Brands are built through dedication and imagination: you can imagine what you want to build, give your 100% and make it a reality. Copperleaf is a big brand in the restaurant industry of Goa born from the Pai Bir family consisting of Sachin Pai Bir, his father Shrikant Pai Bir and his younger brother Vishwanath Pai Bir.
Sachin is a computer engineer by profession and he started his career as a visiting faculty at the Goa Engineering College while his father was working at the State Bank of India. “Today we run a successful business but we come from a family that believes in service and a steady secure job. My father was working for the State Bank of India and I was working for a multinational company and later joined the Goa Engineering College as visiting faculty. The business was an unexpected opportunity that came our way and we grabbed it.”
Entry into the Business Arena
The story of their entry into the business is very interesting. “Whilst I was working at Goa Engineering College as a visiting faculty on a contract basis, I received a call from Tech Mahindra, where I had applied earlier. They were recalling people and a position opened in Mumbai. During that time one of our relatives who ran a lodging business, Hotel Blessings, was struggling to run it and was searching for someone to manage their property. Somehow, I saw the opportunity in that, although no one in our family was ever really business-minded. It was a risk, but one we wanted to take. At that time, my younger brother, Vishwanath, was still studying and my father was working at SBI Zonal office. We came together and decided to take up this opportunity. Goa was on the rise as a tourist destination and it was a wise decision for us to move into the hospitality industry. In March 2003 we entered into an agreement to run the hotel for 10 years.”
This was the first business venture of Sachin Pai Bir along with his father and younger brother. “It was an 18-room hotel when it came to us and wasn’t in great condition. This was entirely a new field for us so was a mammoth challenge with a steep learning curve. We had to learn, on the job, about maintenance and manpower and we were ill-prepared for customer demands but we did not give up and decided to face all the challenges one at a time. I was still working at Goa Engineering College and the hotel was running on autopilot mode with the trained staff taking care of the day-to-day issues and we were providing them with instructions. We also divided our work: during the daytime, my father used to look after the business and I used to join him after finishing my duties at GEC.”
Playing it Safe
Coming from a service background and entering into business is a big task but Sachin was aware of the risk and he did not want to put all his eggs in one basket, so he decided to play it safe. “I decided to keep my job since the business was something completely new for us and we didn’t know which direction it would take us. I wanted to keep my job for security purposes,” he said. While juggling between the job and the business, Sachin received a job offer from Tech Mahindra in Mumbai and he decided to move to Mumbai. “It was a new challenge for me but I decided to turn the challenge into an opportunity. While in Mumbai I connected with many travel agents and that helped a lot for our business in Goa. I tied up with half a dozen reputed travel agents who agreed to send customers on a fixed commission basis to us. In Goa, my father was trying to cope with the work but it was becoming difficult at times so that’s when I decided to move back to Goa and instead of working for someone else decided to work for myself.”
Handling the business from Mumbai was not possible and having placed the entire burden of the business on his father, Sachin decided to move back to Goa. “I wound up in Mumbai and moved back to Goa to dive into the business completely. However, moving back to Goa and leaving that big fat job opportunity in Tech Mahindra was also a challenge and it was like swimming against the current. “Before moving back to Goa from Mumbai I got an opportunity to work as a lecturer at the Engineering College in Shiroda and without a second thought, I grabbed it. Maybe I was still not ready to take the full risk or maybe I did not want to give up on the experience that I had gained with a lot of hard work and dedication from the Engineering College.”
So, to play safe once again, Sachin decided to stick to the secure job and look after the business which was already on autopilot mode after working hours. “It used to take around 1 ½ hours to reach Panaji from Shiroda and I started taking care of the business after returning from my job. This continued for almost five years and during that time I also managed to do my masters in Information Technology from Padre Conceicao College of Engineering during that time I was also elevated to the position of Assistant Professor. We had by this time, already completed 3 years in the business so it was time to expand.”
