Perhaps the biggest indicator of a restaurant’s success is how busy it is on a weekday afternoon. When I walked into Mirchi & Mime at 1.30 pm on a Monday, it was packed — and has been for the better part of its 20-month run in Mumbai’s Powai area, I’m told.
It’s hard to point out in what ratio good food and exemplary, unique service contribute to pulling in the crowds. The food, we can tell you from experience, is phenomenal. But then there’s the service: Mirchi & Mime has 40 staff, 27 of whom are servers, and all are speech and hearing impaired. 50-odd metres away, owners Prashant Issar and Anuj Shah usher me into their new property — a resto-pub called Madeira & Mime — that follows a similar staffing policy.
Issar and Shah met as alumni of the Henley Business School a few years ago, when Issar — with 22 years of experience in the industry — was working as a consultant and Shah had been running a QSR start-up. In the process of conceptualising the first Mirchi & Mime outlet and drawing up plans for almost two dozen more in India and abroad over the next few years, they were clear on two principles they learnt in B-school. “The first is ‘it is important for every business to generate wealth for society in addition to wealth for individuals’ and the second is ‘integrity and commitment are more important than capability and skill’,” says Issar.
With a couple of investors willing to back their idea — loosely inspired by a Canadian restaurant that also employs similar staff — the duo got to work. “The challenge wasn’t so much in convincing the candidates that they could do the work, because their conviction and attitude are exemplary. It was the parents, who were unsure whether their kids would be able to work,” explains Shah. “Most of these guys have never worked before, let alone in the hospitality sector, where there are long hours of standing, smiling and carrying heavy trays.” On the other hand, better focus and intuition also made them the perfect candidates for jobs in hospitality.
Shah and Issar enlisted professional help to train their servers in modules like life skills, basic (written) English, service of sequence and customer service. And to understand their staff and communicate with them better, they took lessons in sign language as well. The result is a simple system, where the menus come with a unique hand gesture for each category (tandoor, main course etc) and numericals for each dish within a category. Ordering drinks is easier — just point to the item on the menu and your server notes it down. Apart from gestures for ‘thank you’ and ‘welcome’, diners are also taught a special sign associated with each server, which helps you call out to them when required. So foolproof is the system that in over a year, there hasn’t been a single customer issue. “In fact, we have managers who are not hearing or speech impaired, but guests don’t want them to interfere. Interacting with our staff gives them intrinsic satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment,” says Issar.
Using only local ingredients and focussing on seasonal fruits and vegetables has made both venues affordable, with menus changing as often as four times a year. Issar adds, “We want to be and are a stylish, contemporary Indian restaurant that happens to be served by these individuals. Our idea was not to create a gimmick — otherwise people would come once for the experience and then never return. We constantly remind ourselves of this fact, and we want people to come back for the food. No social or philanthropic effort is sustainable unless it’s part of a profitable business.”