For the last four years, Deepak and Shailaja Patil have been serving residents of Germany a piece of Maharashtra’s culinary wonders — from a flavourful plate of SPDP (sev puri dahi puri), to dabeli, matki chi usal, and more.
Their brainchild Swadishta, formally established in 2018, sees around 200 customers a day. “On weekends, the queue that builds up outside the restaurant makes us feel rather good,” said by Deepak.
The idea of starting a food joint first came to Deepak, a software engineer, when he visited a popular cafe in Pune, almost 25 years ago. “I remember walking into a plush café and feeling good as I ordered myself a cup of coffee and a snack. While I enjoyed the service, ambience, and food, it was only when I saw the bill that I realised how expensive that one cup of coffee was.”
He let that thought stay with him. After that visit, whenever he would find a space were a cafe, could be opened, he’d enquire about it. “I wanted to create a similar space that was neat and served good food, but at the same time, was affordable to all. Every time I travelled from Kolhapur — our hometown — to Pune, I would keep my eyes open to find that space,” he says.
‘I went for a three-month project, ended up staying for 20 years.’
“I went to Berlin as a young software professional with my wife in 2010. Initially, we both kept telling ourselves that it was just a matter of a few months and that we would return to India after the project ended. However, with every project ending, a new one would come up. Those three months turned into one year and another year, and before we knew it, we had spent two decades in Berlin,” he adds.
He continues, “Work took over, and while the thought of opening a café in India lingered, it lost steam along the way.”
When Shailaja (42) was pregnant and craving authentic Indian cafe, the couple understood that there were hardly any good Indian restaurants in the area. She recalls visiting a restaurant that served South Indian food and says, “It was only later that we found out they were using pre-mixes to make their dosa and idli. Since I was pregnant, eating there regularly was ruled out. I was looking for fresh food.”
A little after their first child was born, Deepak encouraged Shailaja to take up catering orders. “Shailaja is an excellent cook, and many people soon realised that. We started from our home kitchen, and she doled out all her specialities — namak para, shakkar para, besan ladoo and chakli,” he adds.
‘Cooking brought me happiness.’
For Shailaja, finding happiness and a purpose in cooking was a huge boon. In 2010, the couple started a small catering business from home.
“We had a network of friends who migrated from India, like us. Many of them craved Indian sweets and savouries that usually one would consume during festivals. We saw that the demand was huge for this,” she says.
However, in 2012, the couple decided to move back to India. They spent the next three years in Pune. Deepak says, “While we tried to stay here and make things work, we realised that we had fallen into a sort of rhythm in Germany, and by 2016, we decided to move back. The idea of starting a restaurant came back to us when we returned to Berlin, and with renewed vigour, we restarted our search for a place.”
After two years of intense groundwork and research, the couple and a friend decided to launch Swadishta in July 2018. “When we started the restaurant in Berlin, there were over 500 Indian restaurants as well. However, we felt they were missing something — a place serving not just authentic cuisine but also fresh, home-cooked meals at affordable prices. That is the market that we wanted to tackle. We did not want to just be the 501st Indian restaurant in Berlin,” says Deepak.
From home kitchen to owning a restaurant
While Deepak and Shailaja were complete novices in running a restaurant, their passion for good food fuelled them. “In fact, I still remember the day we got the space for the restaurant all sorted. Shailaja and I sat there staring at the wall, unsure of how to proceed. Neither of us had any idea about how to begin — what we would need to run a restaurant, the ingredients, a menu, pricing…we learnt on the job,” he says.
Started with an investment of about 90,000 euros, Deepak says the business has encountered several ups and downs. “From dealing with a partner who decided to part ways to a fire that broke out at the restaurant, which left us back at square one, there have been so many hiccups,” he says.
The duo was clear about not outsourcing the cooking to anyone. The intent was to provide homely food, which could only happen if they retained the cooking job. “I make even the masalas that we use in our cooking. That adds to the dish and lends it that authentic taste,” says Shailaja.
Deepak’s experience in the IT sector also came in handy in the business, wherein he has put in place several automated systems to help the business function smoothly. “Early on, we would personally have to go to the store and get the inventory. But now, thanks to technology, the process is completely automated,” he adds.
‘Failures made us stronger’
With no prior experience in managing a restaurant business, the duo made several mistakes, which they say helped them learn. “We started this business as a tiffin service, much like the famed dabba service in Mumbai. However, that required a lot of infrastructure set up, and with one driver only being able to deliver up to four tiffins, we were looking at hiring more drivers and thereby increasing our costs,” he said.
The duo then shelved the tiffin service idea and decided on only serving a buffet. “We assumed that making and serving a few dishes well could help the business, but we were mistaken. People wanted the ability to order a-la-carte, and that was how even that idea did not see the light of day,” he adds.
“My wife and the passion to be in the food business — these were the only two assets I had,” he adds.
The couple says curating the menu was a fun exercise. “Most of what we have on the menu are items we enjoy eating. While Shailaja enjoys South Indian food, I enjoy the Traditional Maharashtrian fare,” says Deepak. With the intent of not outsourcing the cooking, Shailaja maintains control over the kitchen. “We now have a few staff members who help in the kitchen. The bulk of the cooking still is done by me,” she says, adding that SPDP, vada pav, and their dosa varieties see the most demand.
Now as a slightly more experienced restaurateur, Deepak adds, “I am glad we made those mistakes. We allowed ourselves to falter and in the bargain learned some valuable business lessons. I would advise young entrepreneurs to take that chance.”
If you are visiting Berlin and would like to try some of the food that this restaurant whips up.