Sit. Chill. Relax: Can there be many Europe-style cafés where idling is a thing, in India too?

Research papers that have closely paid attention to the ubiquitous American coffee chain Starbucks’s business strategy have spoken about a certain ‘Starbucks Experience’ that keeps customers coming back. If one tries to dig deeper into the times one went to a Starbucks, many of us will have memories rushing through. The pumpkin spice lattes, the nursing of warm, bubbling coffee for a few hours. It is said that the corporation’s main aim is to make their outlets the ‘third place’ between home and work. Restaurants where one can just be. Where one need not have to keep worrying about keeping the tab going, just to linger.

Keeping in mind the fact that often people want a whole new place between work and home, there are restaurants which factor this into their business model. The Sleight of Hand in Fort, which serves house salads, Vol-au-Vents, and cheesecake desserts, all pre-cooked and assembled at the confectionery store itself, is a café-restaurant that evokes the vibe of chill. You can certainly just get yourself a latte or any of the above and simply chill. If they don’t have a crowd, they won’t mind. Shares Owner Aadore Sayani, “We are not your everyday café. Linger with us a while – slow down a little bit and take in our charms. So, many times people tell me that they feel like they are at a café in Paris, or Auroville or Goa, and not in Bombay.”

Even the terrace cafés (the street side cafés) of France were envisioned in that way. To give preference to the slow life. Where taking it easy has definitely been a priority for the French, where lunchtime can be longish with many courses. People will often feel aghast at The French’s unapologetic pursuit of joie de vivre. The terraces tend to “nurture a creative, artistic community” just like Starbucks and are places where one can exchange all sorts of drivel, discuss politics and subjects they have a penchant for, and just be.

However, does a Mumbai or a Delhi have scope for that? Does one always have to rush to a small town or a touristy place such as the now overrun Goa to do that? Lester Periera, Owner of Bandra’s The Bagel Shop shares his concerns about that odd ‘shaana’ customer who sits for hours tending only a cup of coffee, “It’s a business. We have to draw the line somewhere. People who come to our restaurant do spend. It’s like at a hotel. Do you check out five-six hours after your time is up? These are the rules of the game. At the same time we do want to build a sense of community here; we are pet-friendly. We want to create positive vibes and most of our clientèle is repeat clientèle.”

Restaurant supervisor Kuldeep Desai attributes tight restaurant timings / slots to something as basic as Mumbai and Delhi being some of the most crowded cities in the world. Waiting lines, queues, high demand for restaurant seating, especially those that have risen in popularity, will naturally lead to shorter time spans for guests to simply birdwatch. “In countries like Portugal and Greece, the restaurant-visiting public is less, and often one sees restaurants not nearly as full. In places like that it’s alright to sit around. Many times they don’t want you to bring the menu, or their coffee quickly because they plan to sit around longer. They want restaurant staff to take their time. In a big city, one may have many things to take care of, and may also need to be somewhere fast. Therefore, the demand for fast food and quick service. I don’t think today there is much scope for visitors to dilly-dally at Indian bistros. You can’t block a table for three or four hours drinking just one tea or coffee.”

There is the rare French café-like experience at Churchgate’s Souffle S’il Vous Plait. The bistro’s outside seating resembles the French café terrace experience where you can watch cars go by, take in the clamour around, and observe street side characters like a chaiwala or dabeliwala. At a recent experience, post-pandemic, we noticed guests having close-knit chats over glasses of red wine and espresso shots, looking in no way like they were in a hurry to get anywhere. It was, of course, a Saturday afternoon, but the sense of welcome and belonging at Souffle was apparent. Servers did not rush us to order or throw the menu in our faces on cue.

Shares Kochi-based business consultant Shounak Ray, “People need a place that’s closer to home, but not at office. I often go to a bakery and restaurant called French Toast in Kochi and spend enough time over my Americano there and even get it reheated when it gets cold. They don’t mind. It’s because I visit the place on weekends with family ordering all kinds of items like brioches and banoffee. They see me as a regular. Sometimes, customers are shoved out of restaurants just as the finish up a meal because staff is not sensitized to allowing guests their space. Younger consumers are looking for places where they can let loose, and when they find those kind of leisurely addas they will prefer that over QSRs.”

Adds restaurant consultant Shashank Chavan about eateries doubling as public places where one can get privacy. “This is ok at a coffee shop. When the theme is about getting a coffee, and using the restaurant Wi-Fi and allowing people to spend more time there. The theme a restaurant is built around is important. If there is a birthday party with a group of eight to 10 people and if the restaurant is informed in advance that the group will take longer, then that’s alright. We also have to look at our APC (Average per Cover – the earnings from each guest who comes in).” Chavan means that business takes precedence over any service perks and at the end of the day managers needs to ensure that their business remains sustainable.

Shares Deepak Purohit, Owner of Mumbai’s Mockingbird Café Bar, “It doesn’t happen so often that people sit and don’t order. I believe people understand the social contract (that it’s only decent to order something while you are lounging around a diner). My focus has always been on making a customer happy. If they want something done, for example a certain music played, I do it. It doesn’t cost much. I also train my staff not to develop an adversarial relationship with guests. For instance, if the guy comes in a bad mood and is rude to the waiter, I train my staff to be humble, and make them feel better.”

We only wonder if a restaurant’s wait staff feels the same way – considering tips often come from a pool, and the size of the pool depends on company turnover and revenue earned. They may not look so kindly to loungers who aren’t giving them additional business, and in fact encouraging similar behaviour patterns from other guests. So in India, is it always about khao, piyo, khisko?

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