This travel-themed vegetarian café is situated away from the usual places one finds good restaurants in Chennai, and is, therefore, capturing the unexplored market there.
When Aswini Srinivasan decided to work for her close friend, Pranesh, who is the founder of Studio 31, a popular wedding photography and video company in Chennai, little did she realise that it would lay the foundation for her own entrepreneurial journey.
The 22-year-old holds a B.Tech degree in Information Technology from SRM Easwari Engineering College, Chennai.
While learning about the nuances of the creative industry, Aswini displayed a spark, which Pranesh noticed and therefore encouraged her to start her own venture. Having been friends for a long time and sharing a mutual interest in starting a cafe, they decided to set up 80 Degrees East together, to exhibit their love for food and create a brand for themselves.
So what does the name of the cafe mean? Pranesh's wife Kruthi came up with 80 Degrees East. "The first step of any travel starts with a timezone. And ours started from 80.1901° E – the longitude of Chennai, making this our food destination. Hence, the name 80 Degrees East — to bring the best of the world onto one plate and one place," explains Aswini.
The cafe opened its doors in late November 2016.
While studying the market Aswini felt that vegetarians don’t really have many choices in a majority of the cafes that cater to both vegetarians and non-vegetarians. "The restaurants tend to focus on the meat more than greens," she says.
Armed with the desire to showcase vegetarian cuisine in a whole new light, she undertook the challenge of curating a vegetarian menu that offered a surprising amount of variety and choices.
"At 80 Degrees East we serve 85 items that are only vegetarian. Apart from this, we also offer daily specials and combos that are curated based on timings and seasons," Aswini says.
Besides, the cafe adopts sustainable cooking too. "All the equipment that we use are electric," says Aswini.
The chefs are the heart of the cafe. They were handpicked from many rural places in Tamil Nadu and given a platform to prove themselves.
As for the location, Aswini homed in Nanganallur, a suburb in Chennai, after looking at 38 places over eight months. The location had only witnessed the cropping up of small traditional south Indian and north Indian restaurants in the last three or four decades.
This provided Aswini a business opportunity worth tapping into. High spending capacity, modern lifestyle and the zeal of the residents to experiment newer things were some of the other factors that worked in her favour.
The cafe has generated a revenue of Rs 54 lakh in its first year of operations and has been able to pay its bills and make decent profits without the founders requiring to pump in money constantly.
While scouting for themes for their cafe, Aswini felt drawn towards travel and food. "There is nothing as enjoyable as travelling and nothing as satisfying as food," she quips.
The decor of the café aptly reflects their food philosophy and consists of components of travel and food. The walls bear the names of countries and are adorned with clocks representing different time zones and quotes on travel and food.
The warm ambience coupled with mouthwatering food served all through the day, seven days a week has been a big hit, Aswini says, adding that it has also managed to pull in people from other parts of the city. The cafe has become the hangout spot for school kids, college groups and families alike, she says. The popularity of the place can be gauged by the long queues of people waiting to enjoy their food on the weekends.
The team at 80 Degrees East consists of young and budding chefs with basic knowledge of restaurant management and proficiency and having a passion towards food and cooking.
They serve up the usual array of cafe food like burgers, nachos, pizzas and desi fries, but also serve fusion foods that marry the East and the West.
A standout dish on their menu is bhel pasta, which combines two iconic dishes - bhel puri and pasta. Other items worth trying are bise bele pasta, which combines a popular south Indian dish with pasta. Similarly, the traditional Maggi and dosas are also served with an interesting twist.
While Aswini curated the menu of the cafe with the support of her chefs, her business partner-cum-mentor Pranesh ensured that her food experiments hit the right taste buds.
“Uniqueness of the dish, cooking time, age and spending capacity of the customers are some of the factors that were kept in mind while deciding the menu," says Aswini
An average meal for two has been priced between Rs 400 and 500, keeping in mind the potential patrons.
The past year has not been without challenges. Aswini has had to deal with a whole bunch of new experiences: making pivotal decisions, dealing with concern from family members who see her working day and night for the café and Studio 31, and handling people’s apprehension when they see a 22-year-old finalise business deals with them, but she has taken it all in her stride.
Being a foodie and a huge fan of MasterChef Australia, starting a vegetarian cafe and feeding people has always been a dream of Aswini. "Whenever I visit a cafe with my friends or family, I've made efforts to speak to the owner or chef and learn the ropes," says Aswini.
These interactions helped her to learn about the business models of different cafes, key fundamentals of the industry, importance of demography and location, financial management and minds of the customers.
"It takes almost all of you to break through the stereotypes and prove yourself. That’s what I did and I wouldn’t change a single thing," says Aswini.
With the amount of practical knowledge she has gained from handling vendor management, food quality, stock management, finances, menu updation and several other things, she feels that she has learnt more from each mistake she has made than what any management degree could have possibly taught her.
80 Degrees East has had purely organic growth. Word-of-mouth publicity and regular changes to the menu have managed to keep the customers excited enough to visit the cafe often and try out the new inclusions.
The cafe does have plans to expand after thorough market research. Giving out franchises is another option on the table.
The company is presently bootstrapped and will look for an external investor when a great opportunity strikes and funding would be necessary.
"The café has taught me things I would have never learnt at an IT job. It has helped me gain confidence in almost every aspect of life, taught me how important networking is, from accepting every constructive criticism to changing the odds in my favour," says Aswini before signing off.