Sameer Seth, 39, and Yash Bhanage, 35, the two young founders of Hunger Inc. Hospitality Ltd, the Mumbai-based F&B company behind iconic restaurants The Bombay Canteen and O Pedro, were getting ready to play Willy Wonka with Indian mithai when the pandemic struck in 2020. The months of work that had gone into creating a specific look for the Bombay Sweet Shop, the physical manifestation of their dream of reinventing Indian mithai, went largely unnoticed as Mumbai went into lockdown 20 days after it opened. Within a couple of weeks, they lost their partner and mentor, chef Floyd Cardoz, to covid-19. A few months later, chef Thomas Zacharias, who had grown with The Bombay Canteen to become one of India’s best-known chefs, quit to pursue an independent culinary journey (literally, travelling through states discovering unknown cuisines).
A much older, more experienced company would have been excused for reeling under such challenges. Hunger Inc. is just about eight years old, even though its brands have established themselves in the Indian fine-dining space with awards, accolades from food critics, social media buzz, and a place on the World’s 50 Best Bar and Restaurant Discovery list, 2019, awarded by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy to new restaurants.
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“It has been HARD,” say Seth and Bhanage, almost in unison, when I ask them about the previous year. “Losing Floyd was not just losing a partner but honestly, a father figure…. We didn’t just lose someone professionally, we lost him personally and that will take time for us to recover from,” says Bhanage. “Thanks to Thomas himself, we always believed in building a bench strength of people who can step up and bring us to the next level. Thomas had worked with Hussain (chef Hussain Shahzad, who currently heads The Bombay Canteen’s kitchen) and he was ready to take over. Still, the four of us have been great friends, and it has had an effect on both me and Sameer.”
Hunger Inc., which employs 140 people, took shape in 2013, when Seth and Bhanage, classmates from the masters in hospitality management course at Cornell University, US, met Cardoz in New York, where the latter was running his restaurant Tabla, and got talking about Indian food. One of their primary motivations was to create a new vocabulary for it—distinct from the standard gravy-based dishes and their more sophisticated (some would say fussier) “modern Indian” avatar. They decided to dive deep into the world of regional food, largely unrepresented beyond a few cuisines.
The Bombay Canteen, which has become critical to the Indian food landscape today, focuses on fun, familiar and innovative takes on food—from its famous Barley Salad to the Chettinad Prawns “Ali-Yolio” and takeaway tiffin-boxes. O Pedro is inspired by Portuguese Goan food, while the Bombay Sweet Shop takes Indian mithai and does really interesting things to it, from a deconstructed chocolate boondi laddoo to Indian gummy bears and jujubes. The focus has always been on respecting local and seasonal ingredients, and creating spaces where patrons feel at home—like the clubs and gymkhanas people keep going back to. Cardoz played a huge role in this.
“After Cornell, when we were both travelling and working individually—me in Singapore and South-East Asia and Sameer in the US—we started noticing that chefs in these countries were looking closely at their own cuisines and local ingredients, and we didn’t see that happening in India,” says Bhanage. “Of course, there were many Indian restaurants, but they were the kind of places where you knew what you were going to order even as you were headed there.” The two founders are quick to clarify that they aren’t dissing that model—but they wanted to do something different.
“I think what it boils down to is, we wanted to change this notion that Indian food is boring, it’s predictable, it’s ghar ka khana—and it honestly took a lot of education of not just our staff but our guests as well. I still remember a guest arguing with me, saying ‘you have a chicken, you have a tandoor, give me chicken tikka’, and I said ‘there are hundreds of restaurants out there that will give you chicken tikka, we will give you something equally delicious but it won’t be the chicken tikka you know’. And that’s what we believed in — that we had to stand for something and not be everything for everyone,” says Seth.
The business of ‘mithai’
The mithai journey started after the team had opened its second restaurant, O Pedro, in 2017 and was looking to grow. “It really was a response to our thought process on how F&B was changing in India, and what it even means to be a restaurant company. Does it mean that you are just going from one to four to 10 to 20 restaurants, or is there a different way to approach growing in this business? And that was the seed that led to the Bombay Sweet Shop, our first foray into food products,” says Seth.
