A Dying Complex

During a walk through Jayanagar Fourth Block last evening, I happened to walk through the shopping complex. Now, this isn’t something I do normally – while my usual Jayanagar walking route goes along one side of the complex, I seldom cut across it.

As it happened, my wife had asked me to buy coffee powder from a specific shop (from where I’d last bought coffee powder twenty years ago), and the easiest way to get to it after I had remembered to buy coffee was to cut across the Shopping Complex.

And it was dead. In my childhood, I spent most evenings “putting beat” around Jayanagar 4th Block with my parents, and we would invariably go to the shopping complex. The complex was then full of respectable stores, including a HMV outlet, a fairly high end tailoring outlet (called Khanate) and the shop where I bought my first ten pairs of spectacles. It was then natural that a shopping trip to 4th block included a visit to the shopping complex.

Not any more, for the shopping complex is dying, if not dead already. The walls look the same, the shop structures are the same, but most respectable businesses seem to have made their exit from the shopping complex. In their place you have stores selling cheap footwear, cheap clothes, possibly counterfeit goods and suchlike. There aren’t too many “respectable shoppers” in the complex as well.

On the other hand, the area immediately around the now-dying shopping complex has emerged as a brilliant retail destination. You can find large-ish outlets of most major brands, a wide selection of restaurants and stalls, fresh vegetables, hardware stores and yes – shops selling coffee powder! Just that the shopping complex has pretty much died, and faded into insignificance.

Quickly walking through the shopping complex last evening (it didn’t appear that safe), I mulled over why it had died, while the surrounding area had flourished. I have one hypothesis.

Basically the shopping complex is owned by the government, and the rents in the complex didn’t rise along with the market. This meant that businesses that were not exactly flourishing (or sustainable) continued to do business in the complex (low rents meant businesses could afford to be there even when they weren’t doing well). This reduced footfalls, and reduced business for the relatively healthy businesses. Which again didn’t move out because they could still make the rent.

And so the shopping complex went through a downward spiral until the point when businesses that had chosen to remain got crowded out by less respectable ones, and figured it was time to move out even if the rent wasn’t much. And so you have some of the prime real estate in Jayanagar being squatted upon by sellers of cheap footwear and cheap clothes and electronics of suspect make.

Dogs of Jayanagar

Fifteenth Cross is a fairly important road in Jayanagar. A rather wide, and widely used, road, it has two other names – “South End Main Road” and “Nittoor Sreenivasa Rao Road” (you must hear the Google Maps navigator pronounce the latter).

Fifteenth Cross is also an important “boundary road”, in more than one way. The part of Jayanagar to the North of it is part of the “Jayanagar” ward in the metropolitan corporation (BBMP), and part of the Chickpet Assembly constituency. The part to the south of Fifteenth Cross belongs to the Yediyur BBMP Ward, and part of the Padmanabhanagar Assembly Constituency. Fifteenth Cross is also a boundary between Jayanagar Second Block (to the North) and Jayanagar Third Block (to the South).

And these are not the only boundaries demarcated by Fifteenth Cross – it marks a frontier of canine territory as well.

Jayanagar Third Block, part of Yediyur Ward, has something that Jayanagar Second Block, part of Jayanagar Ward, lacks – garbage. There is this spot next to a triangle-shaped park, and across the road from an empty site, where people dump their garbage. This is on account of door-to-door garbage collection in Jayanagar Third Block not being up to the mark.

Jayanagar Second Block, being part of the generally (seemingly) better administered Jayanagar Ward, lacks such garbage “hotspots”. Thanks to this, stray dogs in that ward looking for a late night (or midnight) snack have nowhere to go. And so they look to cross into Third Block, hoping to find something in its overflowing garbage bins.

The small problem, of course, is that Jayanagar Third Block has its own fair share of stray dogs, most of which have made a home near the garbage dump near the triangle park, across the road from the local mosque (it’s funny that dogs have their home so close to the mosque, considering puritanical Islam considers dogs as being haraam). And they like to guard their territory fiercely.

And so if you live anywhere close to the triangle park and were to get woken up around 2:30 am (which I’ve been for the last week or so), you’ll get to witness this grand canine battle of Jayanagar. The dogs of Second Block trying to make their way to the garbage dump in Third Block, and the Third Block dogs doing their best to scare them away.

