10 QUESTIONS WITH HERSH KUMBHANI AND NIKHIL GONSALVES OF COMA COMA
Coma Coma is a Mexican food delivery service that serves burritos and burrito bowls, tacos, empanadas, and desserts. Coma Coma delivers to Bandra, Khar and Santacruz (call 8767 784 376). If you live between Mahim or Vile Parle, you can order via Scootsy.
The fire in their burritos only rivals the fire in their bellies. Hersh Kumbhani and Nikhil Gonsalves are introducing Mumbaikars to the vibrant Mexican palette via their food delivery service. They’ve given up their meaty monthly paychecks to make a mean mole and they’ve been cooking up a storm over the past nine months. We caught up with the founders of Coma Coma for a conversation that turned out to be tangy, spicy, earthy and light all at once – just like their authentic, yet imaginative Mexican fare.
TCS: What was the trigger point for Coma Coma?
HK: Nikhil and I have wanted to do something in the food space together for many years, but our timings never aligned. We’d first talked about this four to five years ago. He was progressing well in his career and I was busy with my start up at the time. Suddenly about a year ago, I left Zomato after working with them for about a year and a half. I asked myself, what do I want to do now? Then I spoke to Nik, and he said “I’ve hit a wall at my job. Let’s do this now, or else we’ll never be able to do it.” So I quit Zomato in January 2016, and we’ve just been going all out since then.
NG: Hammer and tongs!
HK: We don’t take this lightly and the term ‘foodies’ gets thrown out a lot but we love to eat. Whenever we travel, we think about where we’re going to eat. I’m not talking about fancy restaurants. I’m talking about hole-in-the-wall kind of places where you can get the best authentic stuff that the locals have. That’s what defines all our travels. We were on Nik’s bachelor party in Bangkok and I don’t think we entered even one air-conditioned restaurant while we were there. We were eating on the streets.
N: Food culture is the center point of our travels and our friendship.
TCS: Why Coma Coma? Why Mexican?
HK: I spent a lot of time in the US. Most of 2015 for me was spent in Dallas, Texas. Dallas has a huge Latino influence with tons of taquerias everywhere. So instead of going to a Taco Bell or Burger King, you can go out and have a 2 dollar taco. That’s what our late night food was.
NG: I got my first taste of Mexican food in college, but there was terrible representation in Ohio. Then I moved to New York in 2005 after graduation and lived in a suburb called Astoria in Queens. After nights out on the weekend, I have eaten tacos made by old Mexican ladies, dished out by their sons, grandsons, nephews from a truck. The thing I remember best, despite my stupor, is the salsa. The spice just hits you. That was my first tryst with Mexican. I also have a very good friend who lives in Boulder, Colorado and I spent three weeks his house in between one of my college years. We went to a lot of places, and not just the street side stalls that sold tacos and burritos, but restaurants that served plates of chicken mole and rice. That experience definitely left an impression and stayed with me.
TCS: Mexican cuisine is so extensive! How did you narrow down on the menu?
HK: A lot of it was decided by the format we chose to enter the market in. We wanted to test the waters first, do something low-risk in the beginning. So we decided to open a delivery-only kitchen. That way we can focus on the food. Because we’re delivery only, we had to think of food items that would last on a bike. When we first started this conversation, we wanted to just do tacos. Both of us are in love with tacos. But they wouldn’t travel well. Also, we weren’t sure if people would know how to build their own tacos. So we decided to start off with sandwiches and put some real Mexican flavours and touches to them. We also have empanadas, which do travel well.
NG: We were very clear that we didn’t want to just fill the menu. So if you see the dessert section, or even the drinks, everything is rooted to Mexico. While our Agua Fresca is kokum, it’s still derived from how Mexicans enjoy spicy food with a water beverage.
TCS: What is the most underrated Mexican food item? And the most overrated?
HK: This may sound like we’re shooting ourselves in the foot, but when you look at how America has popularized Mexican food, you think of Chipotle and Taco Bell. They’re throwing out tacos and burritos, so those two items are definitely saturated in the market. But they’re saturated for a reason. It’s convenient. It’s fun. Each bite can be different from the next. You can do a lot with it. Which is why we started with those. Mole sauces aren’t too popular. There isn’t just one kind of mole. There’s a green, fresh and light mole. Then there’s an earthy, rich kind of mole. Some have chocolate, some don’t. They’re so intricate to make, so people take a lot of short cuts in making mole. But when you make it the right way, there’s nothing like it.
NG: The commonalities between Mexican and Indian food are incredible. Moles are like what dal tadka is to India. Every house in this city will have its own take on it. It’s the same with the mole. It’s a mother sauce; a recipe to which people can do whatever they want. They can bring their own personality to it. And it’s definitely underrepresented.
TCS: What was the biggest challenge you faced in setting up the business?
NG: We don’t like to see them as hurdles or challenges. The minute you make up your mind about setting up a business, you have to make sure you get to the finish line. We’re not from the F&B industry, so we had to learn to re-engineer our brains to deal with what it takes to move ahead. You either have the gumption or you don’t. People are going to test that. Being taken seriously by suppliers was difficult. They’d ask, “Who are you? What’s your background? Where did you do your catering college from?” By the third or fourth time, we were better prepared to put on a stronger front, but it makes you think about how little you know. We’re learning at a break-neck pace.
