Ruchyeta Bhatia, one of the names behind Love & Cheesecake, shares the story behind one of the country’s most successful dessert brands.
An entrepreneurial venture in the field of corporate training and a brief stint with the Marriott Group gave this economics graduate from Mumbai’s Jai Hind College all the skills she needed to reap über success with her dessert business — Love & Cheesecake and Poetry. Ruchyeta Bhatia today powers a dessert empire along with co-founder and chef Amit Sharma. In a candid chat with Traveldine, Ruchyeta zeroes in on what it takes to build a food business and stay afloat during a pandemic.
TD: You started Love & Cheesecake from a small kitchen in Bandra. Tell us about your initial days and the struggles.
RB: I always wanted to launch my own business and I was passionate about food. It was during an internship with Renaissance Hotel that I met Amit Sharma (co-founder of Love & Cheesecake and Poetry), who was heading the pastry division. I convinced him to quit his cushy job with a steady income, and instead, take a risk and start Love & Cheesecake with me.
I wanted the chef to be 50 per cent partner in the business, which I believe keeps the business healthy in the long term. My strength was running the business (I had a successful business before that) but running a kitchen was not my forte. Amit, with his passion for pastries and strong background in F&B, made the perfect partner when we launched in November 2012.
The biggest challenge was to find what the customer wanted and to make sure that we had the right set of products. After a lot of brainstorming, we zeroed in on cheesecakes as our main product. The Indian market was still new to the concept of cheesecakes. You had just two varieties — the New York cheesecake and the blueberry cheesecake. There was no brand that specialised in cheesecakes and provided 40-50 varieties of it.
About struggles, what comes to mind is when our first store, located on Carter Road, was broken down by the BMC. It was very heartbreaking. We are a straightforward business with all our licenses and dues in place. That was the first real blow to the business.
TD: But that was also the beginning of Poetry, your full-service café.
RB: Exactly. So, when our Carter Road store was demolished, we were looking for another space to open another Love & Cheesecake. But the only spaces available were large. That’s when we hit upon the idea of Poetry — a larger space with ready-to-eat sandwiches and juices.
We also realised that although Love & Cheesecake was scalable, it would never get us big money to grow faster. So, we pivoted to Poetry.
TD: What is the business model for Love & Cheesecake and Poetry?
RB: We have a 6,500 sq. ft central kitchen in Powai with a team of chefs headed by Amit. We were very clear that we didn’t want an investor in our business to call the shots or give us directions. We enjoy what we do because we have full control of it. All our stores are company owned. We don’t do the franchise model.
TD: You handled the front-end dealing with customers for the first three years of the business. What have you learnt about the Indian consumer?
RB: The Indian consumer is not easy to please. They want their purchase to be easy and fast. And though they can be very fussy, they also know what they want. Contrary to popular belief that Delhi is the food capital of India, I feel differently. The Mumbai consumer is a huge foodie. You must listen to the customer and introduce new things from time to time.
TD: How often do you introduce new products and how important is that?
RB: We introduce new flavours at Love & Cheesecake once every six months. Even at Poetry, we change our menu every six months. We have a very high percentage of repeat customers, so, it’s important to keep introducing new items to regulars and keep their interest in the brand alive. This is, of course, apart from the Valentine’s Day and Diwali specials.
TD: You opened more outlets of your existing brand and also launched Sesami, an Asian restaurant during the pandemic. What can you tell us about launching a business in the pandemic?
RB: The one thing that the pandemic taught most of us is resilience. You can never stop. The show must go on. When the lockdown was announced on March 22nd, my twins were less than a month old. At the time, we had a staff strength of 250 people. We were worried for them. How would we pay rents and salaries? Luckily for us, we had some money stashed away as we were about to launch stores in Pune. So, we diverted those funds to open Love & Cheesecake outlets in Mumbai and one outlet of Poetry.
We also set up bakery pop-ups in housing societies. This not only allowed us to stay afloat during the pandemic but also brought the focus to our breads which were not among our best-selling items. Today, our breads are also doing very well.
Around the same time, we felt there was scope for an Asian restaurant in Powai. The lockdown opened up a lot of real estate opportunities and also, a number of chefs were looking for work. So, it was a win-win situation for everybody. Sesami started slower than usual. We are taking each day as it comes. It’s operationally positive and that’s all that matters right now.
TD: If you had to start all over again, what are some of the things you would do differently today?
RB: For the first two years of the business, we focused only on the product. We packed our cheesecakes in white boxes with no branding or marketing. Today, I wouldn’t dream of doing something like that.
We blindly trusted the interiors team with our first few stores. And while it looked alright, it wasn’t exactly durable or easy to use. Small things such as flooring (always go for smooth flooring as they are easier to clean) and width of staircases, etc, are important details to consider. Our Kala Ghoda store doesn’t have a washroom, which I think was a huge mistake. Since then, Amit and I have designed each and every inch of our stores.
TD: What’s your advice for budding entrepreneurs?
RB: Have your own money invested in the business so that you have full skin in the game. It gives you that much more confidence to go the whole hog.
Always have a partner who you work well with professionally and personally. When you do things on your own, you tend to stagnate after a point. You need someone to push you constantly and to bounce your ideas off of.
Have patience for the first 1,000 days of the business as those are the toughest and need the most amount of resilience. But you also learn the most in those initial days.
Have faith in your idea but pivot when you need to. Avoid getting stuck on an idea. Understand when something is not working.
Work hard. Amit and I have worked 18 hours a day, seven days of the week until I got pregnant with my twins and only then was I forced to slow down. You will never be home for festivals or Valentine’s Day. Be prepared to give your work priority for the first six to seven years.
Most importantly, enjoy what you do. You will only do well, if you really love what you do.
TD: What next?
RB: A lot actually. We are now looking at branching out of Mumbai and will be launching four to five new stores in Pune this year. Hopefully, 2021 will be kinder.