New Delhi, May 31 : The Raj era grand ballroom-turned-sit-in eatery-turned-take away confectionery and bakery that was patronised by the likes of M.F. Husain and L.K. Advani has been shut for more than two months now, thanks to the lockdown. Over the years, Wenger's in Delhi's Connaught Place not only became a place to be for its scrumptious chicken sandwiches, freshly-prepared pastries and a range of other delectable products, it became a place that churned out stories and built a nostalgic legacy spanning the British Raj to now when India is afflicted with a deadly pandemic.
"We have been shut from day 1 (of the lockdown). We didn't want to take any chances. For us, the safety of our very loyal clientele as well as our employees comes first," said Amit Tandon, the man steering the establishment now. But he too itches to throw its gates open, not just for business but to see the different stories that this place creates through its business, unfold in front of his eyes.
Tandon recalls how this place is not just an eatery but where enduring anecdotes are made. "My uncle tells me M.F. Husain used to be a regular when we had a sit-in facility available back then. He would eat his food in silence and scribble a sketch or two on his napkins, almost every time. My uncle obviously didn't realize the worth of those scribbles on a Wenger's napkin back then. But now, we do. This place is full of such stories," he says.
This phase has been a troubling time for Wenger's like any other businesses. But Tandon says that there's a silver lining. "In the summer, the biggest challenge I face is to keep the fresh cream we use just that - unspoiled fresh. We don't use synthetic creams but ones from the dairy which has a very limited shell life during the heat." The place has seen many changes over the years but the iconic status of its mutton shami kebab remains a constant. There are students in Delhi University to families in Gulmohar Park that come all the way to CP only to have a bite of that wholesome burst of flavour in their mouths. While Wenger's may very well insist it is because of the "quality ingredients" that draw its customers to the kebab, truth remains the story its buyers associate itself with its consumption.
Wenger's history dates back to when Connaught Place was being constructed. Designed in 1926 by a British architect Sir Robert Tor Russell, the market saw a young Swiss couple named Wenger introduce the French bakery items, and Swiss chocolates to a British elite that was away from home - and its usual culinary preferences - in a colonised nation. Wenger's brought a solution for them back then.
The Tandons, the owners now, were sold the business by the Swiss couple in 1945, just two years before India gained independence but the writing was on the wall. It was sold to B.M. Tandon, then an employee, who suddenly became the proud owner of a legacy that was unmatched. Amit Tandon is carrying forward that legacy.
Today, the once beacon of Delhi's culinary and social scene which boasted ballrooms and restaurants faces stiff competition from fusion pastries and designer confectionary outlets. However, Tandon insists that they have a dedicated clientele that is more interested to be part of that legacy than a glitzy product.
"People used to come to Wenger's and they still do. But now they are grandparents. Everyone I know, they keep hopping by and their children are there as well. It's passed from generation to generation," says he. He still fondly remembers how much BJP patriarch Advani loved their products.
While Wenger's may have survived World War II and British leaving India, Tandon concedes the current situation is indeed a "very bad time for everyone". The business has been off for two months and counting and they haven't yet started takeaway.
Asked why, Tandon says that he is concerned about the safety of his employees and customers and won't reopen until "doubly sure". And probably that's what distinguishes Wenger's from the rest in creating an unique brand identity that thrives on long term legacy and loyalty than short term gains.
Even while he says, Wenger's is putting adequate safety measures of cleanliness in order to reopen, but that won't happen if there is an iota of doubt the Tandons may have that reopening can be counterproductive in terms of spreading coronavirus.
But that's Wenger's for you and probably that's one of the many reasons apart from its delicious history that kept generations of Delhites put their money on this confectionery shop - that evokes emotions and weaves a story, every single day of its business.