From the sounds of it, there is little bite, mostly bark. And from the sights of it, it is interesting how the dogs orient themselves. Each dog positions itself in the middle of a street intersection (most of these in Third Block are rather brightly lit), and facing its adversary, howls. Howls and barks are returned. Other dogs (from both the aggressor and defender parties) join into the cacophony, and soon there is a crescendo.

Not to be left alone, the house dogs in the area join in the party, adding their own barks, though it is unlikely that the street dogs care too much about them – they continue their battle regardless.

This morning, after an hour of tossing and turning, I stepped on to my balcony to survey the scene below. The home team (Third Block dogs) had situated themselves at the intersection closest to my house (Sixteenth Cross), standing abreast and watching quietly. Three dogs from the away team (the raiding party from Second Block) were quietly making their way back across Fifteenth Cross, their raid over, and possibly unsuccessful. The house dog in the house opposite continued to bark, but no one cared about him!

The Third Block dogs stood at the intersection until the raiding party was safely past the Fifteenth Cross boundary, before returning to their business, whatever that is. And the house dog across the road continued to bark.

I don’t understand the strategy of the Third Block dogs. While they control a great amount of garbage, and have access to plenty of food thanks to that, their strategy of defending it through the night doesn’t make sense – for in the morning a BBMP truck visits the garbage spot, and takes it all away.

In other words, the sources of food these dogs guard is a perishable commodity, thanks to which there is little benefit in defending it. They might as well share the loot with their brethren from Second Block without much cost, for what is defended now is gone a few hours later.

But then, maybe they just want to send out a signal. Defending their loot, even if it isn’t valuable to them, might be a way of sending a credible signal that they will defend their territories in the face of any other attack.

Or maybe they’re just being dogs!

No dosa on Saturdays and Sundays

Back when I was a student at IIM Bangalore a decade ago, I had tried to run this series on this blog (its predecessor, to be precise) on “delivery mechanisms in South Indian Fast Food restaurants”. I had half a mind to do a project on that, too, but then worse sense prevailed, and I did some random shyte on post offices.

Anyway, given that I’ve been living alone for a year now, I tend to frequent South Indian Fast Food Restaurants fairly often for breakfast (and tiffin, sometimes), and thought I should resume this series.

So this morning I went to “duplicate Brahmin’s” for breakfast. This is a place in Jayanagar 4th Block (next to the 560041 post office) and should not be confused with the “original Brahmin’s” in Shankarpuram. I don’t know if this Brahmins has anything to do with that Brahmins, though I’m pretty sure people would have outraged about a restaurant with a (upper) casteist name in these times. Some hypotheses go that this restaurant was started by disgruntled employees of the “original” Brahmins. Anyway, it doesn’t matter since the food here is pretty good (though not as good as at the original Brahmins).

This restaurant has aped a large number of features from the “original” Brahmins. The first is a limited menu – there are only some five or six items made daily. This is usually a good feature of fast food restaurants since it results in aggregation of demand and lower wastage, resulting in lower costs. It also results in significantly quicker service since there are only so many “lines” that need to be maintained in the kitchen.

The other feature this has aped from the “original Brahmin’s” is that there is no sambar. While this might shock Tamilians and North Indians, it’s a fairly normal thing in Bangalore. In fact, Sambar with breakfast is not normal for Bangalore, and most “traditional” restaurants only serve chutney. The advantage of this is (as Pavan pointed) that people can hold their plates in their hands (chutney is cold, unlike hot sambar), so you don’t need that much table space!

There are normally six items on the menu in the duplicate Brahmin’s (apart from beverages) – idli, vada, kesribhath, kharabhath, “ricebhath” (a redundant term like Avenue Road, I know; and this is only served during lunch. It’s a catchall term encompassing “tomato bhath”, “veg pulao”, puLiyOgare, chitrAnna, etc.) and masala dosa. And the odd man out is the last one for the rest are “made to stock”. Masala dosa is usually “made to order” since its quality “decays” quite quickly after it’s made.

It was pleasantly surprising to see a board saying “no masala dosa on Saturdays and Sundays” when I went to duplicate Brahmin’s this morning. The restaurant was already fairly crowded when I went, and there was a queue about five people long at the cash counter. The restaurant is designed in a way that there is this one not-so-large counter across which everything (coupons, food, beverages) is served, and there was a crowd today at every part of the counter (only the cash counter had a queue, at the rest of the places people just crowded around).

