On the moderately chilly but serene slopes of Coonoor, in Radhika Shastry’s backyard, lies the quirky Cafe Diem with its welcoming warm yellow lights and exquisite interior artifacts against the quaint but cozy brick walls, luring tourists and residents alike.
“I always knew I would live in the hills,” declares the founder who quit her corporate job in Bangalore, “I grew up in Dehradun, so the city life was never really for me.” Once, while visiting friends in Coonoor, she noticed that her driver had parked the car in front of someone’s driveway. Only while apologising to the watchman did she realise that the house was up for sale. She fell in love with the property immediately—bought the house, began renovation and shuttled between Bangalore and the house every two weeks. “Finally in 2016, I decided to move lock, stock and barrel to Coonoor.” Ooty, Kodaikanal, Coorg and Yercaud were on the cards but she zeroed in on Coonoor because it was the most scenic and cosmopolitan. “Coonoor has an eclectic community, you have people from the armed forces, authors and even retired astronauts!”
The hill life was a stark difference from the trafficked roads of urban Bangalore. “It was very quiet, with a predominantly geriatric population. The most popular activities were bridge and golf,” she pauses, “Both of which I had no interest in.”Although Radhika’s previous job was in the resort sector, the cafe business was still unexplored territory (for Radhika and the hills). “I have a passion for cooking and baking and I love food! But I had no experience in the industry;” she confesses. Without second-guessing herself and succumbing to other people’s opinions she broke ground in her backyard on the 1st of July, the same year, completed the construction in a record time of three months and unloaded kitchen equipment and furniture in October and November.Kick-starting a business is not a piece of cake. With the added challenges of being on a hill station, where most of the supplies and engineers came from nearby cities like Bangalore and Coimbatore, planning and being involved in every aspect of the process was very important to Radhika. “That November I went on vacation for a couple of weeks for one last time.” she laughs, “I was back early December when we started doing food trials with the locals and fixing the menu.”
Just then she was introduced to chef Didier from Provence, France. “It was mere coincidence that he had lived in Podicherry several years before and was familiar with India. He said that he would love to live on the hills and moved to Coonoor.” The Chef and Radhika worked on an eclectic menu focused on French delicacies. “It worked to my advantage. People would say—Cafe Diem has a French Chef, we should go try the food there!” she shrugs still amused. However the Chef’s work permit did not let him stay longer than 2 years, so he was soon replaced with a chef from Chennai with a few alterations in the menu and a focus on Mediterranean and European cuisine.
The set-up was in place with a team of 10 and the doors were opened on January 10th, 2017. It was around this time that demonetization hit the industry hard. “Fortunately, we had applied for an EDC machine early, so I got earlier access to the machine (on the 9th of January), just when the demand was increasing.” The cafe was vegetarian, liquor wasn’t being served (because of stringent liquor license rules in Tamil Nadu) and dining was only open between 11 am and 6 pm. Skeptics were sure that she was not going to make it. Fast forward 5 years, Cafe Diem has become a landmark destination for locals and a must-visit pitstop for tourists.
When the pandemic hit Radhika had to think on her toes. The enterprising woman she is, she began baking bread for the local community as most food products were not available due to the restricted movement between Coimbatore and Coonoor. “We normally don’t do takeaways because artisanal pizzas and most of the other delicacies need to be eaten straight out of the oven. Packaging ruins their texture,” says Radhika who is also particular about the overall experience and ambiance that she has crafted for her customers, “But after the first wave we started making tarts and simple dishes like Thai green curry and rice for takeaway. Covid made more people vegetarian as well so that worked out for me,” she smiles. Towards the end, she even had her staff doing deliveries to keep her chef working and the kitchen equipment well oiled. With the 50% occupancy allowance as the lockdown is slowly lifted, Radhika built a canopy over her deck to accommodate an outdoor seating ambiance while trying to evade potential trouble from the local monkies.
The last lockdown saw Radhika exploring hobbies like crochet when she found herself thinking “When else would I get so much free time. Why don’t I try to do something constructive and make a difference.” With this thought, she reconnected with some of her customers and started collecting funds to donate to the local hospitals. “Some of my customers worked in grant companies so I would go around from hospital to hospital in my car and figure out what their requirements were and ensure they were delivered.” During these on-ground visits, she realised the weaknesses of the medical infrastructure on the hills. Coonoor was dependant on Coimbatore for its oxygen supply. There were no deficits but it was still a possibility. Once again Radhika leveraged her people skills and her connections through her restaurant to bring in a 70 lakh grant for a 50L oxygen generator—a task that even the district collector found challenging. She gained full support from the local bodies throughout the process.
Around the same time, Radhika came across a battery-operated auto-converted into an ambulance. “It was perfect for the hills but it was being manufactured in Jabalpur and the fabricator said that it wouldn’t work on such steep terrain.” She immediately contacted a few auto drivers she had acquainted herself with during the lock-down and redesigned the auto ambulance for the hills. “I put out a video on social media asking for donations and spreading awareness about how these ambulances were the need of the hour in the hills.” To her surprise, the video spread like wildfire and was even mentioned in PM Modi’s Mann Ki Baat. The recognition she gained with her networking skills, made her an inspiration to several others.
“People always thought that it was random that I quit my job in Bangalore, moved to Coonoor and opened a cafe, but fate had a purpose for my move!” she smiles. Though her side projects aimed at goodwill during the pandemic kept her on her toes, she intends to get back full time to tailoring exquisite experiences and entertaining all those who walk through the doors of Cafe Diem.