While the pandemic did affect their plans for the sweet shop in its physical avatar, it didn’t change their plans to create a brand that would celebrate the magic and story of Indian mithai—and take it forward. While the sweet shop (in Byculla, Mumbai) didn’t get quite as many customers as expected owing to the lockdowns, it has been getting a steady stream of visitors and does brisk business both online and in-person. Starting with around 1,400 orders a month when it reopened in August 2020, it’s now clocking close to 5,000 orders a month and projects 8,400 orders a month by the end of the year.
Through it all, the team continued to test for production at scale, transportation across distances, and getting the supply chain right before opening up online ordering across the country—it’s ready to launch around Diwali.
Bombay Sweet Shop has pretty much pivoted to a direct-to-consumer model at this point. The pandemic accelerated those plans. “We always thought of building that online community to take it forward digitally but the challenge for us, more than the supply chain etc, was our core philosophy of creating customer experiences that would stand out, that would have a certain warmth to it, and then translating this to an online experience,” says Bhanage.
This core culture is also one of the reasons the company has not reflexively expanded to different cities—there are challenges to creating the kind of memorable experiences they want to while maintaining a certain quality of ingredients, and, even more importantly, of service. “One example of this is the way we want our service staff to respond when someone asks, ‘what should I order? Yahan kya achha hai (what’s good here)?’ The standard response to that is ‘sab accha hai (everything)’. The servers usually don’t have familiarity with the food they are serving, and it always felt like a huge gap to us,” says Seth.
At Hunger Inc.’s restaurants, service staff go through training and food tasting to ensure they know exactly what goes into each dish, how it tastes, and what to recommend to a customer based on their preferences. “How do you now translate that warmth on the phone, on WhatsApp, on Instagram DMs—that has been a huge learning for us during the pandemic, and it is what led to the Bombay Sweet Shop online retail plans as well,” notes Seth.
In many ways, Hunger Inc. represents the modern food business that is run thoughtfully as well as professionally—it employs food scientists, technology product managers, as well as experts in the fields of business analytics and digital and performance marketing. These leaps were made during the pandemic, when they realised the F&B business would change drastically in the coming years.
“The one big change we have seen in this time has been a certain shift in the Indian consumer’s mindset—that I don’t need to be buying from a mammoth company, I am going to trust the smaller players also. It has been very heartwarming to see the acceleration of business-to-consumer (B2C) brands. While bigger companies found it difficult to move into digital mode suddenly, smaller players jumped on that opportunity,” says Bhanage.
The delivery game has changed completely as well, they say. “We did have a delivery menu even before but I can’t honestly say that we were delivery-friendly. It was an extension of our dine-in menu and it wasn’t a big focus area for us,” says Bhanage. Since 2020, they have had to change completely, from doing food tests to see how long the dishes stay fresh, to going out to do deliveries themselves. “We also had to change how we plated and presented our food because we realised people don’t have the luxury to do that at home, so how do we keep to our core food philosophy and still deliver a great experience? The answer turned out to be sandwiches, which travel well and which we could still use as a medium to help people explore our menu,” he adds.
The Indian F&B sector’s dependence on food delivery aggregators like Swiggy and Zomato—rising commissions for delivery have become a bone of contention—is also something that needs to be addressed, they feel. “Frankly, we as restaurants brought this on ourselves. We put all our eggs in that basket. Ten years ago, we picked up the phone and took down orders, right? Technology was expensive, restaurateurs were not tech-enabled, so Swiggy and Zomato came in and said we will take care of that, which I still feel is a great relationship if it’s healthy. But over time, we should have built our own capabilities too,” says Bhanage. Today, the company largely coordinates deliveries through the B2B delivery platform Thrive, which offers an alternative model to well-established restaurants that don't need the “discovery” that Swiggy and Zomato provide.
Right now, along with the launch of the digital mithai shop, Seth and Bhanage are also in the process of creating a multimedia content platform that will bring writing, visual and audio content about food together—a labour of love that stems from their need to not just create food but also tell stories of its origin, its science, and its impact on our ever evolving culture.