The Hungry Heroes – Part 1
Let’s meet the faces behind our favourite restaurants. Let’s know the stories of those people who gave us our favourite burgers, or momos, or kebabs. Why?…. because good food is also about the people and the places. In this particular series, I will focus on those self-made food entrepreneurs and chefs who chased their dreams and followed their hearts. Part 1 features, Swarnaditya Upal Das, the man who created Hondo’s.
Swarnaditya Upal Das, the man behind Hondo’s
Classmates in St. Lawrence School called him Hondo, and the name stayed. So when Swarnaditya opened a food delivery centre back in 2013, the obvious choice was naming it Hondo’s. But what made a young man hailing from a two-generation lawyer family and being a law graduate himself, quit the familiar path and venture into the unknown territory of food business?
Being a free-spirited nomad from an early age, Swarnaditya needed freedom as he needed oxygen. He had soon realized business was the way if he wanted to be happy and yet earn bread and butter. So he secretly nurtured the dream of owning a travel or a food business as those were his true love. Being in a family with grandfather, father, uncle and aunt as advocates running a family owned law firm, studying law was inevitable. After graduation, Swarnaditya started interning at a reputable law firm in the city. But the prison like environment and the stringent rules were suffocating him. His only breathing space was the office canteen where he would often plan with a colleague about starting a food business. “Let’s deliver sandwiches to the corporate offices” – they would often ideate. The internship came to an abrupt end. This was 2013 and he was 25. All he was left with was 1 lakh rupees fixed deposit he had inherited from his late grandmother.
An uncle’s garage in Bijoygarh and Bhaiya, the former colleague’s partnership helped him start the food delivery centre along with a very basic dine-in area. This initial period helped him train himself in continental recipes and business management. Continental was a conscious choice as Calcutta lacked standalone places offering food like steak and roast beyond Park Street. He and Bhaiya had managed to secure a food delivery contract with Cognizant. But the business was not really growing. Then came an unforeseen setback. Swarnaditya broke his arm in an accident. As he was the lone guy looking after the entire operation, he had to wrap up. Post recovery, an adverse family and financial situation forced him to take up a job as a trademark attorney with the Indian Patent Office.
Within a year’s time, Swarnaditya could arrange necessary finances to restart his business career. He found a rented place on Prince Anwar Shah Road (present address of Hondo’s) that came with a tiny kitchen and a small dine-in area. This was 2016. An extensive menu with European and American dishes offering pork, beef, mutton, chicken, fish, egg and vegetarian options soon became widely popular. A real American burger in a neighbourhood place? A Spanish paella at 2 in the night? An Italian pasta dish at college lunch break? Hondo’s was a game changer in continental cuisine. The honest food, the fun environment, the 24/7 hours open policy and delivery all over Calcutta started winning hearts rapidly. Today, Hondo’s has a loyal customer base and the traffic is increasing steadily.
I have been following Hondo’s on social media for quite some time and have often appreciated the innovative ways of engaging the customers. When I visited Hondo’s recently, I was quite taken with the place. The graphics painted walls make the interiors vibrant. A letter box is placed on the cash counter and customers are encouraged to write post cards. The smiling server takes your photo and gives you a print as a souvenir. These little touches go a long way in making the customers feel special. I was there with a fellow food enthusiast. We had ordered chicken pongs, bacon wrapped chicken and pork chops. The sauces were brilliant making the taste delectable. The mastery with meat, I felt, could be taken one notch higher to attain that glorious perfection. Hondo’s is working towards that goal.
Though I couldn’t meet Swarnaditya at that time as he was travelling, later we chatted over the phone. By that time, I had planned this series and wanted to feature him in part 1. When I asked him what the present challenges were, he said the expenses were very high as Hondo’s has an extensive menu. He has been often advised by restaurant consultants and chefs to decrease number of items. Swarnaditya didn’t, because he wouldn’t compromise on customers’ experiences. He said “Hondo’s is not a mere business, It’s a celebration of food. I wouldn’t cut back on the food part to grow my business.” The space crunch is another problem that is making Swarnaditya think on the line of expansion. The ultimate dream is making Hondo’s a chain of restaurants across the country.
How does Hondo’s keep customers interested in this competitive market? “We keep giving customers new items to try out. This summer, we have introduced mango burger that uses mango mayonnaise and real slices of mango. It has become a huge hit.”
His message to his generation of young men and women who aspire to be food entrepreneurs is –“Be prepared to work very very hard”. Business cannot be fuelled only by passion. Unwavering focus and dedication are the real mantra. There had been time when Swarnadiya spent 3 days and nights at a stretch at the restaurant without going home even to take a bath. After 2 years of immense hard work, he now has been able to create a strong team that allows him to take a few breaks for his other love – travelling. The rewarding moments are when customers give good feedbacks. Swarnaditya recalls one customer has told him, “Hondo’s was once a cult (referring to Swarnaditya riding his bullet to deliver food), but now Hondo’s is a religion.” The restaurant has served many prominent faces of Calcutta. Tollywood’s celebrity director Srijit is a regular customer of Hondo’s.
What’s Swarnaditya like in personal life? A rather shy nomad who believes in staying honest and morally right. He is currently single. He has four pet dogs at home. At the end of the day, he’s happy that he chose to walk a different path.