Rise of a Book Cafe and the Woman behind it- Priyanka Malhotra

Twenty19 brings you an exclusive with Priyanka Malhotra, owner of the Full Circle Book store and Turtle Cafe at Khan Market, New Delhi, she has stood the test of time and age to run one of the most successful book Cafe’s in Delhi. Born in a Publishing house family, she had set to work her way upwards. Started out when her mother had opened the cafe, this Young Turk has shown what it takes to be a female Entrepreneur and emerge victorious. Featured on NewsX – India Inc.(www.youtube.com/watch?v=qv4r1RJ44o8), we bring in this special for all of Twenty19 Mentor’s fairer audience.

Greetings Ms. Priyanka. It is very refreshing to have you as a Twenty19 Mentor. As tradition, Please tell us about yourself, your education, your childhood, your family?

Priyanka: I am the fourth generation in my publishing house family. It was started by my great grandfather. I did my schooling at Vasant Valley, Delhi. After that I did my BA (Hons.) in Publishing at the London College of Printing followed by a MSc. in Media and Communications, from the London School of Economics. After that, I came back to India and started working with the publishing house, book stores and the café. I wouldn’t say that all this was just given to me, but the fact that I had received formal education in this field inspired confidence in others to hand me over all these responsibilities. So I earned the position. Besides, I always had the option of pursuing anything I wanted under the sun. I used to play the piano and my father would encourage me to go learn at the Vienna School of Music. So working at the bookstore and café was something I personally enjoyed. I was always fond of reading, loved what publishing entailed and also liked cooking, so it all fell into place. Before returning to India, I had worked with publishers; Macmillan, Simon and Schuster and, Oxford University in my summer vacations during my bachelors.

Creating a stellar Reading cum Café experience was truly an offbeat idea. How did it all start? When did you realize you wanted to do this, and how did you fit in?

Priyanka: At the time when the café was started by my mother, Poonam Malhotra, there was no concept of a café with a bookshop. If one wanted a coffee and a cake, there were very limited choices. And then you wanted a place where you can stay and have a conversation, a very formal place. So there were no ‘in between’ places. You could either go to a dhaba or a really fancy place. So my mother opened a Café and realized people would want to come, read a book and have a cup of coffee. She was also fond of cooking, so in those initial days she would make the cold coffees herself and take homemade cakes to the café and hand them out. Gradually people started coming back for more and it was a very natural progression. From then on, the café had a life of its own.

In order to fit in, there was pressure in those days in a way that the existing staff, would they accept this younger girl who is the boss’ daughter? (I was in my early twenties) I thought they might not take me seriously. So I was quite intimidated. I wasn’t sure but then I realized it was actually a very smooth process when I started working. I had got my qualifications, studied for it, and this made it easier for me because obviously the staff knew, so they felt I had earned it. Also I made it a point to never play the role of a clichéd boss’ daughter. I interacted with staff at all levels, from the cleaners, desk workers to the ones who served and that was also a very humbling experience for me which earned me my respect. I never pretended to be a know-it-all and always asked about things I didn’t know. On Sundays I used to sit behind the desk when the manager was off and it was interesting as I felt that I am this young girl, what would people think? But I realized my place, which enabled me to let my guard down and drop that little ego. It did take me a while to get accustomed but it all worked out.


Your independence and story of success is truly inspirational to many gen-next college girls and not to come off as a cliché but still reeling on old Indian Patriarchal thoughts, I must ask how has the journey been as woman in the business world?

Priyanka: The publishing area was largely male-dominated, which is now changing but that was one area where I felt I was not confident and I am still working in that area. In terms of support from a women’s perspective I think there was not really a problem at all. The areas which got difficult were when one had to deal with the authorities- getting your licenses (café, retail, restaurant licenses), where there was and still exists a road block because perceptions are like that.

What have been some of the major challenges on practical aspects for you as an Entrepreneur that you’ve had to face starting up?

Priyanka: There were never really any administrative challenges. A challenge was to create a faith in your organization. Being a younger person and have meetings with company heads takes a bit of courage and hard work. Once I was asked to do the introduction of a book at a reading which my mother always used to do and I was so nervous, just unwilling to do it. But once it got over, there was no looking back. Unless you do it many times, there’s no other way. I did it once, then better the next time and improved. Sometimes I asked people I knew in the audience for feedback and worked upon what they said. So, honestly speaking, practice makes you comfortable.