That’s where the “no masala dosa on weekends” board makes sense. With the dosa being made to order, people have to linger around the  counter once they’ve handed in their order until they have received their dosa. And given the rather small size of the counter and the weekend crowds, this simply leads to unnecessary crowding and shoving. It also seems like the demand for Masala Dosa at duplicate Brahmin’s is not high or predictable enough to warrant making it to stock. And hence, it’s a rational decision to ration the supply of dosas (to zero) on weekends.

The question is why the restaurant makes dosas at all (on weekdays), given that the original Brahmin’s doesn’t. The answer to this lies in a cost-benefit analysis. On weekdays, the supply chain is not tight and there are no people crowding at the counter. This means that the strain imposed on the system by people waiting around for their dosas is not too high.

Studying fast food restaurants can be a fascinating exercise.

 

Coffee Pricing Dynamics

I had alluded to this coffee price war once before, but I believe it deserves fuller treatment, hence this other post. This is to do with the two coffee shops facing each other at the concurrence of 7th Main, 30th Cross and the “Diagonal Road” in Jayanagar – Maiya’s and Hatti Kaapi.

So Maiya’s opened for business sometime in 2008-09 (this was the period I was out of Bangalore, and it was there by the time I returned). On the ground floor, one the side, they opened a counter where they sold coffee. It was an efficient operation – you line up, buy the token and then move over to a window where you get unsweetened coffee in a ceramic cup, to which you add sugar as per requirement and move on. The coffee was generally excellent and pricing was always premium. In August 2014, when I started patronising it on a regular basis, a cup of coffee cost Rs. 18 and ten minutes of waiting (in line).

A month or two later came Hatti Kaapi, right across the road and facing Maiya’s. Hatti priced their coffee at Rs. 10 per cup, served in a glass tumbler. Sugar was pre-mixed into the milk, though you could ask for your desired level (no sugar, “less sugar” or “normal sugar”), which would be produced as a linear combination of sweetened and unsweetened milk. Hatti Kaapi served snacks also, and presently expanded its line selling cold coffee, juices and the like. Hatti has a larger customer-facing window than Maiya’s so the operations are rather smooth.

While people might have expected Maiya’s to drop their price in view of this newfound competition, they didn’t, though the cost of a cup of coffee for customers came down – from Rs. 18 and 10 minutes of waiting time, it came down to Rs. 18 and 5 minutes of waiting time. While several erstwhile regular customers crossed the road to the cheaper Hatti, based on anecdata (length of queue every time I go for a coffee, which is about once a day), it is unlikely that Maiya’s lost customers. The presence of two quality coffee shops close together possibly expanded the market and all seemed good.

However, it seems like Maiya’s decided that Hatti had got a competitive advantage by way of serving snacks along with their coffee and decided to replicate the strategy (note that Maiya’s has a full service restaurant upstairs, but this is about the “quick-coffee-and-snacks” market). So they started giving combo offers, where you would get a hot fried snack (choice of bajji, bOnDa, samosa and the likes) with coffee for Rs. 25. The snack would be served out of the same tiny window that served coffee, on paper plates with plastic spoons.

I must confess I’ve never purchased the combo (despite the attractive pricing; the snacks don’t look attractive enough to me), but I’m not sure about the impact that it’s been having on Maiya’s overall sales. I go back to anecdata (for I have no other data; and in my defence I have a large number of data points), and it seems like the average queue length at my arrival has remained the same from the time before Maiya’s started serving snacks (and after Hatti opened). However, I find that the total time taken in queue is now significantly higher – closer to the ten minutes from the time before Hatti’s setting up than the five minutes in the intergennum where Hatti was open but Maiya was not serving snacks.

And from my observations there, this is because the snacks have now messed up Maiya’s operations. Earlier, it was simple and linear. It’s a small passage where the Queue goes in a U-shape (unfortunately I haven’t taken pictures, and can’t find any online). At the base of the U is the cash counter and then you move to the side to get your coffee. A nice linear queue.

Now, snacks are served from the same window as the coffee, and since not everyone buys them, the ordering is broken. Also, it is the same token in which people have to get snacks and coffee at the same time, and that disrupts the queue further. Then, there are people who come back for their coffee later having taken the snacks earlier, and thus go straight to the coffee counter without going to the cash counter, messing up people’s expected wait times and leading to further chaos. In other words, thanks to serving snacks, the service time at Maiya’s has gone up, while the utilisation of the barista has gone down.

