Café Malgudi Days

This is a story about how I left my job and started a cafe when I was 22 years old. Back in 2012, I was a fresh graduate engineer who had just started his career. I was working for a mechanical engineering corporate giant in India. But within a year of my joining, I decided to leave my job! Next step was not very clear, but I was sure I wanted to try my hands on entrepreneurship, but with my own kick to it! Being a big foodie and a cooking enthusiast, I decided to open a cafe.

I had a vision of a cafe that doesn’t just ‘serve a cuisine’, but instead gives its customers a unique experience that relates to the food they would eat. The solution was to give it a theme.

Selection of Cuisine- Unveiling of a hidden treasure

My hometown, Kolhapur which lies in mid-west region of India, is popular for its indigenous food. Although people from all over the country savor upon ‘Kolhapuri’ cuisine, local people from Kolhapur unfortunately did not have many exotic options. My mother originates from a small town called ‘Sagara’ in Karnataka, which is a southern state in India. I reserve a special spot in my heart for that town owing to the simplicity in its people’s lifestyle, lush green vegetation, artistic temples and most importantly, the food! The place is like a heaven for me- fresh filter coffee ground daily, ample variety of tropical fruits & vegetables delivered fresh from farm, and amazing variety of spices!! I am a big fan of the authentic varieties of food that are prepared in Sagara. Not just the taste, but unique preparation and presentation style. To name a few, Kotte Idli- steamed rice cakes prepared in jackfruit leaves, Kadabu- Sweet Idlis prepared from jackfruit meat, Bisibelle Bhat- Spicy and aromatic rice dish served with yogurt salad on side, Mandige- Super thin crepes made from hot sugarcane juice, Payasam- sweet pudding made from wheat and dry fruits, etc. Also, food is served on banana leaves there! It is an unbelievably subtle and satisfying experience in comparison to eating in ceramic plates.

Although there were restaurants in Kolhapur that served south Indian style food, their dishes were stereotypical and there was nothing authentic in them. The food that I ate in Sagara was like a hidden treasure and I took it as a challenge to divulge it through my cafe. So, I fixed my cafe’s cuisine to be south Indian, with dishes mainly from Sagara. The next challenge was to fix up a theme.

Selection of Theme- From TV to tummy!

Malgudi Days’ was one of the most popular Indian TV series that was first aired in late 1980's and whose story revolved around lives of people in a small imaginary town called ‘Malgudi’. Believe it or not, the entire series was shot in a town called ‘Agumbe’, which is about 60 miles from Sagara! Needless to say, Sagara and Malgudi were very similar. And to this day, whenever I stay in Sagara at my uncle’s place, its like actually living the life shown in Malgudi Days!! I thought this was a great theme for the cafe and it would quickly strike the connection with the food, since it is hard to find an Indian who doesn’t know Malgudi Days series. The theme was fixed and I decided to go with the name, Cafe Malgudi Days!

Abstraction to reality

While my elder brother was taking care of arranging the finances and searching for a location to start the cafe, I camped at my uncle’s house in Sagara to learn the authentic methods of cooking Karnataka style food. Even though I wouldn’t be the one who would cook everyday at my restaurant, understanding the essence of cooking authentic food was quintessential and I did not find a better way to do it other than actually being there and working in field. Through my uncle’s connection, I got a chance to work under a chef who used to cook food in weddings. There, I learnt the art of mixing spices in right proportions and in right combinations to generate the desired flavors and aromas. This new knowledge felt like some kind of a sorcery, especially in today’s world where we use premixed spices from markets, called ‘masala’. My basic cooking instinct helped me a lot to learn faster.

To cut a long story short, with extraneous efforts and effective time management, within three months from the point I left my job, Cafe Malgudi Days was inaugurated. The TV series used to show illustrations made by famous cartoonist, R.K Lakshman, in the beginning of every episode. These illustrations are so popular that they symbolize the Malgudi in every Indian’s mind. I decided to exploit this fact in my cafe by having a huge mural art inspired by these illustrations. The ambiance of the cafe was carefully designed such that it gave a feel of being a modern eatery that served traditional, home-style, authentic and exotic food. It was modern in the sense of infrastructure, such as latest kitchen equipment, latest sanitary systems, LED lighting for fresh ambiance, a mascot that symbolized a typical southern person, staff dressed up in uniforms, etc.

Authenticity at any cost

From recipe to presentation, we (me and my brother) took great care to maintain the authenticity of every aspect of the food served. Anything that was alien to Kolhapur was imported from Sagara. For e.g., to serve food on banana leaves, we made special contracts with farmers in Sagara to supply us with fresh banana leaves every 4 days. Our bulk requirement for cups made out of jackfruit leaves to steam kotte idlis in them, generated employment for a small group of underprivileged women in Sagara. We also used dried arecanut leaf bowls to serve our desserts. Although all these aspects added extra burden of cost upon us, I decided not to compromise on the User Experience at all!

Kotte Idli- A signature dish that served rice cakes steamed in jackfruit leaves.

Cafe Malgudi Days’ overall ambiance, theme, food and presentation quickly grabbed attention. I could see my efforts to make Cafe Malgudi Days a unique savory experience come to fruition. I cannot express my satisfaction with this project.