In 2017 Nooresha Kably found her ikigai—a Japanese term that translates to a reason for being—when she travelled to Tokyo to master the nuances of making sushi and ramen. The experience taught her the techniques of filleting and preparing different seafood, the importance of a good Japanese knife, and the discipline of being in a kitchen.
“Right from the day I stepped into Japan, something inside me changed. I met people from all over the world in my class. It was life altering,” says Kably, who returned to Mumbai to set up her dream project, Izumi, a 15-seat izakaya serving uramaki, pork tonkotsu, ramen and the like.
Around the same time in 2017, Vidur Kapoor, who had just become a father to a beautiful baby girl, decided to hang his boots at his textile business of 13 years and plunge into his dream world. “I had my heart set on a tapas bar, which is casual and non-pretentious, offers simple fresh home-style food and small bites that encourage friends and families to get together.” The result was El Mercado, a trinket box-sized eatery offering big, bold Spanish flavours, with a seating capacity of 12 to 15 diners at any given time.
The neighbouring restaurants, located on Bandra’s Perry Cross Road, garnered quick and lavish praise from Mumbai diners when they launched in 2018. By this time, Jennifer Mallick’s The Village Shop, which came up earlier in 2016, was an integral part of Bandra’s dining community. The little organic café is a 25-seater, and is loved as much for its gluten-free and vegan desserts as for its view of a 400-year old church.
Just as adored was Taesun Sun’s Sun and Moon, another itsy-bitsy eatery that launched in Lower Parel last year. Here 50-something Sun bustled as chef, waitress, bartender, and maître d’, all in one, delivering delicious home-style Korean banchan, bibimbap, and grilled pork belly at the speed of light.
Small is the new big
Mirroring a global dining trend for things to go boutique (Water Library at Grass in Bangkok, Atera in New York, Little Saigon in New Delhi) micro restaurants are having a moment in Mumbai. “Gone are the days when very large spaces (100 plus seaters) could be sustained. Given the high rentals in the city and fatality of the business, keeping it small, relevant, specialised, fresh, personal, and significant is the way to be,” opines Kapoor.
For Mallick, being ‘micro’ was not intentional, but she did want to start a smallish place as it gave more room for personal attention. “It’s very different from a fine dining or regular hotel as you can experiment more, and it’s more casual and approachable both for the guests and us.”
Chefs drool all over the idea as they get to put the highest level of creative passion into every dish. As procurement of produce can be limited (and therefore sustainable), it gives them a free mind and hand for trying out dishes outside the box.
Diners adore the coziness and informality of the space, the intimacy of the experience, and the feeling that the meal has been put together for them alone. “The biggest pro is that guests are more understanding and forgiving. They want to see you succeed!” dishes Mallick.
Being petite also means lower rents and more flexibility. “We don’t have to be stuck with the same menu. We put out specials from time to time, take client feedback and add it to the core menu in the near future,” Kapoor says.
But size matters
Not everyone appreciates the cramped space. Chef Seefah Ketchaiyo, who helmed the hugely popular Thai and Japanese micro eatery The Blue in Khar (before she left it to launch the 40-seater Soi 69 at Breach Candy) recalls guests complaining about the waiting time to get a table. “Also, micro restaurants also come with minuscule kitchens, leaving very little physical room for experiments,” she adds.
Procuring specialty ingredients remains a source of frown lines. “Every time my near and dear ones travels to Japan, they bring back a bagful of Japanese goodies for me,” laughs Kably, who recently shuttered the Izumi outlet at Perry Cross Road and is moving to a larger space in Bandra with outdoor seating.
The greatest challenge is profitability. It’s hard to make money off of an endeavour that doesn’t scale. Kapoor concedes that though food costs can be slightly higher for micro restaurants, all other factors are more or less economically favourable as far as you keep the thumb rule of cost percentages-to-revenue in mind.
Most agree, though, that the rewards are more by way of friends you make and the difference you bring to the table. “Profits are there but ‘micro’, and you have to watch your pennies,” notes Mallick.
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The way ahead
In the West, the logical next step for successful single-to two-unit independent restaurants has been to grow into micro-chains of three-to-15 units. The model appeals to Sun who is shifting Sun and Moon to a bigger place in Todi Mill, and plans to open outlets across Mumbai.
But more often than not, the artisan sensibility is at odds with scalability, which can result in dilution of quality. “The essence of a micro café can be lost if the same philosophies are not shared. Our immediate goal is to move to a slightly larger space, where we will serve beer and wine over an open interactive kitchen,” reveals Kapoor. Ketchaiyo too prefers to work out of an individual eatery. “We would rather make a bigger restaurant than have many branches,” she says.
The evolution of micro eateries will be interesting to watch as they move into their next phase. But if every tiny alleyway in Mumbai ends up leading to a bite-sized culinary paradise, it already sounds heavenly.