Hatti, on the other hand, makes full use of its corner location such that snack service doesn’t disrupt coffee service at all.

So the coffee at Maiya’s has effectively become more expensive again (Rs. 18 and 10 minutes), and with declining utilisation, my sense is that they are making significantly less money from their coffee counter now (including snacks) than they were before they started selling snacks. I really hope they will be able to simplify the operations of their coffee and snacks counters, else they risk losing more customers to Hatti. But then it seems like the snacks have become especially popular with Maiya’s regulars, so undoing the snacks service is also not an option.

Finally, here is a piece by the New Indian Express on this price war. As for me, I still prefer Maiya’s – the difference in quality of coffee does it for me. But if they don’t improve their operations soon enough, I might make the switch across the road.

Brewsky needs a webcam

When I moved from Rajajinagar 2nd Stage to Jayanagar 3rd Block around this time last year, one thing I missed in this part of town was a watering hole like Rajajinagar 2nd Stage’s 1522. It’s a brilliant pub. Not too expensive. Great atmosphere and decor. Great food. And after expansion, not too hard to get a table on weekdays.

Jayanagar missed such a place. You either had “shady bars” or places like Eden Park in 36th Cross which is ok (and has great paneer) but nothing spectacular, or downright teenager hangouts like Gandhi Bazaar’s SoHo. There was no “nice, clean, good to hang out” place like 1522 here.

And then Brewsky happened. It’s a microbrewery, though they didn’t get their brewing license for a long time (the Excise department was apparently having an issue in pricing the licenses). There’s a terrace with great views, and an indoor place (where you go iff there is no room on the terrace), and they make their own beer. And the beer is very good.

The only problem with Brewsky is that their beer menu is not consistent. They experiment frequently with new kinds of beers – which is frankly not a problem, but sometimes the choice can be severely limited. Like when I went there last Wednesday, there were only two kinds of beer available. Four days before that, however, there was the full complement of six. There have been other times in the past when I’ve been there only to find my choice of beer not being available.

What Brewsky needs is a Webcam. Basically the webcam was invented (as the story goes) to check if there was enough coffee in the communal coffee pot – for if you emptied the pot you were also responsible for refilling it. And so people could remotely track how much coffee was there in the pot and make their decision to have coffee based on the level.

What Brewsky needs, similarly, is a public board where they announce what they have on brew on that particular day. Their website sucks big time, but if they revamp that, it is a good place to put that information. So if I know that there are only two beers available, I’ll probably not go. If I want to have their India Pale Ale (which is generally very good) but it is not listed, then I’ll plan on going another day. And so forth.

The question that arises, however, is if Brewsky themselves have an incentive to put this information out. If their stocks are generally not on high, then indicating that there isn’t much variety available might push away customers and lead to low revenues on their fixed cost of real estate and waiters for that particular day. And they might just get overwhelmed with people on days when they have their full complement of beers.

But then if customers are consistently disappointed with their lack of choice, then in the long run they’ll lose such customers permanently. And that is not a good thing. Except for the fact that there is no comparable place in the Jayanagar-JP Nagar area.

Wine buying

Today, for the first time ever, I went out to buy wine, and in hindsight (I’m writing it having finished half of half the bottle) I think I did a pretty good job.

I had gone to this “Not just wine and cheese” store in Jayanagar hoping to pick up some real good wine to go with our cooking experiments for the evening (we’re making pizza and pasta). Having had really bad experiences with Indian wines (Nine Hills, Grover’s, Sula), I gave them a wide berth and moved over to the international section. The selection wasn’t particularly vast, and interestingly as soon as I moved over to the international section, one of the shopkeepers came over to assist me.

He first showed me a 2009 wine from France, when i asked him to show something older. For a slightly higher price, he pulled out a 2006 wine from France. The pricing seemed suspicious to me. A six year old wine from France, one of the more sought after wine-producing countries, for just Rs. 1600 (inclusive of 110% tax, so the duty free dollar price comes to around $15)? May not be very good wine, I reasoned, and now I decided to let go of all details on production date, etc. and simply asked the shopkeeper to recommend to me a good bottle.