HK: Luckily we’ve also had a lot of mentorship and guidance from people. The first mistake we probably made was to go to some Indian government website, look at what steps we need to take and go through them methodically. But that’s not how it works here. It’s really about making the right relationships and connections with people that have done this before.
TCS: Is there anything about your previous professional lives that you miss?
N: Not for a second.
H: No. It’s not like we aren’t utilising what we did previously. I have a finance and start-up background. I also know about food technology because of my time at Zomato. That experience helps with Coma Coma. Every day my eyes are on our books, expenses and suppliers. Opening up a restaurant is a very romantic notion. Masterchefs are like the rockstars of this generation. But when you look at why most restaurants fail, it’s because they don’t pay enough attention to the business aspect.
NG: The fastest way to lose your savings is open a restaurant! I joined advertising straight out of college. I lived for a couple of years in New York and then worked for five years with three agencies in India. Then I did the flip from the advertising to the client side. I spent four years at a hardcore Marwari-run Indian business. It was pretty frustrating at times but I cannot deny the amount of learning I received.
HK: If we miss anything about our previous jobs or lives, what keeps us going is that we’re doing something that we’ve dreamed about for many years. Nikhil and I get a high when we see a smiling customer eating our food. There are thousands of people with our background in the city saying, “I wish we had more of this in Bombay” or “I wish this part of New York could be in Bombay”. So, instead of complaining about it and going to New York for two weeks, add something to the city. We feel awesome that we’re doing something for Bombay and this is just our first step.
NG: If a reviewer says something mean or complains of poor quality, it can ruin our day. Any food that leaves our kitchen has to be awesome. That’s the driving force. We’re constantly thinking of how to make Coma Coma better.
TCS: Master Chef style, if you had to cook one dish which best represents or reminds you of your childhood, what would that be?
NG: My mom’s bombil londcha. My mom is Maharashtrian and my dad is Catholic. My food influence is mainly from my mom’s side, especially from my grandmother. She used to make this londcha. Then my mom took over and made it better. Any Maharasthrian will know about this spicy, red gravy with soft bombil. You eat it with rice, lime, onions and maybe papad if you want to make it an unhealthy meal. That’s coastal comfort food. And I don’t make it! I cook a lot but I’ve never dug deeper into my own routes in the kitchen. I’ve always experimented with things that we like and that aren’t easily available. The traditional food is too good as it is. I don’t think I can add any value to it.
HK: For me it would be regular Gujarati ghar ka khaana. When we lived in US and Dubai, 90 per cent of my class would get lunch money from home and eat from the cafeteria. I was one of the few people from my class to always carry tiffin and my friends would ask me, “What is this you’re eating?” Sometimes, my food would embarrass me. I’d leave it untouched because I didn’t want people to think my food was weird and therefore I’m weird. Now I would just want to recreate all the Gujarati food my mom makes for me and dish it out to America because people aren’t exposed to it. What is Indian food in America? Chicken tikka masala. Naan. North Indian fare. Or it’s the other extreme of idlis and dosas. Just how Mexican food is being bastardised by nachos, burritos and tacos, Indian food is similarly being made only in the polars of North Indian food and South Indian food. So there’s a whole middle region left unexplored and I’d love to cook some of that stuff.
TCS: Fill in the blanks
If I’m hungry at 1 am, I head to __________________ .
HK: Any of the railway stations that have stalls serving pav vadas and other snacks late into the night
NG: My fridge
If I need to use Wifi or have long conversations with friends over coffee, I go to ______________ .
HK: I don’t have that much time to spare any longer!
NG: That doesn’t exist in my life. I don’t have enough time to nap!
TCS: What’s the best thing about Mumbai?
NG: Flux. Below SoHo is a very hip and culturally rich part of New York that metamorphoses every five years. I’ve also seen it happen here, on the suburban side of the sea link. The rate at which eateries have spread north, the rate at which places are opening and shutting, the rate at which people are coming up with new ideas – that is what I call the rate of flux.
HK: On a surface level, I would say I love our auto and taxi waalas. They are the best in the country. I always like it when they say, “Welcome” after I’ve thanked them for the ride. On a deeper level, Bombay seems like this mega polis where there’s no space for anything new to pop up but there’s always something new that’s coming up - whether its fashion, product or food. People are willing to take that leap of faith, bring back the risk-taking attitude that our fathers and grandfathers had when they started their businesses. Whenever I read a blog or news article about something new that’s popped up, I think, “Yes! People are doing what we are doing.” Even though I don’t know them, I want to say “Good job guys. We’re all in this together.” I like that a lot about Bombay.
NG: Surface level for me would be dirty Chinese. When I think about what I miss the most when I’m away from the city, it’s dirty Chinese.
HK: For me the best dirty Chinese combination you can have is Chilli Chicken with Egg Fried Rice at Janata in Bandra. Maybe it’s the beer, but it’s really tasty.
TCS: Nigella Lawson or Padma Lakshmi – who would you invite for dinner?
NG: Nigella. Her hands. I’ve seen both of them extensively on television and I would choose Nigella. I think she makes tasty food; she’s not just a pretty face.
HK: I’m surprised Nik is able to concentrate. I have to admit I haven’t seen both of their shows a lot, but I don’t know how good a cook Padma Lakshmi is. I just know she’s the judge of a cooking show. Nigella has written books. She’s very prolific. She’s a voice in the food community. I think I would learn a lot from her.