By Quaid Najmi
Mumbai, April 2: The Maximum City’s thirst for unique experiences and locales just got an innovative boost with the country’s very first Aquarium Tunnel Cafe opening here recently.
And Mumbaikars, especially the youth, have taken to it — well, like fish to water. Especially as the new “underwater” fine-dining experience is light on the pocket, besides providing the essentials of education, infotainment, cuisine and sound business.
Cafe Hydro — a Rs 28 crore project launched by Rupesh Sakpal, who holds a master’s degree in fisheries — is the culmination of 18 years of blood, sweat and tears, starting from a tiny, 10X10 sq ft smelly street-side shop selling aquariums in Borivali way back in September 1999.
Today, it has swelled like a tidal wave into a glittering, modern, three-storied, 10,000 sq ft one-stop “Pet Mall” and a 40-seater aquarium tunnel cafe, a 40-seater Rail Bogie restaurant for the youth complete with a set of original rails, sleepers and ballast, a sleeper compartment style design, down to the fans and luggage racks.
Unlike the dark dingy images of a tunnel, the one at Cafe Hydro is air-conditioned, well-lit with colourful LEDs along its 15-feet length, with rows of chairs and table on both sides.
Just overhead is the clear water-world, with colourful, exotic, big and small fish of over a dozen varieties gliding around in an informal ballet in the changing lights.
“This is India’s biggest tunnel aquarium, measuring around 15×17 feet, made of unbreakable, clear but sturdy acrylic, weighing nearly six tonnes, supporting 14 tonnes of freshwater, scores of ornamental fish and other underwater stuff like stones, pebbles, 50 species of aquatic plants and the like,” Sakpal explained.
For Sakpal, Director of Utekar Fisheries, it’s a dream come true, aided by his uncle Manohar Sakpal, head of Bhagirathi Group, which includes one of the biggest travel companies in India.
“When we approached banks for loans, they were surprised why we needed such a big amount for an aquarium or the need for a cafe in it. Finally, I decided to finance the project and we made a soft-launch on January 26,” Manohar Sakpal said with a benign smile.
It was the British rulers who started the trend of keeping ornamental fish in their lavish homes, a habit later picked up by the local aristocracy. Today, aquariums are a fixture in many middle-class houses.
Earlier, even the Mughal rulers used to keep certain fish species in their famous gardens, tanks or ponds, but Sakpal has given it a full-fledged corporate touch.
“We have displayed 425 fish tanks containing around 350 species of freshwater and marine (salt-water) fish. Sourced from all Indian shores and the Far East, they range from the smallest, mosquito eggs gobbler guppies costing around Rs 50 a pair to the Asian arowana — native to the Far Eastern countries — available for around Rs 300,000 a pair,” he passionately elaborated.
According to Sakpal, the business of aquariums is highly fragmented, unprofessional and unorganised in Mumbai — although there is huge demand.
There are some 8,000 small street-corner aquarium and ornamental fish sellers in Mumbai, mainly centred in Crawford Market, Kurla and Borivali, but despite a roaring business, they are unable to provide quality service and maintenance.
Sakpal decided to change all this, especially after he implemented turnkey projects at the government-run Taraporewala Aquarium at Marine Lines, and lobby or office aquariums for various corporates, deluxe hotels and, recently, even in huge housing complexes.
“People stand for hours admiring fish and I thought it would be a good idea to try out a cafe where people can sit, relax, eat and also enjoy an ‘underwater’ experience. That’s when the aquarium tunnel idea developed over two years ago and I finally implemented it,” Sakpal smiled.
Cafe Hydro and the Pet Mall employ around 80 youthful staffers, supervised by a team of a dozen-odd young fisheries graduates.
The meal menu — developed by Sakpal — is again unique, comprising seafood paste of fish proteins, which is prepared as delicious fish and chips, fish bao, fish burgers, fish hotdogs, bullets, cake rolls and fish vada-paav, besides chicken and other varieties made from the same paste, all lovingly prepared by the perpetually smiling Chef, C. Suresh.
“So far, the patrons’ reviews have been excellent and we shall introduce more varieties of paste-based cuisine which is very distinct from the regular fish dining experiences available in Mumbai,” Sakpal said, as Chef Suresh beamed behind him.