Sameer Seth and Yash Bhanage | Outlook Business
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Soumik Kar

Best Buddies 2017

Sameer Seth and Yash Bhanage
How a small chat at a bar led The Bombay Canteen founders to spice it up with a desi restaurant venture

Ashameera Aiyappan

In high spirits: (L-R) Sameer Seth and Yash Bhanage, co-founders, The Bombay Canteen

The camaraderie is evident right from the word go at the India-inspired restaurant, The Bombay Canteen (TBC) and it is not just between its owners — Sameer Seth and Yash Bhanage. As Seth and Bhanage bustle about getting things ready for the photo shoot, curious looks are shot across the room between the team as they go about doing their job. The bonhomie is quite evident at the place. Seth and Bhanage were classmates at the Cornell University and the idea to start a business together was something they toyed with, way back in 2010. But the thought gained steam only around a year and a half later, when they decided to pursue their passion for food and set up a restaurant back home. By this time, Seth had also met chef Floyd Cardoz, the man behind many successful restaurants in New York. With Cardoz as the culinary director, TBC was set up at Mumbai in 2015. With its bungalow-inspired interiors, desi-themed cutlery, and a simple, yet sophisticated menu on regional Indian food, TBC is a quirk-flavoured ode to India. Talking to the duo feels more like a casual conversation with a friend rather than an interview. Their motto is to make work fun. But that doesn’t translate to being flippant about what they do. It is easy to believe them when they say, “We take what we do seriously. Ourselves? Not so much.” They share a common vision of offering the best experience to their guests, which makes TBC a happy place to be in.

You both met at Cornell University. How did you hit it off? 

Bhanage: I think it was the day before the semester began Sameer has this ability to talk and engage people with his storytelling. He would tailor his message according to the audience, so that they understand it. His Sameer’s pitch to an investor is different from his brief to the development team. I admire that agility.

Seth: We had a small party at a bar on the day before school started. We started chatting there and, eventually, were the last people to leave the bar that day. 

What was your first impression of each other? 

Seth: He seemed like someone with whom I can get along with. 

Bhanage: When you are meeting so many people at once, you’re looking for interesting stories that connect. Sameer had come from a banking background, and I respected what he had done to get here and that got the conversation going. 

How would you describe each other?

Bhanage: Sam is natural at what he does. He is very easy-going. He doesn’t get angry a lot. The best thing about Sam is he can inspire people. The restaurant business is people-driven and you need someone who comes in everyday and inspires people. That’s what he does and it comes to him naturally.

Seth: Yash has a sense of creativity that sparked off so many things that you see in the restaurant today. He can sense what people can connect to. His energy and enthusiasm inspires the entire team. I’ve never met anyone more hardworking.   

What was the most exciting thing you did together at TBC?

Bhanage: The Teach for India (TFI) project. It was something Sameer had come up with. We wanted to raise as much money as possible for TFI through our guests. The first year, we raised #2 lakh and this year we raised around #5 lakh. Both of us believe that whatever we do, we need to give back to the community, so working for TFI made sense. Since we wanted our guests to have a good experience, in the first year, we thought of doing a thali service on a banana leaf. This was something we had never done before. Also, with a thali, everyone comes in at the same time and eats. In the first year that took us some time to adjust. But this year we were more prepared. 

Seth: It was a collaborative effort. I take care of marketing and communications, Yash takes care of operations and we work with our chef Thomas Zachariah and Floyd to fix the menu. Yash also works with the bar to decide on the drinks. Overall, the team figures out what could be done to make it a fun experience for the guest. 

How do you handle disagreements with each other? 

Seth: I might have a very different opinion, but if a logical point of view is being presented to me, I won’t stick to my opinion. I will try to understand where he is coming from.

Bhanage: When something comes up, we say everything we have to say. We share that comfort level. 

Seth: We don’t hold it back. That’s what leads to problems eventually. We discuss it openly and reach a decision that suits the context we are in. 

Do you always try to reach a common ground?

Seth: No, I could be completely wrong on certain circumstances.

Bhanage: We are very honest. We don’t take our failures egotistically. 

Seth: The moment you start taking yourself too seriously is when the fun and creativity goes out of it. Then, you are just doing a job. This is a restaurant, it is not just a business, people walk in to have a good time. If we are not going to have a good time, then no one else will have a good time. 

How do you handle a situation when either of you is really angry?

Seth: We just walk away from that situation and let our tempers cool down.

Bhanage: What we also do is that we don’t let our team see us losing our tempers.

Seth: That’s something Floyd has taught us to do. For the first couple of months at the restaurant, we would just go at each other for random issues. That’s when he said while it is fine to disagree, we should not let the team see it because it is a downer for them. 

Bhanage: In a way, they look up to us. The team is so comfortable with us that they can come up and talk about anything. We want to maintain that. When I get angry, Sameer just stays away. He doesn’t get angry for too long with anyone. I stay angry for a long time. Normally, I would just leave, and go home. Nowadays, we don’t get angry that much. 