Entry into Food Business
The business and job were running side by side and both Sachin and his father were still working while looking after their business after work. “We were part-time into the business and full-time into our jobs and that was the time we decided to expand. In the year 2005, we got an opportunity to rent a place on Chogm Road in Porvorim. It was an unexplored location with not many lodging facilities around but at the same time it was booming with tourism and here we bought “Hotel Ashirwad” – a 16-room hotel- and by 2006 it was completely operational. Now we had two hotels comprising 18 rooms in Panaji and 16 rooms in Porvorim.”
There is a saying that needs is the mother of invention and many businesses have been set up on this concept. “While running the business in Porvorim we realised that there is a huge demand for a food outlet. As there were none around then, that triggered us to start a restaurant on the existing premises. It was again a completely new dimension for us and the restaurant business is completely different from running a lodging. In Panaji, there were already a wealth of restaurants but that was not the case in Porvorim. There we had an entire ground floor empty which we decided to convert into a restaurant and that was the beginning of our journey into the restaurant business. We called it “Bhojan” and it was started in 2007 after running it for almost two years I decided to quit my job and get myself involved completely in this business,” he added.
Sachin finally quit his job in 2009 and took up the complete renovation of Bhojan. “The food sector was booming and we had to expand it by occupying the rooftop space by transforming it into a hundred 100 seats from 40 that was catering to our in-house guests as well as walk-ins. The expansion was always on my mind and now I was completely free to give my 100% to this business hence we decided to come to Panaji with the restaurant business. We set up a restaurant, “Dawat” at Hotel Campal.” When I asked him why he did not name it Bhojan he said that name sounds like a veg restaurant. “Experience is key to success and when we set up Bhojan in Porvorim we were lacking experience in this industry but by the time we set up Dawat in Panaji, we were aware of what difference a name makes. “Dawat” couldn’t be registered since it was a common name and used by many outlets. Also, it was just a five-year contract due to end in 2014 and our lease in Porvorim was also about to end and the owner was not interested in renewing the same.”
Birth of the Copperleaf Brand
In the year 2015, the lease with the Porvorim premises ended and they started searching for new premises. “We found out that there were large premises available on a long lease in Porvorim and I also many people were interested but were put off by the fact that Porvorim was quiet during those days. But I always think differently and I decided to take over that premises,” said Sachin. In 2015 Sachin signed the contract with the owner and took over the premises on a long lease. “We renovated the entire premises- the ground floor was done first and on 17th January 2016 we began the Copperleaf brand in Porvorim,” he added.
When I asked Sachin about the idea of Copperleaf he said, “By this time I had already learned how a name makes a difference in the business. The name needed to be impactful and fresh and it should not depict the category of the cuisine Copperleaf had all those prerequisites It was fresh and neutral (even religiously) and mainly it was available to be registered for a Trademark,” he explained.
The name Copperleaf started creating a buzz in the marketplace and people started wondering who owns this brand. “Most people thought this may be some international brand owned by people from Delhi or Mumbai. No one could imagine that someone from Goa could set up such a big restaurant. By this time, we already wound up with Dawat in Panaji and Bhojan was also given up along with the Ashirwad Hotel to the landlord. The Panjim lodging was still with us but by 2018 we decided to give that up too since we realised that our expertise is in the restaurant business and we decided to focus only on that.”
The bigger business the bigger the responsibilities and that is what happened in the case of Copperleaf too. “The distinction between a job and business is that a business is a 24-hour job whilst a job is 9 to 5 and after that, you are free to do whatever you want. Running your own business means you stay connected even while you are sleeping of course we faced many challenges for manpower and customer satisfaction but we managed to handle them all with complete dedication. Engineering played a great role in all my challenges. I looked at the situation from the customer’s point of view and when we started Copperleaf, I wanted to make sure that its ambience, staff, food & service is of a standard that I would expect when I visit any high-end dining place. I visited many restaurants but the kind of thing that I was looking for, I never found so I decided to transform my vision into the experience that a customer would seek ”.
