Le15's Pooja Dhingra on coping with Colaba café's closure, and why it's a tough time for more than food industry
'My idea was to bring the macaron back to India with me, and see if people would love it as much as I did,' says Le15's Pooja Dhingra
It was the second week of November 2016. I had recently relocated to Mumbai for a new job, a move followed briskly by the declaration of demonetisation. It should have probably been the least of my priorities but by virtue of being a film writer, I was at Regal Cinema to catch the latest movie.
A single-screen theatre, the ticket-seller at Regal demanded cash and refused to accept my brand-new Rs 2,000 note. So there I was, minutes before the movie was scheduled to start, waiting in an endless queue outside a nearby ATM. A smiling woman approached me and asked if I was hungry. Before I could even nod, she handed over a Nutella brownie (crowned with a tiny red heart) and moved on to the next person in the queue. The paper napkin on which the brownie was served read "Le15 Café".
Le15 was a quaint cafe situated in the lane between Regal Cinema and Colaba Causeway, mere metres away from The Taj Mahal Palace hotel and Gateway of India. The cafe staff had taken to the streets, offering snacks as a respite from the long queues and the sultry Mumbai "winter", to those waiting for their turn at the ATM.
At a personal level, Le15 was exactly that — a refuge to unwind after a chaotic day. The "chaotic" could be many things — the occasional ATM queue, the long-drawn shopping spree at Colaba Causeway, scrambling for a hard-earned seat at the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival screenings at Regal, or most recently, the protest rallies at Gateway of India against the Citizenship Amendment Act.
A break from the day-long protest was my last visit at the cafe, accompanied by a colleague. The combination of a savoury quiche and a mocha would allow us to divest our journalistic duties, and for just 15 minutes, be only two people hopelessly in love with food.
So it was with a mild sense of shock and loss that I read an article by Le15's founder Pooja Dhingra, announcing she was closing down the Colaba cafe.
"The decision to close was a commercial one given the pandemic we are living through, and the changes the restaurant industry will go through over the next six to 12 months. At our core, we are a patisserie business, which accounts for 70 percent of our revenue, and it's time to focus on that," Pooja told me in an interview after that announcement.
Incidentally, it was to expand her popular Le15 Patisserie that the idea of a dining space suggested itself. "My dream as a teenager was to open a cafe and have a space where people can come in, enjoy the food and spend a lot of their time in," she said. "I started the business with the patisserie but somewhere always knew that a cafe was part of this picture."
Pooja's cafe is one among many casualties of the coronavirus pandemic and resultant lockdown. Her neighbours in Colaba, from Regal Cinema (which was already contemplating permanently shutting down because of mounting losses) to the vendors who lined the Causeway, are also struggling to keep their heads above water.
"My heart goes out to all businesses at the moment. Every business will go through changes as the economy changes. Honestly, I feel like each business will have to find a way to adjust to the ''new normal.' My advice is to do the best thing you can that's suited to your business and your goals," Pooja said. And even though she's felt more helpless this time with her own business hit hard, Pooja and her team have worked on several fundraisers to help raise money for daily wage workers and small businesses on whom the impact of the crisis has been most brutal.
Incidentally, Pooja's cafe recorded its highest sales last year. The exorbitant commercial rent in South Mumbai, however, is what made continuing unfeasible. Now, Pooja has diverted all her energies towards her new endeavour — an e-cookbook, that details all the recipes of the dishes served at the cafe.
Having recently shared a quote by her idol Oprah Winfrey — "Doing the best in this moment puts you in the best place for the next moment" — Pooja agreed that it best summed up her current mood: "We're going through unprecedented times, and every day brings new changes and information. The best thing for me right now has been to just take it a day or a moment at a time."
The e-cookbook is also a token of gratitude to the thousands of people across the world who visited her cafe over the years. "I wanted everyone who ever visited the cafe, and enjoyed a meal with us, to own a part of our legacy. It's definitely a 'thank you' to the loyalists, and also something that keeps the memories alive," she said.
In our interview, she recounted memories of her own: of living in Paris as a 20-year-old and discovering new dining experiences. Of tasting her first macaron. Of walking into the Pierre Herme store for the first time, and being in awe of everything — the desserts, the layout, the design. "It felt like art. My idea was to bring the macaron back to India with me, and see if people would love it as much as I did. And thankfully they did! What gave me the confidence was, I knew if I liked them, my parents liked them, my friends liked them — then most people would," she said.
Pooja's goal for 2020 "is to make sure the patisserie continues to grow and innovate, and we accelerate all our plans for that part of our business". While she will continue to wield her culinary influence through the patisserie, online sales, and cookbooks, what will remain glaringly absent is the charming cafe that was a rite of passage for many like me who frequented that corner of Mumbai.
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