Over the last few years, Mumbai has seen some unique theme restaurants; after rainforests, ice lounges and restaurants in heritage buildings, comes one atop a double-decker bus. Nivedita Jayaram Pawar meets Founder Hardik Shah, whose moving innovation is taking Mumbai by storm.
The Moving Cart – Mumbai’s very first and India’s second restaurant on wheels – launched in March this year. The red and yellow bus with an open-to-the-sky deck is hard to miss. It’s the brainchild of Hardik Shah, a Chennai-based entrepreneur, who cut his teeth on his garment export business, but changed gears to enter the food lane.
“I own a lounge in Chennai and know the difficulties of the food service business. Even if a restaurant is a hit, it takes between 2 to 3 years to break even. I wanted a quicker turn around, and something that was really, really different and interesting,” says Shah.
A restaurant housed within a double-decker bus, with food and entertainment onboard seemed like the perfect idea. After all, from plying passengers to plying diners was just an extension of Shah’s transport business as he also owns and operates private buses on the Mumbai-Pune highway.
The Moving Cart launched its first bus restaurant in Chennai in 2011, and became an instant hit. Encouraged by the response, he roped in John Dias and the two launched the second bus in Mumbai.
The customised double decker bus (a combination of Mercedes, Tata and Volvo) moves at a comfortable speed of 30 kmph while guests enjoy a meal and take in the sights at leisure.
Besides the open upper deck with its multi-cuisine restaurant and live music, there is an air-conditioned lower deck with mood lighting, soft music, and a large projector that screens cricket matches and movies. While the guests take in the magnificent sights of the Marine Drive and Queen’s Necklace, they are served a 5-course meal (Rs 1,200 per person (veg) and Rs 1,400 (non-veg) catered by Hotel Marine Plaza. Guests are served both Indian and Continental dishes, which include the ever-popular kababs and pasta.
The bus takes three trips a day (1pm, 8 pm and 10 pm) that last over one and a half hour each. The pick-up point is Hotel Marine Plaza, then it moves onwards and takes a U-turn from Nariman Point, and heads towards Chowpatty, and finally back to the starting point. The bus has become a popular venue for corporate functions, birthdays, anniversaries, kitty parties, etc. Booking is through the company website.
The Moving Cart had its share of challenges beginning with RTO permissions. “The RTO couldn’t slot us as a regular bus since we were a double decker bus with an open top, and where food was being served. All these factors put the RTO in a tizzy and they wanted to create a separate category for us,” explains Shah who did the rounds of the RTO for almost four months for the required licenses.
The bus also served food that required some heating. “By the time the food is served to guests it’s already heated four times since it is cooked at the hotel and then ferried to the bus. We had to customise a menu with dishes that can withstand re-heating as taste should not be compromised by repeated heating,” says Shah. “The tables had to be fitted with anti-skid mats to prevent spill-overs, and the staff had to undergo special training to manage and serve food on a moving bus.”
Shah learnt early on in the business that food plays a pivotal role in the success of the business model. “No matter how good the ride is, if the food falls short of expectations, the customer will never recommend it,” he says. While the menu holds continental dishes for the adventurous Mumbai palates, sambar, rasam and rice is a must on the Chennai bus.
Price is a differentiating factor in the success of a business. “The best south Indian meal at Sarvana Bhavan in Chennai is priced at Rs 100, so we had to tread very carefully as the Chennai crowd is quite conservative. If you price your dishes too high, you will lose customers.”
Shah informs that investment in a single bus is Rs 1.1 crore, and has a staff strength of 12-15. Each bus sees a footfall of 60 customers on weekdays, and close to 100 on weekends. Each bus takes 6 months to a year to break even. The company is looking for franchisees who have a food background, and are also looking for private equity for further expansion.