To run a food stall or (ideas at 1 AM)

–Back in 2016, two friends-brothers and I decided to open a food stall at one of the biggest music festivals this side of the world. What followed was a series of accidents, miscalculations and all sorts of pandemonium. This is the story of the time three and a half men ran a food stall.–

What do you get when three men with absolutely no prior experience in the food, catering and/or hospitality sector decide it’s a good idea to open a food stall at one of the biggest music festivals in the country to earn some extra cash while still hoping to keep their jobs? You’re looking at a recipe for complete chaos and setting things up for a failure of unmitigated heights.

The Ziro Festival of Music is an annual extravaganza of independent rock and folk music and everything in between held in the fag end of September amidst the beautiful green-yellow paddy fields of Ziro Valley in Arunachal Pradesh.  I first attended the third edition of the festival in 2014 and absolutely fell in love with the place, its vibes, new friendships that were forged and the endless flow of locally-brewed rice beer and different cuisines on offer.

So after two years since my first visit and three weeks before the festival commenced in 2016, when the idea to set up a food stall at the festival came up it seemed like a great one.

“There’ll be food, drinks, great music and fun vibes like the last two times. What could possibly go wrong,” I thought to myself. I hadn’t the slightest clue of what we were about to be hit with.

Like all great plans, this idea too was birthed at 1 AM after downing more than the recommended pegs of whisky among three friends. The exact details of how and when the idea came about are a little sketchy but I remember one of us (don’t ask who) saying it would be a great idea to set up a food stall at the Festival as a means to make some extra money on the side. Boosted by the alcohol in us, we said cheers to that. While I thought that the idea would be soon forgotten the next day as decisions taken after consuming unhealthy amounts of alcohol usually are, I was wrong.

Like a male protagonist in a Bollywood (or most other Indian) film who continues to harass and pursue the female lead despite her refuting his borderline psychopathic advances until she gives finally in to the ‘hero’ in a moment of cinematic melodrama, the idea to set up the stall too persisted.

After my initial hesitancy and apprehension, I let my ambitious side take over the logical side of my brain and decided to go for it.

“What could possibly go wrong?” I thought so again. Everything, apparently.

So over the course of the next few days, we planned out a menu, set prices, met a guy who would be our ‘chef’ who for some reason thought we wanted to serve Italian food at the festival (pasta and what-have-you).

What we really wanted to do was just make some money and thought that it would be best to serve traditional tribal food in an attempt to cash in on the exotica factor since so many of the festival revellers would be composed of those from outside the Northeast who don’t get a chance to savour the best that the region has to offer.

Then, around two weeks before the festival was set to begin, a friend/business partner and I ran into another friend of mine who suggested that it would be best to serve ‘Indian food’ like biryani or chicken rolls. (Sidenote: Why is food from the Northeast never called ‘Indian’ food?)

Anyway, the suggestion seemed to make sense especially after my friend said that those coming in from Delhi, Mumbai or even Kolkata would most likely eat or taste pork cooked with bamboo shoot perhaps once or twice for the experience of it all.

“After that, they’d look for food they are used to,” he said.

“Hmm,” the two of us thought and brought our third friend/business partner up to speed about the new plan as well as the ‘chef’. So with two weeks to go, we changed the menu.

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The original menu. Not much of what you see here made the final cut. We don’t compromise on quality, son!

 

I should mention here at this point that as yet we still had not confirmed our stall with the organisers although I had been in touch with them. I was fairly confident that acquiring a stall wouldn’t be too difficult since I am friends with most of the top guys. Comfortable in that knowledge, we met our chef again and even had a trial run of the food he could cook. Actually, we just wanted to eat some biryani.

A few more ‘technical sessions’ later, we decided on a smaller menu with fewer items, made some estimates of the cost that would be incurred, came with a name for the stall (The Right Stall- where you can’t go wrong- I was so pleased with myself with that name) and thought we were golden. We had even managed a pick-up truck on discount and most of our utensils would be made available to us in Ziro, again on discount. I can’t begin to thank the number of friends who helped us along the way even though they probably wanted to tell us all that this venture was an extremely bad idea.

Speaking of friends.

