In a place where most people order thupka, momo, paratha, Maggi and endless cups of chai, the idea of starting a café serving South Indian delicacies was bold indeed.
Avva’s Café in Himachal Pradesh’s Bir Billing is the only place in the mountains that serves authentic South Indian food.
The café was started in 2018 by Suraj Dikonda (30) and his father Anil Dikonda (63) with his mother Sunanda’s lip-smacking food. The Better India caught up with the duo to learn about their journey from Pune to Himachal Pradesh.
‘Avva’ means ‘mother’ in Telugu. Praising his mother’s cooking, Suraj says, “She [Sunanda] is an amazing cook and I was sure of the café doing well if I could just convince my parents to move to Himachal.”
Suraj was an advertising professional who says that like many others from Delhi he too visited Bir Billing as a tourist and found the place to be rather fascinating. “There was a good mix of plains and mountains here and it was also a paradise for adventure sports enthusiasts with a great platform for paragliding. People from across the globe come here to experience paragliding,” he says.
It was during his trip to the mountains that the idea of starting a café serving South Indian food struck Suraj.
“My father [Anil] has an entrepreneurial spirit. Having tried his hands at various small businesses, he was enjoying his semi-retired life in Pune when I started coaxing them to move,” he says.
Anil jumps in at this point to say how it took Suraj close to eight months to convince them. “Even then, honestly, I wasn’t convinced. Here we were in Pune enjoying that laid-back life when Suraj asked us to become a café owner far away in Himachal Pradesh. I was sure that he had lost his marbles,” he says, adding, “I didn’t even know where this Bir was. It was my wife’s words—‘Try karke dekhte hai (if nothing works out, we’ll come back’)—that pushed me to say yes.”
The Cold Unknown
The thought of the bitter cold in the mountains was one of the factors that held the couple back. But when Anil and Sunanda came to Bir for the first time, like most others, they were blown away by the sheer beauty of the place.
“People from all over pay money to come to experience this beauty. We were able to set up a home here and wake up to it every day,” says Anil. He recollects the early months he spent in Bir and how he would almost always be huddled near a heater to stay warm. “Now, this is home and I am most comfortable with the cold and even the snow,” he says with a laugh.
Once Anil adjusted to the cold, the next challenge was communication. “It was most difficult to go to the local store and buy the ingredients we needed. Most ingredients had a local name and I would carry a sample of everything I needed to buy to communicate effectively with the shopkeeper. Now, after five years of being here, I don’t need to do that anymore,” he says.
Suraj adds, “We had started this café after a string of losses in various businesses. I needed this to work. It was with that fear and a lot of questions in mind that I took the plunge. I continued with my job and would visit Bir as often as I could, but the operations and day to day management were all looked after by my parents.” It was only in 2020 that Suraj quit his advertising job and moved to Bir.
A Delectable South India Fare
Everything that is served at Avva’s café is made by Sunanda, which includes all the chutneys and podi’s (powders) as well. No food is carried forward — everything is made to order and is fresh. Speaking about some of the popular dishes served here, Suraj says, “The Avva’s special dosa with three different pastes spread in thin layers within it, is a big hit. This and the filter coffee are bestsellers. We also have tourists who come here specifically for the rasam and black channa sundal preparation that we serve every day as a starter.”
At the café, one can get different types of dosa’s, appams, dahi vadai, podi idli, puliyogare (tamarind) rice and filter coffee. While all the spices used for the food is made by Sunanda in-house, a lot of the ingredients and coffee powder is sourced from various markets in New Delhi. Besides the food one can also buy the podi’s from the café and Suraj says that directions on how to use the podi and recipes for their use are also given out.
A lot of the design elements at the café were inspired by a Japanese client that Suraj was handling and he says that the USP of the cafe is minimalism. “We have tried to keep the décor to the bare minimum and ensured that people who visit can soak in what the place offers. One can spend hours sitting here watching the people paraglide.
During season time, the sky looks like Makar Sankranti — the kite flying festival. The colours are just gorgeous,” he says.
When the café was being built, both Anil and Sunanda were supervising the work and had moved to Himachal Pradesh. “There were many small things that needed attention – given the cold, the batter for dosa/idli would not ferment easily so it was after several rounds of experimentation that Sunanda managed to crack it,” says Suraj. Additionally, Sunanda was used to cooking for only her family but cooking for so many people also required a bit of learning.
“I never thought of it as cooking for a commercial establishment. It was always a feeling of cooking at home. That made a huge difference, considering the quality we maintain here. Having lived in a joint family, the thought of more people never scared me. It helped me as the business grew,” says Sunanda.
From looking at the pretty and well put together café you won’t understand the hardships they have experienced to get this going.
Each stage of construction and setting up the business was peppered with challenges. “We had no vehicle when the work started. My parents would walk to the site every day to supervise the work and then walk to the store and carry all the ingredients back. Eventually, we bought a scooter and it was only after the business started doing reasonably well that we decided to take a loan and buy a small utility car,” says Suraj.
When Anil and Sunanda moved to Himachal they were 58 and 50 years of age, respectively. Looking back, Suraj says, “I am amazed at how well they adapted to everything in Himachal. They have been incredible.” Every visitor who has eaten at Avva’s Café only has good things to say about the place and the people who run it.”
For Anil, after having tried his hands at various business ideas throughout his life, managing Avva’s Café finally felt like the perfect fit. “I thrive on the conversations that I have with the customers. While Sunanda is busy in the kitchen, whipping up all the amazing food, I keep the customers engaged in conversation. I’ve had some amazing encounters and life experiences here – from meeting monks to striking up conversations with solo travellers, each conversation has left me enriched.”
Anupriya Kapur, a content creator from Gurugram who has visited the café says, “The warmth that the place and people exude combined with the food makes for a winning combination. To have left their comfort zone and move to a new place and start something so unique is inspiring. I have some happy memories of this café.”
“Even after all these years, when a customer appreciates the food and pays us a compliment, both Sunanda and I beam with happiness. I cannot thank Suraj enough for making this happen,” says Anil, almost teary-eyed.
Click here to access some stunning images of the café.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)