Maybe it was the fact that I had quickly moved over to the international section, or that I was talking about year of bottling, but the shopkeeper assumed I was a rather serious buyer, and enthusiastically recommended to me a few bottles. Now, picking wines is tougher than picking whiskeys (where it’s easy to have favourite brands. Mine, if you would ask, is Talisker). Each country has several estates, the year of bottling, weather in the country in various years and several other factors go into determining how good a bottle is. Also, there’s inverse pricing, where you perceive more expensive wines to be better. So one has to look upon raw economics skills in order to judge wine bottles and pick something that is likely to be good.

What particularly interested me was a bottle of 2010 wine from Chile. Now, at Rs. 1300, it seemed rather highly priced for its vintage (given that France 2006 went for 1600). And then, I realized that Chile is a rather unfashionable wine producer, since most people tend to prefer European wines, and that being in the temperate weather zone, it is capable of producing good wines.

The shopkeeper mentioned that the particular bottle had been procured after a customer had specifically asked for it, and that it was made of superior quality grapes. Now, given that it was a wine of recent vintage and from an unfashionable producer, that it cost almost as much as a much older wine from a much older vintage told me something. That it was likely to be good.

It’s about two hours since I got home, and the bottle is half empty. The wine has been absolutely fabulous, and I hope this is the beginning of a great wine-buying career.

On becoming a right-winger

No I’m not talking about people like David Beckham or Theo Walcott here. I’m talking about political stance. There is supposed to be this saying somewhere that goes “if you are 50 and liberal, you don’t have a head. If you are 20 and conservative you don’t have a heart” or some such. I probably first heard it some three years back, and ever since I’ve wondered why I’ve always been a right-winger in terms of my political stance. And I perhaps now have the answer.

The “social” component of rightwingery is not difficult to explain – from the ages of eight to ten, I was a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). They used to have shakhas close to my house in Jayanagar, and I would go there primarily to play Kabaddi. And I don’t think it was anything to do with what they taught us there, but maybe because the seniors there campaigned for the BJP in the 1991 elections (and my parents also then supported the BJP) I became a “social right-winger”. I’ve mostly been a supporter of the BJP since then, and if I were to vote (my name mysteriously disappeared off the voter list between 2004 and 2008, and I haven’t got myself re-registered) today I’d still vote for the BJP.

I’m much less of a social conservative now than I was maybe five years ago. I can probably describe myself as centrist – a position that is inadequately represented by any Indian political party. And it is possible that my current support for the BJP is reinforced by their economic policies during their regime earlier this decade. Which brings me to the more interesting question – about why I’ve always been an economic “conservative”.

I didn’t have an answer to this till recently, but I wonder how much it had to do with the fact that 1. I don’t have any siblings,  2. I was a topper in school.

I tend to believe that the lack of siblings helped define clear property rights for me at an early age – it is easier to divide up toys and other stuff among cousins than among siblings. And when you are convinced of property rights, you are much less likely to believe in stuff like “common good” and stuff.

As for being the topper, I’m reminded of how the class would plead with the teacher to make the exams easy, or to postpone assignment deadlines. Me being the topper, however, would have none of it. I would look at situations like those to RG (IITM lingo derived from “relative grading”) the rest of my class, and would always end up campaigning in the opposite direction (this continued till I was in IIM – when I was no longer the topper – I would encourage professors to set tough papers while the then toppers would ask for easy papers – the irony!).

While others were struggling to add two digit numbers, I would be showing off my skills at adding six-digit numbers, and encouraging the teacher to move faster. I considered myself to be “elite” and thought it was beneath myself to do what the “proletariat” did – postponing assignment deadlines or going slow in class. I would not be a part of the “class struggle”. I was a “have” (and I knew about property rights) and I would fight to retain my advantage.

So one objection to this theory could be that a lot of commies are topper-types. But here, we need to make a distinction. What if they were toppers like the ones that we had in IIMs – those that would clamour for easy papers, those that would do things the done way, and do better only because they mugged more? (I never listened to anyone. for example, I considered it beneath myself to add 5 to 4 as “five in the mind and six in the hand” and counting off fingers – while my competitor for topper used to happily do that, in public). My proposition is that those that became “radicals”, and were topper-types, weren’t that radical after all when they were young. If they were, they would’ve never turned left.