Gamer and foodie stir up a brew

A pair of management graduates turn their love for food and games into building a business in Bangalore, as they dare to tread a different path.

Many people have dreams that they would like to convert into reality, but more often, as reality meets imagination, it’s reality that triumphs. And when someone has gone to all the trouble to study Computer Science at a prestigious university in Boulder, Colorado, USA, and followed that up with a degree from IIM Ahmedabad, one may be forgiven for thinking that here’s a young man who will follow the usual corporate path and make a big success out of it.

But if Sreeram Vaidyanathan is the young man one is thinking of, one would be quite wrong. "I have always wanted to do something that is my own," he says. "An employee does the tasks that are ‘on the list’, but an entrepreneur creates the list!" he smiles. To this end, he says, he took several entrepreneurship courses at IIM-A.

Sreeram also recalls his attempts at setting up an e-commerce transaction portal after finishing his engineering degree that nearly, but did not quite, get off the ground. The initiative lasted a few months, but since it did not go beyond that, Sreeram decided to do his MBA as he genuinely loved being an entrepreneur rather than be an employed techie.

Game for Food

However, the wish to do something innovative remained in him, and was fanned after he met Mansur Nazimuddin, his junior at IIM-A and an avid game fan. The duo decided to blend their passions for gaming and great food, and try out a cafe concept, which, early last year, was new for Bangalore.

Sreeram quit his post-MBA job at Microsoft to launch and manage the venture full-time. He was the avid foodie, and his partner, Mansur, was the gaming expert. Mansur is a Computer Science graduate from Trichy, and he worked with IBM prior to his stint at IIM-A.

Brew Haha Store, koramangala, Bangalore

Brewhaha store front at Koramangala. Pic: Supriya Khandekar.

"Bangalore is a good place to try something new," says Sreeram. "People do give new things a chance here." So Brewhaha (a pun on Brouhaha, with the "brew" referring to the coffee/tea served here) opened its doors to the public in February 2007, with a very soft launch — hardly any publicity at all. It is located on the same road as Jyoti Nivas College in Koramangala, very near Hosur Road.

Setting Brewhaha up was not without its glitches. Rentals were sky-high, but Sreeram was choosy about location as he wanted the right kind of crowd to come in. Finding skilled people was also hard. "We do have a high turnover of people, as they move to other jobs," he says pragmatically. But he managed to hire enough people to start a café where one could come for snacks and coffee, and play any of the large number of games that they had imported from around the world and brought to Brewhaha.

So what is the framework of Brewhaha right now? "We have about five staff members, and two managers," says Sreeram. This keeps the venture under the radar of governmental essentials such as Provident Fund and so on. "In my Microsoft job, I had to deal with mainly educated people; here, the interaction was completely different," he adds.

However, starting the place from scratch was an intense learning experience. Dealing with government regulations is something he had to go through, and found Bangalore to be ‘not so bad". Though he doesn’t express it, one can sense the travails he has been through. But it did help him make up his mind on several details. "I wanted a more family, ‘safe’ type of atmosphere in the cafe, so I decided not to serve hard drinks. That meant avoiding the entire hassle and cost of acquiring liquor licenses" he says. "I wanted to create a healthy environment for women customers to come in, and I think I have achieved that," he says with pride, as he around at the many women sitting around and chatting in his café.

"The 1500 sq.ft cafe can seat 90 people at full load," he says. "We get a lot of large groups of 6-20 people that we accomodate as this is a kind of experience that is designed to be fun for groups."

And the customer profile? "Young working professionals and college kids are our main patrons. We are increasingly getting visits from families with kids in the 8+ age group as this is a good way to spend time together as a family too!" Sreeram says.

The "game"plan pays off

If not for Mansur, the place would have been a restaurant; but now, the crowd arrival profile is just the opposite of a restaurant. Mansur is based in Hyderabad, running a game studio, and so is not involved in the cafe on a daily basis, but decisions are taken by both partners equally.

Customers at Brewhaha come for gaming between 3pm and 8pm, when other restaurants would be generally facing a lull. But still the food does generate revenue. "In a restaurant model, the average customer would spend less time, and more money…here, with the games, that’s the primary activity, so they spend more ‘time’ here and less ‘money’," smiles Sreeram, adding that their games are priced very nominally.

Brewhaha does not do computer games. Says Sreeram: "We specialize in interactive board games (such as Pictionary, Uno, Boggle) and game-based activities. We have games for all preference types, be they strategy-fanatics, or word-worms, or folks looking to have a whole bunch of party-style laughs!"

He does have plans to introduce more food items than just snacks: start has been made with some non-messy meal items being introduced recently. "Could a visitor just have coffee?" I asked him, and his reply was, "Yes – but please try the games!"

Setting up Brewhaha has been a good experience. Customers seem to like the service a lot, and it feels great to be the person who is delivering that service. And publicity? "Oh, the best way — blogs, chain mails, and word-of-mouth," he says simply. "There have, of course, been the occasional lapses on our part, for example, late service… but we have never let customers go without a proper apology being tendered to them if we were at fault in any way. That particular customer might not come back, but our reputation will still remain good," he says.

Brewhaha notes

Games are priced at Rs.20 per person per hour. If your group of five play a game for 2 hours, you would pay Rs.200 for the game.

Food: Indian and international street food, kebabs, continental and Indian meal-bites.

Coffee: A range of coffees varieties and signature beverages such as cocoa-brews, milkshakes and more. Calvin Brew M/S and the Brownie sludge frappe are some key customers favourites.
Location: Koramangala, (on same road as Jyoti Nivas College)

Regarding serving water, a suggestion I have for Sreeram is: please do not serve water in PET bottles which are not biodegradable, this will add to the trash problem of Bangalore. Add the cost of the water to the food and beverage items if necessary, but serve plain filtered water free to the customers, and serve PET bottled water only to those customers who insist on having them. Both — serving water in PET bottles, as well as refusal to serve plain water free to customers who buy food comes across as "unfriendly", both to the environment, and to customers.

Gimme more…

So what are their future plans? "I am only taking things one step at a time…I cannot really predict the future," he shrugs. He feels that with the right plan, the future will take care of itself. As of now, his plan is to make Brewhaha a national entity; he would like such centres in all the major metros, at least. This was another reason that he didn’t get into liquor.

But his first love is being a restaurateur, and he is hopes to accent the food in the venue a little more now. "I want both commercial and sustainable success," he says "where I can make a reasonable amount of money and also have a regular clientele of satisfied customers."

Given the fact that since February 2007 to May 2008, Brewhaha seems to have survived, and thrived, this does not seem like asking for the moon.

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