The day Mumbai lost its smile. The legacy of Britannia & Co's Boman Kohinoor

Mr Boman Kohinoor, Britannia & Co, 2008

I was a bit busy a couple of evenings back as we were expecting my mama (maternal uncle) in law, whose birthday it was, for dinner. That's when my mobile rang and it was a number that I did not recognise. I picked up the phone and after exchanging greetings, the lady at the other end said, "I am doing a story for the Times of India where we are collecting people's memories of Mr Boman Kohinoor of Britannia & Co and would love to talk to you on that."

A smile spread across my face and I did not bother to ask her what this was about or why they were doing such a story. The memories had taken over by then. Happy ones.

The TOI article

Son in law of eedu

Britannia and office lunches are made for each other. 2008

Memories of my first visit to Britannia in the year 2000 with Daisy Wadia. She is one of my earliest Parsi friends in the city and a colleague from the market research agency we had both just left then, IMRB (PQR). She introduced me to the world of sali chicken and berry pulao that day at Britannia. The restaurant was full of life and it seemed as if I had been transported to another world when I stepped we stepped in. This was my first visit to an Irani restaurant. I remember the portions being so huge that we could not finish the food and packed the rest. I worked at an ad agency called FCB Ulka then and berry pulaos from Britannia would be called in to our office at Nariman Point then whenever a food loving Bengali (is there any other sort) client of ours would fly in for meetings from Kolkata. There would be one pack per person and I could never finish mine.

I made a number of visits with K to Britannia when we were dating. We would have the egg masala with rotli. The egg masala was made in a roasted ground cashew, copra (desiccated coconut) and crushed poppy seed base. K said that this was the sort of food that her paternal grandmother would make in their Parsi household. We also tried the boomla fry. Bombay duck fry were the fish was kept plump and juicy the Parsi way and not crisp, with the water squeezed out of it, Gomantak and Malvani restaurant way. I must confess that I am not sure if I had specifically interacted with Mr Kohinoor back then.

I went back a few years later (2008), by then 'a son in law of eedu,' as Vir Sanghvi lightheartedly (or so I hope) calls me as I am married to a Parsi. I went with my office colleagues from IMRB (where I was back again, but in quant this time). They were a mix of Maharashtrians, Gujaratis, Goan Catholics and Punjabis and I took over the role of ordering the food. I was fairly well versed with Parsi food by then. While one thinks of Britannia as a tourist hotspot, its Ballard Estate location made it a favourite with office goers, though I wonder if it was always as expensive to eat at as it had later become.

From novice to son in law of eedu. 2008
Mr Kohinoor took our order that day. At the end of it, he looked at me and said, "good order. Good boy."

"I am married to a Parsi," I explained, feeling as chuffed as William (from the Richmal Crompton series of books) being praised in school. My blog was a couple of years old by then. I used to carry a camera wherever I would go. I clicked a picture of him too. Yes, as people who eat out with me will tell you, I am always looking for material when I eat. Subconsciously, if not otherwise.

K and I once rushed to Britannia when I read a report about its shutting down in the newspapers. This was in 2009. We heaved a collective sigh of relief when we reached and saw that the place was open and running packed as usual. I asked Mr Kohinoor about the news when he came to take our order. I explained how distraught we were to hear the news. How we had both left everything at work to come to have a last meal here.

"My sons want to close it," he said conspiratorially as elderly folks often do while taking about their children. "It will stay open as long as I am alive. I will not let them sell it."

Whether this was true is something I have no idea about to be honest, so please do not quote me on this.

I went back once again to Britannia in 2009. This time with Nilakshi, a fellow Bengali and Parsi food and Britannia lover and a MBA batch mate of mine from Kolkata. The highlight of that afternoon was trying to coax Boman Kohinoor dadu (Bengali for 'grandpa') to let go of his precious stock of raspberry which he kept for his Parsi customers. I finally managed to so when I proved my 'half Parsi creds' by telling him that I had made sali per eedu for breakfast that morning. A happy coincidence if there ever was one.

Our only pic together. 2009

I am not sure if I have been back to Britannia since then. This is possibly because I discovered Fort and then Marine Lines and the Irani restaurants and bakeries and cafes there. Those became my hunting ground of choice because of the quality of food that they offered.

I could never forget Mr Kohinoor and Britannia and I shared our raspberry soda story in the Irani cafe chapter of my book, The Travelling Belly, with a few years later

Britannia never went out of my life to be honest even if I did not end up going there. Visitors to Mumbai, especially from abroad, would often tell me that they planned to go there or had gone there, and would ask for my opinion on it.

"It's a special experience," I would say. "Especially that of interacting with the elderly owner."

The day Mumbai lost its smile

It was after I finished the interview that evening, that I spotted a whatsapp forward from a friend in Kolkata. It featured a tweet from @bombaywallablog, and that's when I realised that Mr Boman Kohinoor was no more. 

That he had passed away earlier that day at the age of 97.

I felt gutted. It felt as if Mumbai had lost a big part of its identity, and heart, with his passing on.

While opinions on the quality food could be divided ('foodies' love it and 'experts', as experts are hard wired to do, will tell you there is 'better"), I do feel that Britannia is possibly Mumbai's biggest and most iconic restaurant brand. I would add that, along with Kareem's in Delhi, it is arguably one of the two biggest restaurant names in India. If one was to measure this in terms of THE restaurant in India that visitors from abroad want to visit. Or the restaurant in their cities that visitors from outside want to visit.

What made Britannia unique, was the aura of Mr Kohinoor that was associated with it. This was evident in the outpouring of grief that followed the news of his demise on social media from India and abroad. He was the face of Britannia and that is what made the place an extra bit more special.

The memory that almost everyone shared in their messages was that of the gentle smile that Mr Kohinoor always greeted you with. It was almost as if Mumbai had lost its smile that evening.

I am sure that Mr Kohinoor would have his bad days. Days when things went wrong in the kitchen, or  when harsh words were exchanged at home, or when his body would try to remind him that he was 90 now and was not 19 anymore.

Yet, the smile never left him when he received a customer and that is truly remarkable. Possibly the biggest lesson to learn from his life. The legacy that he left behind.

How to build a successful restaurant brand 

Life lessons from Boman Kohinoor. 2008

I wish I could have known what went on in his mind when he woke up every morning. What made him head out for work day after day when he was well into his nineties? What made him stand at the door of Britannia everyday?

Receiving customers. Taking their orders. Conveying the same to the kitchen. Listening to the stories of those who came to his tables. Sharing his stories with them. Focusing on each person at the restaurant, regardless of whether the person was a regular or not, a celebrity or not. Regardless of caste, creed or colour.

In the answer to those questions I feel, lie Boman Kohinoor Irani's words of advice to not just those who want to enter the restaurant business, but to anyone who has a dream that they want to fulfil.

Work hard. Be consistent. Treasure every task and every person. Give everything you do your best.
Get up the next day and come back and start again.
Make spreading happiness your purpose. Make sure that people are well fed.

RIP Boman Kohinoor. 1922 - 2019
So long and thank you for all the boomla.


The Britannia section from my book, The Travelling Belly 

Link to where you can buy The Travelling Belly

My earlier blog posts on Britannia:
1. One raspberry please
2. How to be a good boy at Britannia
3. Britannia with NRIs
4. The day we rushed to Britannia and let out a sigh of relief

The TOI article