupis in the city, "the time when the mills were alive".

Between 1960 and 1985, idlis and dosas, he recalls, had begun to beat the city's gastronomic staple of 'pav usal and paatal bhaji'. "Though our parents had a nose for business, they did not upgrade their ambience as they lacked confidence," says Santosh, adding that they were nervous about answering customers in English. But education boosted the second generation to graduate to banquet halls and luxurious setups, says Santosh. However, in the mid?nineties, he found himself renting out his Vile Parle restaurant Shri Gurudev to McDonald's, which was looking for a street with busy pedestrian traffic.

Inflation has changed prices on the menu card drastically. "Everything from tomatoes to onions is costly and no one's willing to pay that much," says a hotelier.

Given the scenario, very soon, Udupi restaurants, whose USP was their service, will have to imitate the self?service models of their competitors. "We will have to use disposable plates," says Chandrasekar. Already, some hotels, especially those in the Fort area, are experimenting with it.

"Unless government policies change, we will reach a state where hoteliers won't have food to eat," says Shrinivas. Perhaps it is to avoid such a fate that a busy Udupi hotel in Thane has now taken off its famous warning: "This place is for eating, not meeting."