‘The extra mile is always the hardest’

Leaving Behind Her Clothing Label To Begin A Restaurant Where Her Mother’s Bihari Recipes Would Get The Attention They Deserved Was An Easy Choice For Puja Sahu. And Though The Days Haven’t Been Too Kind Since The Pandemic Came Around, She Doesn’t Find Enough Reason To Halt…

In 2010, Puja Sahu was a successful fashion designer. With her label ‘Talisman’ putting together fabric to bring out the best of Indian fusion in clothing, a shift in profession was something she hadn’t anticipated. But a desire to move into a different sphere of business saw the birth of ‘Potbelly Divine Cuisine’. The move from fabric to food was instant.

“About ten years ago I had been a fashion designer for quite some time, when the urge to do something crept in. I decided to start a café when a friend of mine said I should probably sell my mother’s recipes from that space. We wanted to do it in a contemporary way, with authentic flavours and I must say the love for my mother’s food is what got me here today. We have five stores across India now.”

With outlets in Delhi, Gurgaon, Patna and now Bengaluru, Potbelly has come a long way since its shutters first rolled up in August, 2010. Ten years down the line, having saved up over a period of time, Puja put together the blueprint for an outlet in Bengaluru like none of the others.

“This outlet really is the labour of my love. At my other stores we like to focus on the food, and they’re nice in general. But I wanted this one to be grand; I wanted to set a higher benchmark for the food that we serve, and that was with the ambience and the experience of being here. I invested quite a bit of money that I had saved up over the years to begin this restaurant and I then spent a lot of time thinking about how it would look and feel.”

Soon after its inauguration in February 2020, the Coronavirus Pandemic and the lockdown that followed meant Puja had to down her shutters for over six months. A period she said tested her resolve in more than one way.

“I’m not the only one hit by this pandemic, and I am aware of that. There are a lot of people on this boat, and there’s no real compromise. We either jump out or we stay on it and keep ourselves afloat. I went all out with this restaurant and we had no cushioning after this. Our landlord was ready to give this space away to someone else. But this is something I hold close to my heart, and I didn’t want to lose it. We gave him everything we had and advance rent, and he’s allowed us to stay for now. The fight is to make things work once again.”

And while Puja’s business may stand the test of time, she says it is her staff that she fears the most for. Having employed only from villages in Bihar, she says she has done everything she can to keep all of them on her payroll, in what have been trying times.

“Most of my staff are from the village. This has been the rhythm of Potbelly from the beginning, across all my outlets. They are loyal, hardworking people and some of them cannot go back to anything else. I don’t want to let them go, but it has been tough. If a restaurant shuts even for a month, it could mean a massive blow. I paid some of my employees their salaries in advance so that they could stand on their feet when there was no work.”

With the weight of more than just a few people on her shoulders, Puja’s will to see this through is a testimony to Potbelly and the belief in what they do. “I didn’t want to ever see this day where I find it tough to keep myself motivated. Every day is a struggle, but I know I’m not the only one. I can’t wallow and I need to have a forward-looking momentum. I am confident about my brand and I am sure that people will come back. Things are alright now, and the outlet in Delhi is slowly picking up. But I want my store in Bengaluru to get back on its feet because, like I said, this one is close to my heart.”

With brands splashing the cash on digital marketing and social media, Puja says that since the beginning Potbelly has been all about its customers and their shared experiences. “I had very little financial backing and I started Potbelly on a terrace with a shoestring budget. My belief in my product is the most important thing, and that’s what keeps me going. Word of mouth has been the most effective marketing tool for me. We’ve never had any PR activities or social media marketing and we’ve done alright. So, I am confident that people will come back, right now I just want to remind them that we’re open.”

Put through to the BFC Media Team by Atul Pinheiro, who was one of the first customers to set foot in the Potbelly outlet in Indiranagar, Puja says she feels a great deal of gratitude towards him and the club for making this happen.

“Atul was one of our first customers, and we developed a bond. We never really met a lot but he always texted me saying he was at the store and that the food was great. I was overwhelmed to think that someone can go that extra mile to think about a place they dine at and want to help out. It was nice of him and the fact that you are doing a campaign like this in such a time is noble. We’re finding it tough and we’re in that extra mile now. It’s the hardest one yet, but together, I believe we can overcome.”

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