Martin’s Corner: The little store that became a local legend (Book Extract)

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ATTN EDITORS: “Secret Sauce” is an in-depth look at 40 of India’s most iconic and successful restaurants, not just as landmarks and must-visit destinations but also as businesses that have stood the test of time and upheld their standards of dining and culinary excellence. From a 100-year-old no-frills eatery in Bengaluru to an award-winning dine-out venue in Delhi, from inventive cafes to nationwide chains that have scaled admirably, this book is a sumptuous treat for aspiring food entrepreneurs, foodies, and anyone interested in the success secrets and inner workings of the restaurant business in India. This is the second of two exclusive extracts reproduced with permission from the publisher, Harper Business.

By Jayanth Narayanan & Priya Bala

The parking attendants at Martin’s Corner usually have an extra duty to perform. Often they are summoned by diners who want to be photographed at the entrance to the restaurant, ensuring the signage is very much in the frame. To “check in to” Martin’s Instagram images of its famous prawn balchao or post photos clicked outside this restaurant is to announce that you have dined at one of south Goa’s most famous landmarks.

Martin’s didn’t begin life as the large 280-seater that it now is, occupying the ancestral home of the owners and spreading out as a stylishly designed expansion into what was originally the front yard. It was, as the name suggests, a humble grocery store at the corner of a home in the sleepy village of Betalbatim, lazing amidst coconut groves and jack trees. The home belonged to Martin Pereira who, in 1986, retired from the Mormugao Port Trust and wanted to find an avenue of income which would

also keep him occupied. His wife, Carafina, who still heads the kitchen at the restaurant, told us: “He gave me Rs 5,000 and asked me to do something with it. That was our entire initial investment.”

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She opened a little grocery store and, being a keen cook, started serving a few Goan dishes like sausage bread and sorpotel. “There was just one table,” remembers Carafina Pereira. The taste of the food won the locals over and slowly, customers began to trickle in. Also, fortuitously for the Pereiras, the Majorda Beach Resort opened nearby and their staff came to Martin’s Corner for their meals after their shifts, compelling the owners to keep the place open till 2 a.m. Word of mouth saw even the taxi drivers come by and, later, they began bringing over tourists for an authentic taste of Goan food at great prices.

As the business grew, the Pereiras decided to convert their sprawling home into a proper restaurant, moving across the road, where they now live in three swank bungalows, and also start a hotel. Carafina still keeps a room in the ancestral home for herself and rests there in between her kitchen duties.

The conversion of the home to the restaurant has been done most tastefully, with the use of wood and earth, reflecting the earthiness of the locale and the cuisine.

Carafina’s home-style food, created with stone-ground masalas, fresh seafood, beef and pork may have brought in the crowds, but Martin’s Corner’s big boom was yet to come.

Some time in 1990, Sachin Tendulkar mentioned on a TV programme that Martin’s Corner was one of his favourite restaurants anywhere in the world. While big brands paid crores to India’s much idolised cricketers to endorse them, one statement had done the trick for Martin’s. The trickle of customers that had become a steady flow suddenly became a deluge. Celebrities came by the hordes — Aishwarya Rai, Amitabh Bachchan, Hrithik Roshan, Ravi Shastri and a host of others.

Sachin Tendulkar’s appreciation of Martin’s Corner was not a fleeting thing. He so loved the food that when he launched the now-defunct Tendulkar’s restaurant in partnership with Sanjay Narang in Mumbai, he introduced the Martin’s Corner king crab masala fry on the menu and gave credit to the original. His chefs trained at Martin’s Corner as well. Even now, whenever Tendulkar — whose in-laws have a holiday home in Goa — comes to dine, he carries away masalas for Goan classics.

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Martin’s Corner may attract celebrity clientele and a huge number of tourists — most travel guides list it as a must-visit in Goa — but it also ensures locals are catered to. Therefore, the restaurant is protected from the vagaries that businesses dependent only on in-season tourists are. Martin’s, in fact, is shut only on one day of the year, Good Friday. On other days, there are waiting crowds to fill the 280 seats in this huge restaurant. Customers spend an average of Rs 700-800 per head. So, do the math.

Keeping the business that their parents built intact and growing it are the three brothers, Pobre, Bonny and Jose. They tell us the expansions have been funded mostly from revenues and the occasional bank loan. All decisions regarding expansions and operations are taken by the three brothers in consultation with their mother. She is the axis around which the business of Martin’s Corner revolves.

She asks nothing more of them than that they remain together always. In fact, the three brothers almost always have lunch together at the restaurant. They say they have refused various offers to start branches in Goa and outside mainly because it would mean one of them would have to go away and manage the new restaurant — and their mother doesn’t want them ever to be separated. Obedient sons that they are, they have complied.

From this tightly-knit family has come one of Goa’s most popular restaurants and a business that’s a big revenue earner. But in their shorts and tees and with their unassuming air, Bonny, Jose and Pobre look nothing like suave restaurateurs. One of them goes to the market every day to choose the fish that will go into the shark ambotik, the prawn curry and the mussels masala rava fry — all star dishes on the menu. They themselves source the toddy that is allowed to ferment in massive vats to become vinegar, a key ingredient in Goan cuisine. Carafina is finicky when she buys chillies from the same supplier in Margao market season after season.

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Goan food is at the heart of this menu, but it’s also scattered, somewhat incongruously from a purists’ point of view, with chicken manchurian, harabara kebab and beef stroganoff. It was only 10 years ago that the menu went multi-cuisine, mainly to cater to the swelling throng of tourists. But Carafina is clear that Goan food is their signature. Sitting there, in a niche — she is apparently not too fond of the attention — this tough woman, now sixty-nine, who has helmed a restaurant for nearly three decades, has a serenity about her. Her day begins at 7.30 a.m. and ends at 11 p.m. “I love it,” she says.

Outside, there’s live music, a group of tourists celebrating a birthday with lobster and towers of beer, locals drinking coco loco, a feni cocktail, and tucking into their beef assad and the happy buzz that is unique to successful restaurants. It’s easy to tell why Sachin Tendulkar loves this place and its king crab masala fry.

(Jayanth Narayanan is an entrepreneur and restaurateur. Priya Bala is a food writer and critic with several years of experience in studying restaurants. In 2016, they co-authored “Start Up Your Restaurant: The Definitive Guide for Anyone Who Dreams of Running Their Own Restaurant”)

–IANS

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