Feb 6, 2009

Food - Cracking the coffee shop puzzle

Anoothi Vishal

Hotel coffee shops tend to be generally overlooked when it comes to serious food talk — even though they contribute about 25 per cent of a hotel’s F&B revenue, second only to banqueting, and ahead of gourmet restaurants. A coffee shop in a hotel in an Indian metro, I understand, may earn anywhere upwards of Rs 3 lakh over a 24-hour cycle. More successful ones go up to earning Rs 5-6 lakh apparently.

But ask diners about their attitudes to these spaces and it is likely to be one of indifference. A hotel coffee shop is, after all, primarily utilitarian — somewhere where you go for a business meeting over quick lunch or coffee, or, for a convenient bite, post-midnight, after you’ve done with heavy duty “cocktails” elsewhere.
There are exceptions, of course. There are some people I know (including myself) who make their holiday bookings based on the lavish breakfasts offered here. And, then, there are places that get popular with local guests for other reasons. A couple of years ago, The Oberoi’s ThreeSixty in Delhi redefined the concept and continues to draw in huge crowds despite the downturn.
Other people have other faves, and many of these lists are likely to feature the Yellow Brick Road at the Taj Ambassador in Delhi for its charm, value-for-money menus and just for old time’s sake. Then, there is Baywatch at the Sheraton in Saket that I’ve always liked for its great emphasis on Indian regional cuisine. The buffets here, at one time, would enable you to sample the specialities of ITC stalwarts like Imtiaz Quereshi and Kulsum Begum.
But there are newer picks too. In Mumbai, a colleague, whose only requirement otherwise is a WiFi connection, is partial to one because of the freshly-ground coffee they offer. Guests can apparently smell and choose their own beans and see the coffee made. In Delhi, 24/7, at the The Lalit is becoming popular because it offers not just a 24x7 food menu but also 24x7 bakery and bar.
To this, I must add the newly redone Café at the Hyatt, New Delhi, now. The hotel had a winner some time ago with its superb The China Kitchen, possibly the best Chinese restaurant in the country today apart from The China House at the Grand Hyatt in Mumbai, on similar lines. And now, it has another plus in its coffee shop. I went there last week for a buffet lunch and liked particularly the way the space was broken up to give you various counters or “kitchens” — like island bars, facilitating easy movement —dedicated to things such as salads and desserts, a delicious mezze spread, grills, international cuisine and regional Indian food.
This is an infinitely more informal and interactive arrangement and adding to the sense of “being at home” is the fact that main courses are served in smaller cook-and-serve type of vessels that you may use at home. What I will go back for is the salad bar. Instead of having the usual spread of 4-8 pre-tossed salads that you find on any buffet menu, this one has a chef tossing your greens fresh. The greens are fresh — lettuce and whole baby carrots (tempting enough for one to pick them up and chew a la Karamchand jasoos) and the lot coming from the owners’ organic farm.
Finally, what do people look for in a hotel coffee shop? Here’s a list put together after random conversations with friends, colleagues and frequent travellers:
1. A wider selection of convenient “combos” — pav bhaji, fish and chips.
2. A good view
3. Comfort food, old favourites — remember that Taj innovations, the Bull’s Eye dessert?
4. A hint of novelty by way of frequent food festivals or changes in the décor
5. Interactivity
6. Wireless internet
7. Affordable pricing
That pretty much covers it. Work that out and you’ll have a formula for F&B success in these hard times.