A Tale Between Breads: How Three Men With No Background In Food, Built Mumbai's Most Formidable Burger Joints
A Tale Between Breads: How Three Men With No Background In Food, Built Mumbai’s Most Formidable Burger Joints

The last few years have seen a boom of gourmet burger joints in Mumbai. Trained chefs and experienced hospitality veterans are, however, not at the forefront of this trend. It’s a show run by regular city folks who hail from starkly different industries. This is their exceptional story

The year is 2011. US forces in Pakistan have killed Al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden. President Barack Obama is drawing up a plan to withdraw 33,000 troops by next summer — including the surge troops sent in December 2009 — after pressure from lawmakers and Democrats mounts, amid seething American sentiments towards the war in Afghanistan…


In the conflict-ridden country’s capital, Kabul, that same year, Sijo Mathew — a war contractor at the time — allied with his then-boss to shut down the recreational centre that served as refuge and respite at the camp, where 500-plus civilians working with the US Army and NATO forces lived. Their goal was to renovate it into a makeshift tiki bar, made with scrap materials, like bamboo and jute. “I think my passion is… I wouldn’t say hospitality; my passion is facilitating a good time, and for me having a good time starts with food,” says Mathew, who co-owns Mumbai’s wildly popular burger joint, Good Flippin’ along with partners, Sid Marchant and Viren D’Silva.



(Clockwise): Founders Sijo Mathews, Jimmy Bhore, and Anant Chowdhary


A year later, heavy thrash/groove metal band, Zygnema’s lead vocalist, Jimmy Bhore — who was also working as a marketing professional then — would return to his hometown, Sangli, a small, district-headquarter in Maharashtra, with hopes of opening a café. “I was working, I was doing music, but I always wanted to have a burger joint of mine. I used to always plan, ki chalo theek hai, I’ll go and do something about it, but you know how it is… you get really entangled in that loop. But eventually I decided, chalo let’s go. I chose Sangli, because it’s my gaon [village]. It’s a good market, ya. Lots of outstation students; barely any options for them,” Jimmy tells us about his first stint with trying to open a food business. After many trials, a brush with depression, and a jolt from his wife, the café turned into a cart, and it had a successful year in the Turmeric City. That’s when he decided to return to Mumbai and “have a good show there”. It’s amusing and endearing that Jimmy continues to refer to the goings-on of his business as a “show” — a musician hangover, I suppose. And while metal fans have moshed their nights away to many a Zygnema gigs, Mumbaikars, in general, probably know Jimmy better as the man behind his eponymous burger brand which today, is five-outlets strong since starting 11 years ago.



Jimi’s The Avocado Burger


Like Sijo and Jimmy, Anant Chowdhary, too, came from a non-food background and worked primarily with movie marketing agencies like Vineyards Films, which manages veteran actors such as Boman Irani. In 2016, he pivoted to start a burger joint that is now a crowd favourite. “Exactly 7 years ago, I took the plunge and started Serial Griller with a humble investment of Rs 5,000. Initially, it was just a part-time gig, alongside my regular job. So, after a long day at the office, I would spend my evenings making these burgers. As the response grew stronger and the demand increased, I realised that this could be something bigger,” he reminisces. I am taking a big bite of Dr Cheesy — an ultra-cheesy burger comprising a grilled meat patty, fresh tomatoes, grilled onions, and lettuce — while thumbing through his email responses. As I insert the syringe of extra molten cheese into the juicy sandwich, aptly prefixed with a ‘Dr’, I wonder how we got here.



Serial Griller’s Nashville Hot Chicken Burger


Boom, Bam, Burgers


Two decades ago, the burger was hardly a paramount food item. There were American food-chains, expensive gourmet versions served at fine-dines, and the vada pav, as a weak, Indian alternative. And between those three pillars, practically nothing else. Today, however, the dripping, dirty-delicious dish is ubiquitous across homegrown chains, international and Indian QSRs and even at top-of-the-line restaurants. “I think, when I started my business, the perception of burgers in Mumbai was mostly limited to fast-food chains like, McDonald’s and Burger King. They were often seen as ‘junk food’ without much variety or quality. But over the past seven years, I’ve witnessed a significant shift in people’s preferences. There has been a surge of newer burger brands emerging in the city, which itself speaks volumes about the growing fan following. In fact, in terms of the number of orders too, burgers surpassed pizzas last year, according to my Zomato POC,” Chowdhary reveals.


Sijo feels that the pandemic has further escalated this burger boom. “Granted, yes, during 2020, a bunch of people had to start making burgers for their restaurants because it’s delivery friendly. That did happen. But if you notice, so many burger joints, so many cloud kitchens, have popped up in the last two to three years,” he rightly points out — 2020 was a big moment for burgers. Hell, even internationally acclaimed chef-star, René Redzepi went in that direction. After Denmark gave the nod for eateries to start operations, instead of reopening his restaurant, Noma, Redzepi moved shop to its on-site gardens instead, and served hamburgers and wine only. “People want what they’re seeing on TV, on IG [Instagram], whatever. Why can’t we provide an international-class burger to them?” Sijo asks. Jimmy echoes this when he shares how pop-culture shaped his own fascination with burgers. “When you’re in school and all, you watch Wimpy eating those burgers, like you know, in Popeye, The Sailor Man? That’s a cartoon I used to really watch ya. Then, I am a musician and I keep touring with my band. So, we go to Europe, and multiple countries, here and there… a lot of shows. And you go there, and you try the real deal, you know?”.


