When Woodside Inn, set up by Neighbourhood Hospitality Pvt. Ltd, opened doors in 2007 in Colaba, it was in the midst of a clutter of sports bars, overpriced beer pubs like Café Mondegar and Leopold, and country bars like Gokul. It offered what was then in Mumbai a rare luxury, a laid-back space where you could linger for hours over a beer, without being harried by waitstaff or bludgeoned into deafness by music. It was also the first pub in Mumbai that was not a brewpub to serve craft beer—then the only outlet for Dombivli-based brewery Gateway Brewing Co. Over the last nine years, Woodside has built a reputation for consistently good food- and craft-beer discoveries across its two outlets in Colaba and Andheri. Now, with the launch of its third outpost in crowded Lower Parel, Pankil Shah, Sumit Gambhir and Abhishek Honawar, the founders of Neighbourhood Hospitality, talk about their core philosophy, the gambles they have taken and what’s seen the brand through the city’s cut-throat restaurant business. Edited excerpts:
Woodside Inn Colaba opened at a time when laid-back dining spaces weren’t exactly a trend, and you have sustained that for almost 10 years now. What is the formula that’s worked?
(Shah) I don’t know if there’s a formula, honestly. What we’ve worked on is very simple. Neighbourhood hospitality, our brand, was formed to create neighbourhood-centric spaces. We wanted a place where we could come hang out, with no pretensions, no dress code, no wearing shoes… And good food, of course. Food has been as important to us as our bar programme. And that’s what we’ve stuck to, as our fundamentals. We haven’t done molecular, or fancy. We want to do British, Italian, American comfort food, we’re not doing a chicken curry pizza or something like that—full respect to whoever’s doing it—but you don’t come to Woodside Inn to eat that. And we’re just upgrading our fundamentals by getting better bread, better meat, better equipment, better infrastructure to provide that food.
I think Zenzi (lounge bar) taught us how to be casual, realistic, create that living room vibe, make sure you appeal to everybody. That changed the Mumbai market and was a huge influence on us as well.
You also took gambles on trends that paid off. Craft beer, for instance.
(Honawar) A lot of people on the outside felt it was a gamble but we consume enough to make sure our bills are paid (laughs). It was a very informed decision that we took, we were very pro the movement. We don’t focus on restaurant formula, we focus on hospitality. Craft beer fit into that. We believe in culture, we believe in an atmosphere of accessibility, not gimmicks and fancy stuff. Craft beer, we thought the movement was real, we saw young individuals like us in the industry, Pankil himself has been a home brewer, and through him we grew an attachment to the movement and here we saw these guys (Gateway Brewing Co.) toiling away in government offices, trying to get permissions. We felt so strong about their idea, without even trying their beers, six months before they launched, the equipment kit was installed at Woodside Inn. We bore the cost, we gave away prime real estate behind the bar which was fully functional without their beer. And when the beer came out, we never looked back again.
(Gambhir) Their passion comes through, and we saw ourselves in them—we started off like that too. It’s what we’re doing here as well. In terms of space, Mumbai tends to have smaller restaurants, and that real estate is precious. What you can’t see here is a 150 sq. ft cold room at the back that can store 600 litres of beer. When we showed this to restaurateurs, they were like “Are you crazy? We would rather have three more tables there.” Is it a risk? Yes, but that’s the kind of calculated risk we have built our business on.
Is it more of a risk now, considering you’re right next to three breweries?
(Shah) The beer space in Mumbai is not really competitive, we are happy to sell beer from Barking Deer next door, and tomorrow if Toit comes and says “Take my beer”, I’ll do it. The idea is to create a beer drinking culture. Come on, anywhere in the world you go, you will find three bars next to each other all serving the same beer and all will do well. And if we can capitalize on this together, call this “beer gully”, have beer festivals, do community stuff, why not?
How will you guide people in choosing between your 25 craft beer taps?
(Shah) We have a beer geek on board, Abhishek Chinchalkar, to talk about our beers, to explain to people what each one is about. He’s a home brewer and he’s worked in a couple of breweries abroad. At craft cocktail places, there will be a mixologist. We wanted one guy who would be a beer sommelier and it had to be someone who was passionate about it. It’s all about creating a culture of interaction, of connection, which is our philosophy anyway.