What would you do, when on the eve of signing the documents for your dream restaurant space, your partner backs out citing lack of funds? Sigh! Cry! Let go of your dream for another day? Meeta Makhecha, a gutsy 43 year old resident of Pune did none of the above and decided to take the bull by the horns instead. Recovering from the initial shock of the situation she found herself in, she gathered herself, inserted wise thoughts, took personal loans from the bank, raised funds from friends and family and worked towards giving her dream restaurant, The Flour Works, shape.
Born and raised in Pune, Meeta’s real rendezvous with food began after her marriage, when her husband was posted in San Francisco. She signed up for the 18-month chef training course with the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. The course helped hone her cooking skills, after which, Meeta worked for 4.5 years in the city. While working at high end fine dining restaurants like Les Folie, Fifth Floor, Meeta also learnt the intense craft of chocolate making under renowned chocolatier Michael Recchiuti.
Upon her return to India, Meeta, with years of experience in food behind her, started consulting to many a restaurant like the South East Asian restaurant Malaka Spice, and the multi-cuisine Post 91 in Pune as well as Mia Cucina in Mumbai, together with a host of other food places. Meeta shares, “As with most consultancy assignments, the commitment levels of clients are fluid. While one is sitting and discussing work with the clients, they agree whole heartedly but once you are away from them, the clients get back to working as before.” Post 2010 she wound up her consultancy assignments and started focussing on her own work as she decided that she would rather cook. Meeta’s hunt for an ideal space took more than a year and half’s search when she finally decided to settle down on a beautiful property in Kalyani Nagar, which is a combination of a large outdoor and indoor space. It had been previously decided between her friend and Meeta that while her friend would handle the finances, she would get the skills to run the place. But it wasn’t destined. Left to fend for herself at the last moment, she decided to move ahead with her dream café and bakery serving authentic continental food.
Since the new entrepreneur had exhausted all her funds in getting the place up and a substantial chunk was kept aside for operation costs, the marketing budgets were zero. Meeta shares, “From day one, word of mouth recommendations worked for the café. People would call and ask about the location, but getting people there wasn’t a problem.” She continues, “The staff has worked very hard for the success of the restaurant. While 60 per cent of people who visit us come back for more, few drop out because they find our offering slightly bland. But then we are honest to the food we cook and serve. And European cooking is largely about salt and pepper as main spices.” And these sum up the very principles of her food philosophy.
Meeta philosophises, “It is given that in a running business not all will like what you are doing and it is also unfair to expect the same.” She finds it a bit of an uphill task to educate her customers who come to the café expecting to get similar Indianised-Continental fare that they would have tasted elsewhere; that, which is not authentic. Then, “I am honest to the food I serve and I refuse to veer that way,” says Meeta authoritatively.
Her commitment to food has helped Meeta build her business, brick by brick. Ready to accommodate requests other than changing her ‘bland’ recipes, and welcoming suggestions, she remembers a time when in the original schema of things, she was only supposed to run a bakery and a café serving pita bread, sandwiches, soups and salads and no main course. “A lot of my regular customers used to come up and say that you are a chef why don’t you have just five main courses. So we started doing five main courses. Post that the customers came up and said you know we had that dish there, can we have it here? Just two or three more dishes, please. And that way, in about a year and half, we decided to just launch a proper main course section in the menu,” she laughs. Another time, one of her patrons had a lemon raspberry cake in a bakery in London and requested Meeta to recreate it for her. Meeta took up the challenge of creating the lemon raspberry cake without even tasting it. “We did different variations of the cake for a week for tasting till we got the taste similar to the one our patron had in London. Now the lemon raspberry cake is an item placed permanently on our menu,” she proudly narrates.
An ardent pet lover, Meeta for a long time was associated with various pet charities across Pune, who would come and collect leftover goodies to be distributed amongst different neighbourhoods. Building on this, she also made it a point to make The Flour Works, a pet-friendly restaurant. “I feel, dogs are creatures of love and they feel very lonely because their owners are usually out the whole day and once they are back from work, they step out again for a meal. Dogs are left alone in an empty house, once again. So, I decided to let the customers come in with their dogs and cats. The pets are very well behaved and largely supervised. The owners put them on a leash and tie it around the leg of the table,” she tells. An example, which many restaurants in India could follow.
A sea of positive reviews on social media speak lengths about the success of The Flour Works. And what’s more, since last year Meeta has started returning money that she had borrowed for the place. That she is also working on expanding her operations, only adds to her success story. In December another outlet comes alive at Wanowrie, Pune. “The original plan for The Flour Works was to set up small bakeries across neighbourhoods in Pune with another restaurant in the other end of the city. Right now we have the production capacity to support 6-8 more bakeries and I am working on evaluating different modes of operation like self-owned bakeries or in partnership with people who have the space and I becomes the food partner”. A rather long knead!