An old friend of mine had flown in from Delhi for the festival on my insistence a few days before we were set to leave. Now, my friend was here for the festival but when I told him of our great entrepreneurial plan, he was supportive and said he’ll help out in the stall. In return, I told him that we’ll still have a good time since we would be taking turns manning the stall giving us ample time to soak in some of the bands that had come to perform from all across the country. Long story short, we didn’t and he’s still cursing me till date.

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Seitin, my friend who was unwittingly fooled into manning the stall with us.

 

So, armed with a menu, a chef and support staff, we decided to leave for the festival a day before and set the stall up. The plan was to wake up early, reach Ziro by early afternoon and set up the kitchen and start minting money. Small problem though- I overslept and by the time we packed all our things and left, it was already early afternoon. Needless to say, a few harsh words were exchanged, some glances of “I can’t believe you didn’t wake up on time” were shared and we were on our way.

Well, almost.

You see, for the life of me, I can’t remember why but even after we finished loading all our things and were hardly 20 minutes into our drive that we stopped by the highway for 30 more minutes. That aside, it was a pretty uneventful trip- some jokes were cracked, a little more planning was done, and even involved some driving under the influence. I am pretty sure we broke a few minor road laws.

By the time we reached Ziro it was already pretty late and in fact, the sun had set and most others who were running their stalls were already doing a trial run of their food and drinks (most famously the local rice brew- apong). We got cracking too as soon as we could, extending the roof for the kitchen with a tarpaulin (some of which had to be borrowed from our neighbouring stall. Thank you, guys).

Considering the low-light conditions, we decided it was best to finalise the setup the next day during the daytime. Having dropped our chef and his ‘sous-chef’ at a different hotel, we settled into our room and cracked open a bottle of whisky. For some reason, that seemed like a good idea at that time. It doesn’t take a genius to guess that our day the following morning started much later than was originally planned. Again, some words were exchanged, blames were shifted, the car key was miraculously broken by our strongman friend – a feat that I still can’t believe. If I hadn’t seen it happen for myself. But by late afternoon we were open for business.

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Gearing up for a new journey. Also known as the calm before the shit-storm. This was the last time anyone of us laughed for the next four days.

 

One small glitch that occurred on opening day was that our biryani was completely ruined. Our ‘chef’ had made an error which was apparently a result of us having bought the wrong kind of rice. It was so bad that we didn’t even serve it.

Now, remember when I said that we had absolutely no experience in this kind of thing? It showed in the initial minutes as the first orders began coming in. Chaos, confusion, panic, and pandemonium broke out when customers started coming in. We were taking double orders and serving the wrong dishes to the wrong customers – absolute madness. It was in those moments that I finally empathised with Gordon Ramsey. But we slowly settled in and got into the groove of things and calmed down.

At first, business was slow but it gained momentum as the night progressed. The one item that did exceptionally well was the roasted pork which had been priced very low. The reason, as one of us said, was because people would “lap it up”if we kept the prices low. And “lap it up” they did. It was only after we wound up, went back to the hotel and calculated our earnings that night did we realise that we had sold the pork at a loss!

Having learnt from our errors from the day before, and from feedback from our friends who so kindly helped us, we revised the prices and rectified the food.

The second day we did better thanks to the apong we were selling. By the evening of the second night, the stall was getting livelier as friends began to pour in. In all honesty, were it not for our friends who constantly dropped in, our business would have collapsed in on itself. That all changed the third day when a few of our friends from the fairer sex showed up and just hung out at the stall.

This is going to sound extremely sexist of me but one of the biggest takeaways from the entire experience was that it helps to have good-looking women manning such stalls. Is it fair? No. But that’s the reality of the world we live in and unless utopia comes, that’s how things will be for the foreseeable future.

Another takeaway was that it is best to source materials locally. Thankfully most of our things did come from Ziro but this was something we learnt from a few of the other stall owners who had not done so.

At the end, did we make a lot of money? Are we budding entrepreneurs ready to start a new start-up to be featured in business magazines? Not quite. But the entire experience offered great lessons about the food and catering industry and my respect for people in the industry grew by leaps and bounds.

Running a food stall is no easy task. Keeping count of money, making sure one gets the orders correct while ensuring quality service is delivered are all equations that one needs to take care of all the time. Compromises on any one aspect can mean a loss of customers and reputation. Will I ever undertake such a venture again? Well, all I can say is that life is short and there is no dearth of festivals. So until the next one, cheers!

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