Covid has claimed another victim in the restaurant space with Rahul Akerkar’s Qualia shutting down on August 31
About two decades ago, when Rahul Akerkar opened Indigo in Colaba, he set off a quiet culinary revolution. No one had done standalone fine dining like that in Mumbai before. The biochemist turned restaurateur became a nationwide sensation and cafes and delicatessens followed. In 2015 he parted ways with his partners at Indigo and the restaurant continued to run till 2018.
In 2019, Akerkar opened Qualia at The World Towers in Lower Parel. The 4,000 square feet, high-ceilinged space was dramatic yet understated, the food contemporary and wholesome. Diners will remember the famous pickling wall, which was lined with jars in various stages of pickling and fermentation, a deft pop of colour in a restrained colour scheme.
Only recently Qualia made it to the 50 Best Discovery List of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants for 2021. But it wasn’t enough to keep the restaurant going. In fact, they tried everything to save the restaurant. Investors put in more funds. The rent was renegotiated and restructured. There were salary cuts and Covid measures to reassure guests. The restaurant started deliveries, DIY food kits and weekend family meals. They tried online cooking videos and digital cooking classes. They introduced kerbside dining in the winter months, which was a great hit with diners.
When the restaurant shut down for the first time, it was barely 10 months old. Then there was the second wave of Covid, in the first quarter of 2021. Business came to a standstill and debts and liabilities mounted. Employees could not be paid anymore and morale was at an all-time low. Eventually, a tough decision had to be made.
The restaurant has shut down today. Malini and Rahul Akerkar made the announcement in a statement on social media.
This is the entire text of the statement:
“Sic Transit Gloria…COVID just claimed another victim. It is with a heavy heart and much sadness that we announce that we have shut down Qualia on the 31st of August. We’ve really tried to keep things going but can no longer sustain it. The recent all-clear to finally start a very restricted dine-in service has seen things turn around dramatically, but sadly it’s too little too late.
We were convinced that keeping going during the first lockdown would only benefit us once things returned to some semblance of normalcy in a vaccinated world as people pushed on through into the “post-COVID era.” Those eateries that were able to survive the carnage that befell the restaurant industry, would surely kill it once things recovered. They had to. It was obvious, wasn’t it? People had been stuck at home devoid of dining and socializing outdoors and were desperate to break their cabin fever. We just had to hold on. The question was, “for how long?” No one knew. We couldn’t even fathom a guess, and yet everything depended on being able to time this to a T.
But hold on we did. Our investors, God bless them, put in more funds, to keep us afloat. We renegotiated and restructured our rent. We took salary haircuts and began operating with a skeletal staff that multitasked, camped on our premises dormitory-style, in a bubble, to ensure their and others’ safety. We began deliveries of food and breads. We changed the menu to a more comfort-food, hearty offering to appeal to a wider audience and control our food costs. We created weekend family meals, and DIY food kits with menus and cuisines that changed every week. We did online cooking videos and digital cooking classes…anything and everything…whatever we could think of, to keep Qualia alive and running with the unstinting devotion of our team. Yet, despite all our efforts our liabilities grew. It just wasn’t enough to break even. You cannot make a dine-in restaurant format viable by only doing deliveries. Something had to give.
It did when the first lockdown ended in late 2020, and we were able to dine-in again, albeit with restrictions. We created Qualia’s curbside dining through the winter months while the weather permitted. Our diners loved this and came out in droves. We were packed and business grew exponentially. We’d done it. We’d held on, and cashflows began recovering as we thought they would. Hope.
But that was short lived. Mumbai locked down again when the second COVID wave hit during the first quarter of 2021. This time around it knocked the wind right out of our sails. All that momentum and positivism we’d generated came crashing down overnight. Business came to a virtual standstill and our cashflows all but dried up. Our investors, hit in their own businesses, lost their appetite to keep putting money in to fund our operations. Debt and liabilities mounted. We tried again to renegotiate and restructure our rent. We couldn’t even afford to pay our employees anymore, and morale dropped to an all-time low. Despite this the team plodded on, working tirelessly on the hope we’d find the funds and they’d get paid eventually. We hoped for a miracle, but none came.
Shutting down a business is painful. As entrepreneurs, we’re constantly finding ways to evolve and morph our businesses to keep them relevant and competitive. We dig deep, make tough decisions to keep the business running through tough times no matter what. But we are equally responsible for balancing hope and reality, and for knowing when to pull the plug – when no amount of optimism will overcome the underlying challenges.
Qualia was an iconic, world-class restaurant winning accolades and recognition like Best New Restaurant at the Condé Nast Traveller Top Restaurant Awards India in 2019 and making the 50 Best Discovery list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants for 2021. But we were a new restaurant, barely 10-months old, when we had to shut down for the first time. It was just bad luck and worse timing. In the end, the reality was that it became economically unsustainable during the pandemic.
As we bring the shutters down one last time, we’d like to say a huge thank you to our passionate restaurant team and share how proud and super grateful we are for their perseverance in helping us realize our dream. It’s a true testament to the tireless efforts of a super dedicated and creative group of young men and women – the entire Qualia family – our team, who never stopped believing. In themselves. In our food. In our hospitality. In being the best.
We’ll be back!”
– Malini & Rahul Akerkar
It’s curtains down for Qualia for now, but we fervently hope Akerkar will return in a new avatar really soon.