Turning obstacles into stepping stones; A chat with Harshad Ali - serial entrepreneur and connoisseur of all things beautiful
As you get out from the benign Kochi sun and walk in, the first thing that strikes you is the air conditioning; it’s perfect. You look around and take in the ambience– the lights are just right, the walls seem to be custom-made for the expansive designs that adorn them, the seating is snug and comfortable. You lift your eyes to the stage and realise that this is a setting with a difference. You’ve come in early to hear one of your favourite artists unplugged, so there is no performer on the stage; and yet, you can barely take your eyes off it. The backdrop is an immaculate white, and the single black amplifier, the black cord running to the microphone, and the black mic on its black stand - all stand out like three mute characters of a pantomime act. As your eyes adjust to the wall in the background, a sparse, grey interpretation of a Bodhitree springs to life.
However, this best-thing-to-have-happened-to-Cochin-in-recent-times, is the brainchild of a few homegrown geniuses of Kerala. One of them is Harshad Ali, a product of Kerala’s flagship B-school, SCMS-Cochin. With its unique setting, it is not the least surprising that Café Papaya is not the work of a hotelier, but the offspring of a bunch of “music, movie and mocha crazy” designers.
“Papaya Media Designs is a group of creative people who are passionate about movie-making and design,” says Harshad Ali, who passed out of SCMS-Cochin in 2001-2003. “When we started, we were planning to market ourselves in Europe for Online design projects. One of our friends suggested the name ‘Papaya’. We felt the name would be of some interest to our prospects, papaya being an exotic tropical fruit. Then we did some design projects for Malayalam movies - Big B, Daddy Cool, Salt n Pepper, 22 Female Kottayam, etc., which helped the Papaya brand gain popularity. When we ventured into setting up a cafe, we actually couldn’t find a better name than this. CafePapaya is a venture initiated with Mr. Aashiq Abu (filmmaker of Malayalam movies) and Jithu Livingstone (manager of the band Avial).”
Barely one month into its existence, Café Papaya has nearly ten thousand three hundred followers on Facebook, and is being hailed as the place with the best ambience, best music, and certainly the best coffee in town.
“The men behind the scenes are all childhood friends. We are all passionate about the music we listen to, the movies we watch and the food we eat. Some time ago we were on a trip to Coorg and while hanging out at Orange County resorts, we had a sip of their coffee. “Ssssuperb!” was the unanimous verdict. Without a second thought, we struck a deal to source our coffee beans for Café Papaya from them. And the rest, as they say, is history.”
As for the coffee, serious R&D has been put into the food served at Café Papaya. Thanks to Ayaz Salim, who takes care of the food department, the pastries and sandwiches are of an international standard. The olive, multi-grain and herb breads for the sandwiches are home-made and for pastries, unconventional recipes using ingredients of international standards have been developed. In true perfectionist tradition, Café Papayadoes not put a dish on its menu unless it has passed its very high standards. Owing to its connect with music and movies, the café is now as good as an open studio for budding and established musicians.
“SCMS helped me ride into the corporate world and when, after 7 years in B2B, Pharma, Banking, Insurance, etc., I felt a lethargy creeping into my life, what was taught at SCMS came back to me again. I quit and ventured into Papaya Media and started coordinating projects on movie designs, branding, social media, videos and photography.That is when I truly realized what I had gained from SCMS. Yes, my PGDM from SCMS-Cochin helped me be ‘liquid’. It helped me adapt to any situation, in any industry. After two years of design and media, we floated Café Papaya, which is a complete departure from everything I’ve done. I love the liquid life! Now, every day is a new day and I’m doing things I could not even have imagined three years back.”
Everything was a hurdle when Harshad Ali started, but he and his friends survived to prove that all these obstacles were actually stepping-stones to success. None of his colleagues has a background in hospitality and yet they managed to get things right at the café.
“The market is just an illusion,” says Harshad, echoing the ideas of Steve Jobs, who refused to do any sort of market surveys for any of the Apple products. “It’s the entrepreneur who creates or defines the market.”
Harshad signs off with a short message for his juniors at SCMS-Cochin – “Do what you love”. He reveals that the coming months will be jam-packed with performances and events, including those of Mili Nair of (Meethiboliyaan fame (from the film Kai Po Che), Yatra, BadriBadriya, A. R.Rahman tracks, and Jazz musician.) There’s also the launch of Manta Ray comics - a graphic novel publishing house – on the 1st of September, and some very interesting workshops on sound engineering for musicians.
Clearly, at Café Papaya you are likely to get your fill of exciting music, eclectic movies, books, sound recording studio and perfect more mocha… and, ofcourse, bump into the men behind it all, including SCMS-Cochin’s very own Harshad Ali.