Also, like I said about the licenses, one’s natural instinct was to be intimidated. But part of the art of working in a business is to know where your strengths lie and where others’ lie and hence delegate the work. So I put someone else in front for these tasks. Also to give yourself some leniency, tell yourself when stuck that it is Ok, and you don’t know it now but you will learn and it’s alright and you will ask for help. This asking for help is important.

Being an SME and not a corporate, we work in a model where I wasn’t given a target figure. Our expansion was linear. It was more in terms of bringing in added value. We started brand development by doing book readings, art exhibitions etc. So the idea was to create a cultural hub. It wasn’t just a place to eat or for books, much more was going on. There was literary dialogue happening. It was never like having a portfolio and targeting numbers.

From a restaurateur’s point of view, India seems to be opening up to this industry, how would you want to guide someone to enter into this field, not only Hotel management graduates but anyone from any field with a desire?

Priyanka: I feel the food industry is huge and it is growing very fast. If you look at khan market itself, when we came in we were the only café at that time and today it’s become a market of restaurants and cafés. Personally, my mother is not from a hospitality background and the café for us just happened. It wasn’t really something we had thought about. For others who do want to follow this route, I feel it would make sense to go via the formal training as it teaches you the practical aspects of setting up a restaurant, a kitchen, the kind of equipments you’d need, your layout plan, how many tables, servicing aspects etc. All this we did not know and we are still learning. Like at Turtle Café, we are planning to start for dinner and we are learning what kind of crockery, ambience does the restaurant need. Sure, one can learn on the go but when you have a formal route, why not take it.
Location is priority, but having said that, you have places like Karim’s in old Delhi. Why do people go there? You go there because of the reputation it has built, food is good and it has used its not so pretty location as part of its charm. Consider Café Turtle. We don’t serve alcohol, nor do we serve non veg, or have big TV screens, yet our menu, our décor and our service makes up for it and a certain kind of person comes to us. That person is our target. It is important to have a clear vision as to why are you setting it up and whom do you target.

A career in the field of Publishing does not strike to most of the college crowds today as perhaps a lucrative or interesting area; can you clear the air on this and tell us why you would advocate this as an equally opportune decision?

Priyanka: I think if someone absolutely does not love books, love reading and love what the literary world means, publishing is not a good idea, whereas if you get into it for the money, it will not work out. The industry is growing now and it will probably grow bigger and bigger with all MNC publishers coming in India, realizing that we are a youth market. Publishing is not just about printing books. It is about finding an author, creating an author and then creating that best seller. To just see it as a career, I would not recommend it. You need to be interested in what publishing entails, what the journey of a book is. Being lucrative is not a pre requisite but it can be so too.

Twenty19 believes in students going for Internships, would you endorse this practice?  Also can you shed some light about the interns you have had at full circle bookstore and the café?

Priyanka: I think internships are very important because the kind of experience one gets practically in the field is completely invaluable. You can read it on paper but until you actually do it, it is not the same thing. I realized that when I did my publishing internship. Publishing was there in my head, but it still hadn’t formed, it did not translate into the real world. Also we’ve had internees at the book store. For the café we realize that for some reason, younger students seem to have a hang up about serving. People look at it below their dignity, to serve someone is not their duty.
For the book store we have had people who have come in for the brand, but not the passion. Then we have also had who were real bookworms who have really liked it.

How important was the international exposure for you when you were studying abroad? Does one’s mindset change and what makes it different from how the situation is in India?

Priyanka: I don’t think that if you do not go abroad to study, your mind will not broaden and change. I don’t think that, just because someone has gone to America, that broadens their horizons. For me it was great because I became independent, doing things on my own, a part time job at a grocery store, it was fantastic. But the same could have been pulled off in India. In terms of the knowledge that I got, there were no publishing courses in India at the time, so I had to go away and if you have the opportunity to go out, you should. It is like viewing the inside picture from out, you get an aerial view. Add to that the diverse learning that you pick up from different cultures.

Coming from a very young Entrepreneur like you, what advice do you want to pass on to your junior peers of tomorrow, so that they gear up for their dreams too from today itself?

Priyanka: I think that you have to love what you do. It is very important! If you are able to do that, the money will come, the stability will come. And to reach to that job, if you have to do something you are not wildly passionate about, do it! It’ll help you to reach where you want to. Understand that you spend a majority of your waking time working rather than spending time with family, so you have to love what you do, rest will fall into place.

The Expert Speak series features successful individuals who have made an outstanding impact in their respective professions. Powered by Twenty19.com, this series aims to bring out their influences and insights which can be shared with the students to guide them towards making the right career choice. You cannominate an expert who you want to be featured here.

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