Seth: It has been twenty months since we opened TBC and we have had a lot of experiences here. For example, a guest might be unhappy or there might be a problem with a staff member. But we have dealt with it so many times that we know at the end of the day, it is going to be okay. In the first three to four  months it is like your baby and…

Bhanage: …you take it emotionally.

Seth: Precisely. And then you grow up. It is as simple as that. 

Recall the worst fight you guys had.

Seth: Yash has seen operations in India for a longer time. I was working in marketing and finance here, but worked in operations in New York. When we started off, my view of operations was on par with what I had seen in New York. We have had arguments as to why some things couldn’t be done faster. But Yash kept saying that it needs time, as they haven’t seen anything like this before. It used to be a source of frustration for me, but Yash brought a sense of realism to the table. I went with what Yash had said and now it is here to stay. 

How often do you spend time apart from work? 

Bhanage: Too much! We do a lot of R&D trips together and we travel within India. This year we have done six trips, each one lasts at least for five days. Moreover, when you are on these trips, the whole day is spent together. 

Seth: Also, we go out every week. We have a very common set of friends as well.

Bhanage: We have common likes. We like food and good cocktails. We enjoy travelling, and we do that often. Once, we went on a holiday to Andamans.

Bhanage: Sam is an extremely social person. I used to be like that before but now I have become an old man.  After a twelve-hour work day, he will be like...

Seth: ‘Let’s go out!!’

Bhanage: I’ll tell him that I will be reaching a place, but I will just not go! Last time when we were going out after work, I told him I am going to the washroom and then I just left.    

Are there any regular hangout spots?

Bhanage: Woodside Inn, and if we have to go to a proper dinner, we go to the Table.

What are the things that you are poles apart at? 

Seth: Waking up early, maybe?

Bhanage: No man... Oh wait, Sameer hates driving and I love it. 

What is your idea of an ideal business partner? 

Seth: Yash.

Bhanage: I always believe that business partners should have strengths that are complementary. 

Seth: I answered it with my first word! (laughs) If you are going to start with that checklist, you are never going to find someone. How that relationship evolves is a function of how much time and effort you are willing to put. There needs to be the understanding that each person needs to pull his or her weight. All of these small things make up of what an ideal partner could be.

Bhanage: They have to respect each other and need to get along. I think it is very difficult to get into business if you don’t get along from Day 1. 

How do you find it working with each other? 

Seth: I think the true resolve of any business is tested when things go wrong. We have been lucky to have things go our way. It is really heart-warming to see the kind of response that we received. We have also made many mistakes along the way. He has approached each mistake with certain honesty and that’s really good. The ability of Yash to listen to the chatter and then figure out how we can use that information is really great. He brings structure to what we do. That structure is very important, especially when we do things for the first time. 

Bhanage: It has been two fun good years. Sam is very good at keeping his cool in arguments. At times, when we are arguing, I would be talking gibberish, while  he will be talking sense. Even when he deals with a guest, he is incredibly patient. Most guests who are angry, will leave happy and they come back. 

What is the one thing he hasn’t stopped pulling your leg about?

Bhanage: When Sam calls me in the morning..

Seth: He won’t pick my calls until like 11 am! 

Bhanage: But I will reply to him on WhatsApp. But he texts me and asks if he can call and I say, “No”. He makes fun of me for this. 

What is the one thing that you folks can’t stop talking about? 

Seth: I think it would be about tax. We always have these conversations, where guests say, “You guys charge too much tax”. He always explains that we are not charging tax because we decided to, but we have to. 

Bhanage: It annoys me because people ask me why we charge so much tax. When I explain that it is a mandate, they blatantly tell me that, “Oh I know, but you never pay these taxes.” That just annoys me.

Bhanage: Sam is a very brand-focused person. He is very particular about how every aspect of a product creates a brand. If someone says, “The food was good” about a restaurant, then he immediately says, “It is not just the food and drinks, but also the service and the hospitality.” This is not just with restaurants. Say, someone talks about a tech app. Since he reads a lot and he will know about it, the conversation would go on as to how the app could create a brand around it.

Seth: I think it’s interesting because I have seen that story repeat way too many times. Not just with us but also with products that we use. It is something that fascinates me and something I like to read about. So when it comes up, it is fun to discuss it to death.  

How has he influenced you? 

Seth: His eye for detail.

Bhanage: His sense of hospitality. The warmth with which he takes care of an employee or a guest is again something that has come onto me. 

What’s the most memorable milestone that you achieved together?

Bhanage: To have built a team at The Bombay Canteen that has helped us create a great experience for our guests, which put us on Condé Nast Traveller’s list of 207 greatest restaurants in the world. Only three from India had made it to the list. 

Do you have nicknames for each other?

Bhanage: Snoopy.

Seth: Angry young man.

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