When Madhu Menon, 34, started Shiok, a Far Eastern cuisine restaurant, and Moss, a lounge bar, in 2004, he quit his day job as a software engineer in an online media company for the love of food and cooking. Confident that the quality of his food would pull him through, he began with his father as his primary investor. Within a year, Shiok had collected a loyal clientele, mostly through word of mouth. But the recent slowdown hit the restaurant business hard as people trimmed “extras” from their household budgets. “In the past year, during the course of the recession and the terror attacks, there has been a huge slump. I looked for investors for three months, didn’t find any and decided to shut down,” says Menon, who ended operations at the end of the fiscal year on 31 March.
Swansong: Menon (in the maroon shirt) surrounded by friends and patrons on the last day. Photos: Hemant Mishra / Mint
Industry experts say many restaurateurs in the city are feeling the heat. “The past year has been a tough one for entrepreneurs in the industry. Several of them opened cafés and diners with stars in their eyes, but pulling through the recession requires very solid financial backing.” says Satish Kumar, COO, MCorp Hospitality Solutions Pvt. Ltd, a Bangalore-based restaurant consulting firm. Kumar’s consulting firm has received at least 10 requests in the past year from restaurant owners asking to be connected with interested buyers, and the numbers are only increasing.
On the same day that Shiok shut down, another six-year-old restaurant in central Bangalore also closed operations. The owner spoke to on condition of anonymity: “We were doing fairly well when we started and even broke even in two years. But in the past year it has been terrible. It’s not that people stopped eating out during the slowdown, but they didn’t step into any place they suspected might be expensive,” he says, adding that starting a 60-seat mid-priced restaurant with the current real estate, commodity and labour prices costs at least Rs50 lakh. “Of which one must allot at least 40% for sustenance during the first couple of years because getting a steady stream of customers takes that much time, so you need money to pump in,” he says, stressing that although opening a restaurant might strike entrepreneurs as a romantic idea, hospitality is a brutal business. The restaurateur is currently negotiating a price with prospective buyers.
Menon, on the other hand, couldn’t wait till he found a buyer. “I wish my pockets were deeper,” he says. “People come to me (and) ask me to give them a 30-minute crash course on how to start a restaurant. How can I tell them what I have learnt in six years? Besides, right now I’d only recommend that get into the business only if you really know what you are doing.”
Manoj Kunisseri, CEO, MCorp, agrees. “It is really important for entrepreneurs to do solid market research before they begin. Most of them start restaurants because they like a particular cuisine. Also, in a city like Bangalore, location is key. You must be in a high footfall place, have parking, look pleasant...everything,” he says, adding that despite all that luck is an important factor in this fickle business.
Menon chronicled the last day of Shiok for Lounge in a candid, heartfelt piece.
First Person | Madhu Menon
The restaurateur on the day he closed Shiok—from preparing for the last party and paying his staff to the time the music actually stopped
I wake up and the sun is shining bright. 9.30am? Ouch. That wasn’t supposed to happen. There’s so much to do today. Closing a restaurant isn’t a routine affair. Unlike other days, I need to make sure that not only do we have enough food to feed all the people expected today, but that we don’t have so much that it will be wasted the next day. Any other day, we would have just used the stock for the next day.
There are also suppliers whose payments have to be taken care of, staff salaries, people who want to buy your equipment and furnishings. And then there’s this article to write. Feels like writing your own baby’s obituary—bloody hard. How am I going to juggle this all today?
But first, I need to ensure that there will be enough people visiting today. This is their last chance to have our food, and if I’m going to go out, it sure as hell will be with a bang, not a whimper. So at around 10am, I start posting on Facebook and Twitter, asking people to join us for one last party. It’s a good deal—Rs499 for all the booze you can drink; I have liquor stock to clear. Soon, the Twitter responses start flooding in—people wishing me luck, assuring me that I will get through this, and expressing regret that they can’t make it.
There is no time to sit around moping and wallowing in self-pity. To quote Jesse Ventura from the movie Predator, “I ain’t got time to bleed!”
11am: The mobile phone is being abused. SMSs come in—“Will you be there at lunch? We plan to drop in”, “Madhu, I have still not got the mail with the equipment prices”, “Can I come around 2 to check out the furniture?” And I have to make several calls to ensure we’re ready for the big bash. The stores guy tells me he couldn’t get any new crabs today. The beef supplier hasn’t been able to deliver fresh supplies because of political issues. What luck! Now I need to call fellow restaurant owners, talk to other suppliers, do anything I can to make sure our specialities are available.
4pm: The afternoon is spent in customer service, as friends and old customers come in to see me and lunch at Shiok. I have to be diplomatic and try to spend some time with each of them—not an easy task when you have five tables to juggle. Once again, the same questions are asked and answered without rolling my eyes. In between all this, I manage to sign cheques, sales tax forms, and do lots of other minor things.
5pm: I only just got home for a bit before the dinner shift. I have an article to finish, letters of recommendation to write, and (I have to) make a list of equipment and their selling prices.
7pm: I have just managed to finish part 1 of this piece, respond to a few emails, and take a short nap. Oh well, the other stuff will have to wait.
My cocktail lounge is starting to get guests early. We have a live act tonight. And there’s the cocktail package. Oh, and the minor detail of us closing. We’ll probably have enough guests to fill the place tonight.
9pm: I have lots of familiar faces. There’s the married couple who have been coming regularly for several years. They had their first date at Shiok. He proposed to her at my restaurant after a five-course meal that I had made just for them. I am so happy to see them, but I feel almost dead inside. I hope I’m not suppressing emotions that will come out in some weird way later. Some friends are telling me how they wish they had come more often, others gush about the food and ask me to set up a smaller place somewhere else. Hindsight is always 20-20, isn’t it? But I’m happy for the hugs.
10.30pm: Everyone is nice and happy now. The free-flowing alcohol and the talented singer make a heady combination. People are singing along, making song requests, dancing even. There’s no time to be sad. This is what I want to remember. This is the way I want to be remembered.
All this is just peachy till 11.30 rolls in, and I have to enforce Bangalore’s Taliban-like 11.30 nightlife deadline and get people to leave before the cops come knocking on our door instead of fighting crime. The music is no longer playing; people are winding up and paying their bills for one last time.
12am: The party is over.
And as everyone heads out, they hug me or shake my hand, and each one tells me how great it was while it lasted. It’s hard to hear it so much without it affecting you, and I feel my eyes cloud up as I stare vacantly into space for a couple of minutes. “Are you OK, Madhu?” I hear from someone. I resist the impulse to lash out with an angry “what do you think?” and just shake my head instead. I look around, think of the past six years, the people I’ve fed and the good times we’ve had. There is no point in regrets.
Lights out for the final time. I’ll have to cling to the happy memories, and use the others as life’s learning experiences. It’s time to move on.
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