The success of the Porvorim branch of Copperleaf led Sachin to work on opening new outlets. “Initially we decided to open one in Margao but later we decided to settle for nearer locations first. In Goa, the mindset of the customer plays a major role and since we are from north Goa it was difficult to judge the mindset of the south Goa customer base so this made our decision easier- to open up in Panaji. After identifying premises in Panaji, I decided to buy it outright since I worked very hard to build this brand. We cannot afford to comprise by setting up in rented premises, which is a kind of risk. We purchased this property in January 2020 and in February, the interiors began and by March, Covid struck and we had to keep the premises closed for a long time.”
Dealing with Covid
When I asked Sachin about how he dealt with the Covid situation and what his state of mind was when he realised that the investment of crores of rupees was going to be stagnant for a long time, he said, “To answer this question I have to tell you a small secret. There is no doubt that this business is driven by us but in reality, in everything that we do we take the “Prasad” (blessings with consent) from Goddess Kamaxi who is our Kuldaivat and we believe that everything that is happening is given by the Goddess and we are just her servants. Nothing here belongs to us and we are here just to take care of what she bestows upon us and perform to our best capacity. When Covid happened we were sure that this is a call from the Goddess: that she has some plans for us and everything will be fine at the end of the day and that is what exactly happened. The central government came out with various schemes to help people, EMI’s were deferred by the banks and guaranteed emergency credit lines were offered by the Government so we got all the required funds when we needed it the most.”
When Covid started ebbing and businesses began reopening, Sachin began home deliveries of food to provide some relief to the business. “We could not start the premises but kitchens were allowed to run since food is an essential part of life and, by October we opened the doors of Copperleaf to the public. We did not lay off a single staff but we did reduce salaries by 30 % and we provided them with the food and accommodations during Covid,” he added.
Sachin has big expansion plans for Copperleaf and the reason behind doing trademarking of the brand is to open branches and franchises across the nation. “The process is already on and soon you will hear some good news,” he said. Vishwanath (Sachin’s younger brother) said that they are in the process of opening new places but the locations have not yet been finalised. “The plans are not only national but even to go international and in the next 10 years you will see us across the nation and globe and we have set this as our target.”
Sachin and Vishwanath live in a joint family and their father is still the head of the family. “Family support has always been there, especially during the initial stages. We used to leave home early and return after everyone had gone to sleep. It was something unavoidable but everyone at home was very supportive and now over a period of time, they are accustomed to our schedule. We have now put in a system wherein for the day-to-day operations, we are not required. This was something that needed to be done if we have to expand. Today whatever time we spend is our time and we spend it the way we want and now there are no complaints from the family.”
Viswanath Pai Bir was working aboard and was not a part of the venture in the initial days said, “After finishing my engineering in 2005, I got a job in Cognizant through campus placement. I was placed in Bangalore and I could not be a part of the venture physically but morally I was always there whenever they needed me. In 2008 I left for the USA to work in a start-up as an independent consultant, but later they absorbed me as a full-time employee where I worked till 2014.”
Vishwanath said that the start-up that he was working for was acquired by another US-based company for the sum of 400 Million USD. “It was a good experience working with the big company and they wanted us to move to their office at a different location, and during that time only I came down to India to attend the wedding of one of our relatives and we discussed the setting up of new outlets in Panaji and I decided to move back to India in 2019 and handle the business with my family.”
After coming to Goa, Vishwanath got involved with the day-to-day business activities. “It was completely new for me, I started meeting the team and understanding their roles and learning the food & hospitality business and currently I handle the finance part of the business while my brother is good in the overall operations and administration. I also help my brother in recruitment processes,” he said.
“I want to say that in the entire journey, right from the beginning, we always had the support of our parents in whatever we did and it is a blessing. I was not mature enough to handle the business initially and none of our family ever ventured into the business activities. My father was working with the SBI and my mother was working with INS Mandovi as civilian staff for the business was a risky field and yet they always supported me and they are supporting me.. he concluded.
Image Credits – Dattaram Gawade