Mumbai breakfasts

Mumbai does breakfast like nobody else in India, or so my limited data points tell me. No, I’m not talking about the vada pav places here. I’m not even talking about the “Udipis” (sic, for that is how Mumbaikars spell and pronounce “Udupi”). I’m talking about the kind of places where you get poached eggs with yoghurt. Yes, really, that is a thing, and the number of such breakfast places in Mumbai is not funny.

I’d been to Cafe Zoe in Parel once before, a couple of years back when I met a friend for drinks and dinner there. I remember it as this “happening” place in the middle of this old mill complex, with loud dhinchak music and a rather youngish crowd. So when it was suggested that we begin our series of meetings with breakfast at Zoe, I wasn’t sure it was a great idea.

But the place inside was different (I have very hazy memories of my first visit there, thanks to the quality of its alcohol, I guess!). The skylight meant that it was rather well lit, and the music was soft and of the pleasing variety. The tables had been sparsely occupied (it’s a large place), but among those that were there, it seemed like people were working there. Laptops were out, though it was hard to find a single one not made by Apple. The place had a leisurely unhurried feel to it, and I could wait for a while without being hassled to place my order.

And the menu card told me that the place opens at seven thirty! Seven thirty! Nothing save the Darshinis are open in Bangalore at that hour. Even the Egg Factory, that wonderful set of breakfast places here, opens only at eight. And thinking back, Zoe is hardly alone. I’ve been to at least two or three similar places in Bandra that serve “hipster breakfast” well-at-a-leisurely-pace. It seems like such breakfast places are more like the norm in Mumbai.

And it is not hard to reason why – simple revenue management explains it. Real estate in Mumbai is so prohibitively expensive that rents form a huge part of restaurants’ costs. And given that it is a fixed cost (you pay the same rent irrespective of how many customers you serve), a good strategy is to “amortise” it – across a larger number of customers. Other costs of running a restaurant, like labour and cost of food, pale when compared to the cost of rent.

In a situation with high fixed costs, it makes no sense to utilise your resource only part of the time. Whether your restaurant is open for four hours a day (as some are) or for all the time local regulations permit you to be, the rent you pay is the same. And in the latter case, you are making much greater use of the fixed-cost resource at hand, which is a prudent strategy!

Opening for breakfast probably means adding an extra shift (or half a shift) for staff. It means running the restaurant at a time when there is no chance it is going to be full. It means keeping the kitchen open all the time, and “normal” principles of restaurant management probably suggest it’s not a good idea. But when your fixed costs are as high as they are in Mumbai, it makes sense to marginally increase the fixed costs (by paying for additional staff cost) in exchange for making significantly superior revenues. ¬†And that is what the likes of Cafe Zoe do!

Utilisation at non-peak (non-lunch, non-dinner) hours is never high (except maybe on Sundays), but what matters is it being strictly positive. Low utilisation means it gives a leisurely feel to the place, and customers can be allowed to linger. People use the place as a meeting spot (coffee is very reasonably priced there, and you can get beer to fuel your meetings!). From the looks of it, some others use it as a workplace. And all this results in revenues for the restaurant, valuable when real estate costs are so high!

Surely other cities, such as Bangalore, can do with such places. In Bangalore, for example, there is a severe paucity of places to do breakfast meetings at. Traditional South Indian places are too hurried, and buffets are never a great place to do meetings (five star buffets have turned out to become a kind of “standard” place for breakfast¬†meetings). There is the egg factory, of course, but there is none else! We could surely do with some of our “lunch restaurants” opening up for breakfast. Just that real estate costs here don’t offer as compelling a reason as they do in Mumbai!

And for the record, the poached eggs with yoghurt was absolutely outstanding. At least I hope the Egg Factory manages to replicate that here!