WATCH NOW: 5 Ways To Use Social Media as Just a Tool for Running a Business by Melanie

On the outside, there are beautiful mint green and white patio tables, a fat cat dominates the cafe’s name and a friendly dog greets you like he’s known you forever. On the inside, the aroma of freshly bake goods hits you as soon as you enter, there is a beautiful book wall from where you can take some books to read, add some back to the collection, and the owners will meet you with joy and cheer. The cafe does not have a fixed menu and regulars are always curious to know what will come up next.

I have never been to this cafe, but I know all this through the little stories that are posted on their Facebook and Instagram pages…

Meet Melanie Andrade, who along with her partner Sunil Kirpalani and her family runs Fats Cats Cafe, a friendly neighbourhood cafe in Wanowrie, Pune. Team Fat Cats is fast approaching their seven year anniversary, and during these years, their customers have become their closest friends, their work has received rave reviews in the press and customers abroad have reached out with requests for their specials. She speaks to Samira Pillai about how she grew her brand through honest, real conversations and by staying true to her personality.

One notices a lot of variety of food on your social media pages. It is never the same thing and it all has a fresh, homemade, comfort food vibe. Please talk to us about this fluid approach

When we started Fat Cats, we didn’t want the cafe to be just coffee and pastry. Sunil was very sure that the food I prepared at home would be something that people needed around here. So we started off with sandwiches and bakes and let things pan out. The idea of a fluid menu is extremely selfish because I don’t like doing the same thing again and again. Also initially, I was doing all the baking and cooking by myself. Waking up every morning, deciding what to cook was like cooking for a big family. Eventually, the concept became popular and people started enquiring on the specials and when they would appear on the menu. They started following our social media pages because they want to know what the specials are.  It took a while to convince people that this was the business model. Oddly, it created a lot of problems when it came to finally signing on with Swiggy and Zomato. They don’t have provisions to change the menu everyday and we had a tough time explaining to them that we don’t have a set menu.

A lot of your posts are conversational – sharing of experiences and experiments, learnings from travels or just your mood on that day. Was it a conscious decision?

I was putting up things I wanted. I’ve never, ever shied away from the fact of putting photos of the kids, or of the team or of Sunil or our holiday. I don’t see the point. I wanted it to be a part of the whole narrative. Whenever we came back from a trip, I would cancel the old menu and put all the things that I’ve learned or all the new ingredients that I got from there. People began to expect that. It’s a very funny sort of relationship that’s developed unintentionally. While we were travelling, we would post what we have been doing, and everybody would be waiting to eat the food that I have eaten. They would message saying that ‘I want this on the menu’ or ‘learn how to do this’ or ‘get this ingredient’. When we went to Italy and we discovered the pistachio cream. And literally, I had people messaging me to have pistachio cream in one of desserts when we were back. And I did.

I realized that I wanted Fat Cats like my hashtag, #teamfatcats. It is not just Sunil and me. It’s very much the boys, it’s very much even the kids. I didn’t intend that to be the USP, but that is the way it has naturally happened. Even now during the COVID situation, people have reached out to ask how my daughter is, because they know she’s studying in Italy. It’s really quite something to have that connect.

Does the sharing approach come from your personalised approach to the cafe as well?

Team Fat Cats Cafe

We have customers who have become really close friends. And if you consider that Sunil and I are largely introverts, it’s hilarious when you think of all the people in our lives right now because of the cafe. And there are still people who will come to the cafe only if they know that either Sunil or I are there. Even people beyond Pune have connected with us. There have been people who wrote to me and asked me to courier food to them and I have tried to work out food items that can be couriered easily. I have people from Australia who write to me when they know I’m coming visit my brother there, that they want me to get something for them. When I went to visit my friend in Dubai, I had some customers who reached out to me and said, ‘can you carry keto items?’ and I did that. It is strange but I’m more than happy doing it.

Please share some insights on how you go about making the photographs for your social media pages and bringing out that they are ‘Homemade With Love’.

Most of my photos are taken at the cafe. Normally, I just a portion of the food prepared, plate it and I just start taking the photo there at the cafe. If I’m doing something unusual at home, I will photograph it at home. I really don’t use any props. I use my phone and that’s it. I don’t like the very stylized food photographs. It’s the whole mood of Fat Cats: homey, comfort food. I’m happy with it and it lessens my load. There have been people who have offered to take professional photos and I have friends who have taken some shots. I use them on social media once in a while.

The book exchange initiative often becomes a part of your social media experience. Can you throw some light on this? 

I always wanted to have a book cafe – it was non-negotiable for me. We started with just the cafe and introduced one bookshelf shortly. I don’t know where I had seen a book swapping initiative – where you take a book from the shelf and exchange it with one of your own. When we shifted homes, we must have had a whole influx of new books. So from the single bookshelf, we got a whole wall of books at the cafe. Customers are so happy to see that there is still a place where people are still reading and enjoying books. There are people from the neighbourhood who just come to exchange books. And some think it is a library and ask if they have to pay. I tell them read what you want, take how many ever book you want, as long as you replace it with a book of your own. Just have fun.

I know that you manage your pages by yourself – what led to that decision and how do you feel it impacted your interaction with your audience.

I have been very happy to do this organically. I really don’t think that numbers translate into actual cash sales. The likes and social media performance creates an identity, but I don’t think that means that you are selling more cakes. I think people today just scroll through their feeds. Of course social media is great if you are just informing people of the specials of the day, and no doubt within the next few hours people will come into the cafe or they call up and say, ‘listen, you’ve made this can you keep this aside for me?’ But it’s more like that because they know that that’s how I inform everybody.

Another upside has been that I have met a lot of professionals doing the same thing I am. And that’s comforting especially now during the lockdown, because supplies are tough to find. And there are few bakers in Pune and we just reach out to each other and say, ‘I got this here today and do you need this?’ It is quite something. Right now online is the only avenue to reach out to people. People are reaching out to me and ask me for my recipes, and I am more than happy to share any of my recipes. I don’t believe recipes should be a trademark or some secret. And I think people are really surprised with that

How much of your success would you attribute to your online presence?

We never really advertised our business. It was just social media and word of mouth. We were also very lucky with the press. We got a lot of press coverage early on. We used to be in Pune Mirror almost every month. Uppercrust covered us in the first four months and Karen Anand did her review within the first two weeks of the opening. More news articles started coming in and the reviews started coming in. We were nominated for the Times Food & Nightlife Awards.

We have never hosted a blogger’s meet or called people to do a tasting in exchange for reviews. Both Sunil and me are totally against it. I don’t think that comes from the right place. There have been enough people who have come to us and said they are food bloggers Zomato bloggers and we have always said that if you like our food, you say you like our food and you don’t like our food, that’s your prerogative. You can’t please everybody.

Where to next?

My January goal for 2020 was about Fat Cats Food Tours – a way to combine travel and Fat Cats Cafe. I was shortlisted for an AirBnB culinary-publishing experience in Italy where 100 cooks from all over the world were chosen to spend a week at the Pollenzo Culinary Institute in Italy under the tutelage of David Chang learning about the Slow Food Movement and Food Publishing. That would have been the starting point for this new vertical. We had an amazing itinerary and we wanted to launch in November this year. But the Coronavirus situation has changed things. It’s going to be on the cards for when the situation improves. To travel and take people with me and feed them makes me so happy. It is the ultimate thing – the perfect amalgamation of both my loves, travel and cooking. That will make me the happiest person in the world.