At the end of a meal at Powai’s Mirchi and Mime, one is unable to determine the single, most remarkable thing about the experience. Is it the authentic north Indian food that lingers on your mind much longer than on your tongue? Is it the decor, quirky and novel, with wooden pots, pans, and forks in fifty shades of brown against pearly white walls, that conjures up a pleasing vibe?
Or is it the incredible experience of learning to communicate effortlessly through genial signs with a set of people you previously failed to relate to?
In this dilemma, lies the victory of the founders of Mirchi and Mime — for they wanted to create a business as beneficial to its employees as it would be dear to its patrons.
Mirchi and Mime is a socially responsible yet sustainable restaurant chain in Mumbai’s Powai area that employs people with disability as servers, supervisors, and chefs — in effect, making use of their special abilities.
The founders — 41-year-old seasoned hotel management professional Prashant Isshar and 38-year-old IT professional Anuj Shah — reckoned that in order to make the dining experience seamless, the format of their restaurant should be conventional. The only change they incorporated in the experience is replacing the verbal interaction between the staff and the customers by visual communication, that is, sign language.
They decided on having a regular menu, but next to every dish are illustrations of how to act out its name using sign language. Diners, upon being seated at their table, are explained the drill by a server who can speak.
The guests are also taught ‘excuse me’, ’yes’, ‘no’, ‘great’, ‘okay,’ ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’ in sign language, so that they can have a less matter-of-fact, more pleasant conversations with the servers. Finally, when a speech and hearing impaired (SHI) server brings your dish, it comes with a placard indicating its name.
Mirchi and Mime, their first restaurant opened on May 2, 2015 and has maintained its top rating — a whopping 4.8 on 5 on Zomato — for over two years. Their second restaurant — Madeira and Mime — opened on October 11, 2016, also climbed to the top spot in the cafe and bars category in Mumbai. Today, both venues are 80-seaters, and 25 out of the 45 staffers in each restaurant are SHI persons. Both restaurants see footfalls of 8,000 diners each, monthly.
Interestingly, Prashant and Anuj, who crafted this venture with much passion and thought, met only by chance. After all, what would a hospitality graduate from Dadar Catering College who had worked at Taj and various Michelin-starred restaurants in London, and a Mithibai graduate who had worked at IT giants like IBM, have in common?
Still, both were MBA-holders from the Henley School of Business (UK), and their paths crossed at an alumni meetup.
“Businesses must generate wealth for society in addition to generating wealth for the individual” — a tenet imparted by their alma mater had deeply resonated with Prashant and Anuj; it not just broke the ice but also led to a deeper conversation about their lives and careers.
Besides, they shared with each other how mundane their corporate jobs had been feeling lately.
During a second meeting at a Starbucks in Mumbai, they realised their common passion for starting a restaurant group.
When a prospective investor showed them a Facebook video of the “Signs” restaurant in Toronto, Prashant and Anuj had their eureka. That, to them, was an ideal business model. In their opinion, social initiatives or even philanthropy cannot sustain without profitability.
"I have researched the principles of cooking from the best of restaurants. I have experienced food around the world, interacted with chefs, gourmands and food writers, over the last twenty years," says Prashant.
Their kitchen has two parts — the grill kitchen visible to the diners and the curry, and the biryani and dessert kitchen right behind it. "Tandoor, sigri and tava are the three Indian grills we are using," Prashant explains. Shakarkand Chaat, Dori Kebab, White Pepper Chicken Tikka, the Tawa Platter, the Nehru place soft paneer, Methi Makhani, and their Punjabi Kadhi are some of the fan favourites.
"Our bar has quite the array of spirits too. Young wines – little-to-no oak and soft-to-no tannins — and a few classics for the connoisseurs, and champagne," Prashant adds.
“SHI persons have the three key qualities that are perfect for hospitality — their smile, their focus, and their intuitiveness. They are a valuable new resource in the high-attrition-rate restaurant industry,” says Anuj.
To scout for these employees, they got in touch with various NGOs and schools. Rochiram Thadani High School for the hearing impaired in Chembur came through with fervent support. It facilitated meetings between the duo and the parents and students. They later came across a job fair for the disabled at NASEOH, also in Chembur, where they eventually headhunted most of their staff. Within a span of three hours, they had over a hundred SHIs wanting to join their venture
The new hires undergo a training programme with four modules —life sciences, job readiness, simple English, and service skills. They are trained for eight weeks in a classroom, followed by three weeks on-the-job, with friends and family posing as guests.
“Most SHIs are from a lower socio-economic background owing to the unaffordability of treatment and hearing aids,” says Prashant.
In fact, due to the general treatment of persons with disabilities in society, the parents of their staffers were naturally untrusting of Anuj and Prashant’s intentions.
“The toughest challenge was to convince the parents to let their wards work beyond their line of sight, moreover, during unsocial hours,” says Prashant.
At first, Prashant and Anuj would communicate with the prospective employees through their parents. Because the process was needlessly complicated, they learnt sign language themselves to interact directly with the candidates. Such efforts instilled a great sense of confidence in the parents.
Having worked extensively in some of the most prominent restaurant markets, Prashant took the classical word-of-mouth approach to create a buzz. "Despite the idea of employing SHI candidates, I ensured that it is food that takes the centre stage at Mirchi and Mime,” he remarks.
Any and every feedback on social media platforms is analysed on a daily basis, and Kaizen is employed for making constant improvements to food and service. In fact, they appreciate negative feedback — for it means that people are genuinely holding them to a high enough standard, and not just visiting out of sympathy.
While their salaries are 35 percent above industry standards, the staff at Mirchi and Mime has been allotted ESOPs, which can be vested after completing one year of employment. Three of the SHIs have been promoted to supervisory level.
“We feel blessed when we are thanked by the parents and families of our employees. For certain families, our SHI employee is the sole earner. In fact, after joining work at Mirchi and Mime and Madeira and Mime, five of our staff got married because of their newfound financial independence,” says Anuj.
However, the founders maintain that it is a truly symbiotic relationship — the business has gained as much as the employees have. Most importantly, every diner reaps the benefits of this beautiful combination of resources.