From not knowing where their next meal would come from to earning lakhs today while supporting 10 other families with a steady monthly income; the story of brother-sister duo Debjyoti Saha (28) and Jyotirmoyee Saha (22) is truly inspirational.
The Better India caught up with this dynamic team from Khardaha in West Bengal to understand how they managed to turn their lives around.
An engineer by qualification, Debjyoti had a steady job pre-COVID and was managing the household expenses and educating his sister with his salaried job. However, the loss of his job during the lockdown changed everything.
“With the loss of my job came the burden of paying off our EMI and finding a way of running the house and paying the fees for my sister’s college education,” he says.
The months preceding March 2020 were filled with anxiety and helplessness for the Sahas. But respite came in the form of inspiration from one of Kolkata’s most beloved street food – the puchka (pani puri).
The duo started their dine-in restaurant called Phuchkawalla aka ‘Fuchkawala‘ on 18 October 2020.
“We were down to our last bit of savings when we decided on opening this restaurant. All we had was approximately Rs 15,000,” says Jyotimoyee.
So, everything in the restaurant was done by the duo; from cleaning the space to painting the walls, and getting it furnished and running. “It was a team effort. We even made the nameplate that hangs outside,” she adds.
‘Nothing more to lose’
When starting the restaurant, the duo felt that there was nothing more they could lose. “We had nothing to call our own and knew that somehow we had to make it work to survive,” says Debjyoti, adding, “We knew that things could not deteriorate further for us and that is why we decided to take the plunge.”
He continues, “I wanted to make sure that Jyotirmoyee continues her education and finishes her course.”
A shop space that their father, Sridam had purchased almost a decade earlier was what helped them. Debjyoti says, “The shop is not on the main road and had remained locked for over 10 years.”
But while the brother-sister team was sure of their idea, it wasn’t so well received by their father. He wondered why both his children, who were well educated, would choose to sell phuchkas to make a living. “It was not something that he appreciated in the beginning,” says Jyotirmoyee with a laugh.
One would not come to a restaurant to eat phuchka. Debjyoti says, “This seemed like a niche market. One in which there was no competition in the restaurant space. It seemed like an idea that could work if executed well.”
The duo say their USP was running a “unique restaurant”. They did not want to offer what was readily available in the market. “Given that both of us are foodies we thought long and hard about what we could serve. In fact, we both thought of phuchka almost simultaneously. However, to make sure it was served with a twist, we looked at changing the stuffing to interesting things,” adds Jyotirmoyee.
At Phuchkawala one can savour chicken-filled phuchkas, corn cheese puchkas and something called ‘Bangladeshi phuchkas’, which come with an egg filling. A plate of six phuchkas cost Rs 120.
They started by serving seven different stuffed phuchkas and today serve over 25 varieties of stuffing.
“To cater to all palettes we have spicy, tangy and sweet fillings available. From chicken and corn to chocolate and ice cream, we have it all,” Jyotirmoyee says.
It is the unique twists to puchkas that keeps customers coming back for more. Kunal Chakroborty, one of the customers who frequents the restaurant, says, “Not only have I enjoyed all the fillings that this outlet offers but I am also waiting for the new ones to be introduced.”
Working on a childhood dream
Jyotirmoyee always wanted to become an engineer. Speaking about supporting his little sister, Debjyoti says, “I wanted to complete my BTech but my family’s financial condition did not allow me to do that. Instead in 2015, I completed my printing engineer. Not being able to realise my own dream made it that much more important for me to support Jyotirmoyee’s dream.”
He adds, “It was a do-or-die situation for us.”
Jyotirmayee’s college fee amounted to Rs 3.5 lakh and she says that it is only because of the sales at the restaurant that she was able to continue her studies. With one more year to go, Jyotirmoyee is hopeful of completing the course with flying colours. “All thanks to Phuchkawala for giving me the chance to complete my degree,” she adds.
“When we started operations in October 2020, it was Durga pujo in Kolkata and our sales were remarkable. That not only boosted our confidence but gave us the much-needed financial boost,” she adds.
However, when the second lockdown was imposed, it brought with it a lot of loss. “We were not able to operate the restaurant and that was hard on us. Yet again, it was our customers who insisted that we start delivering the food. Thus, we began our home delivery service. Initially, we were doing the deliveries ourselves and then we tied up with online food aggregators to help us,” says Debjyoti.
With the kind of response that the restaurant has been getting, the duo has opened their second outlet as well in Kankurgachi Pantaloons food court in Kolkata city. “There are good days and bad days but on average, we make close to Rs 1.5 lakh a month. We now have 10 full-time, salaried employees too,” adds Debjyoti.
Within just under two years, the restaurant has garnered a lot of love.
Recently, Jyotirmoyee was also awarded the youngest women entrepreneur of the year award by AEMPL and GEM Enterprises in Dubai.
Today, Puchkawala is a family business for the Sahas. While Debjyoti and Jyotirmoyee have been involved since its inception, their father handles the accounts, their mother, Sushila is in-charge of the menu curation, while Debjyoti’s wife, Poulami, is the social media strategist.
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(Edited by Yoshita Rao)