Besides, there’s something undeniably, inexplicably comforting about the burger, which packs, in one smashing package, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat — the four cardinal elements of good food proposed by NYT-and-James Beard-accredited chef and author Samin Nosrat in her eponymous book and Netflix show. You have fork-tender meat ensconced within supple buns, served with a mélange of sauces and toppings — it’s a juicy, filling, portable, comforting, over-the-top, and somehow, still familiar, all-rounder of a dish. Culinarily speaking, it’s a perfect, neat little bundle of protein, fat, fibre, calories, sodium, sugar, and carbs, the last two of which sends our serotonin levels into a happy tizzy, making it so (scientifically) desirable. That burgers sell themselves is clear. But how did a bunch of F&B noobs, with no culinary background, manage to create three of Mumbai’s leading burger brands in a city that’s home to a few of the country’s celebrated chef-led restaurants?



Good Flipping’s Flippin Standard Burger


Meat Of The Matter


For Sijo, it traces back to days spent in the UAE surrounded by people who loved food. “I grew up in a family that did barbecues twice a week, and it was normal for us; it wasn’t really heard of in the Mallu [Malayali] community in Bahrain, but we were known for our barbecues. We had barbecue sets for just the four of us [in my family] to eat. Or, if you have 50 people, we had that set as well. My dad had all that built,” he remembers. “I am just a fan of burgers, and pani puri,” Jimmy gushes, whereas Chowdhary feels it has to do with him being “a big foodie”. “But eating out wasn’t something I could afford to do often. So, to satisfy my cravings and explore my culinary skills, I started cooking everything at home,” he adds.


Be that as it may, it takes more than love and an inkling to run a business. Jimmy realised this soon after relocating to Sangli and running into impediments while trying to find a spot for his café all those years ago. “I didn’t know how to run a cart even,” he says about the time he started exploring it as an alternative to the café. So, he did the next best thing. “‘Main bartan virtan ghiss dunga, thoda sa mere ko seekha na; mereko seekh na hai. Main aap ko pareshan nahi karunga. Aap apna kaam karo, main piche khade ho kar dekhta hoon,’” he went and told Santosh Mali, the owner of a cart called Ganesh Vada Pav. “I literally enforced myself on him and then eventually, I started thoda thoda helping. And he used to be like, ‘Arre saab, aap maat karo aise bhai’ [laughs]. But he taught me some very valuable things,” he reminisces.  



Jimi’s Pepperoni & Cream Cheese Burgers


Learning from peers in hospitality has been a part of Sijo and Chowdhary’s journeys, too. “I’m a huge fan of Man Vs Food. I used to watch every available episode on YouTube. One day, it struck me that there weren’t many places in Mumbai serving that kind of cuisine, and that’s when the idea clicked. But to be honest, I didn’t have a clear vision in mind. It was purely driven by my passion for burgers, and I didn’t know where it would lead [me]. But as I networked with industry professionals, I learned the trade and gradually evolved,” shares Chowdhary, who to this date, hasn’t hired a chef for his kitchens. “I started experimenting with my own burger recipes… I rely on my friends to be my taste testers and provide honest feedback,” he reveals. Sijo, on the other hand, relied on his partners D’Silva — who came with a massive background in marketing — and Marchant, who had worked with F&B giants like Starbucks.


The Knowing In The Unknown


Today, all of them are on an aggressive expansion journey. Serial Griller has a main outlet in Khar, but has partnered with kitchens to open new locations in Mulund and Worli, aside from also selling a franchise in Chembur. Good Flippin’ went from a joint that operated in its first month only via direct WhatsApp orders (I remember ordering from them at the time) to a brand with 23 outlets, including 7 in Delhi and 300 employees. And Jimmy is in the grips of renovating his Malad outlet, after recently opening a 60-plus-seater in Bandra. This is not including his outposts in Andheri, Vashi, and Goregaon.


For each of them, though, the patron has remained central. “The customer needs to feel seen by the brand, no matter how big you get. And I think that’s something that we do very well. Even when we start launching new burgers, we have this Close Friends group [on Instagram], which is all just actually customers. And we send them the burgers and say, ‘Give me your feedback.’ And that’s something they appreciate,” Sijo shares. In the same vein, Jimmy says, “In the initial years, I have grilled burgers for all my customers; I have dealt with each and every one of them. So, the bond is straight up. And that’s a very major factor. It’s been a journey from a handcart to a six-seater to a chain of restaurants — these people have been a part of that journey. This is not just my journey. It’s my people. And when people talk like this — ‘Arre main uss ke chote cart mein jaata tha’… there are so many memories, you know? People talk about these things to other people, too.”



(Clockwise) Jimi’s original cart in Sangli; and photographs from Sijo Mathew’s tiki bar in Afghanistan


Sijo, Jimmy, and Chowdhary are important case studies in a world where even a celebrity chef and a central location, or a long list of hospitality ventures have time and again proven to be less than enough for the actual business on paper. True that their — as Jimmy describes it — ‘unorthodox’ learning may have slowed them down in the initial years, but it also made them stand out and build their brands around the customer. When the hunger pangs get our goats.  at an after-party, theirs is the food that we argue over with friends, despite Mumbai being home to bars and restaurants that have made it to venerated lists like Asia’s 50 Best. That may be, because sometimes, what truly matters, is what’s inside. Kind of like a burger.

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