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Vol. XXIX No. 8, August 1-15, 2019

Annachi – humble beginnings, global presence & ignominious end

by Swaminathan Ramasubramanian

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Annachi with his two sons.

A few years back, I was at Hotel Saravana Bhavan, Ashok Nagar. Without looking at the menu card, I asked, “Do you have kuzhaaputtu and kadalai curry?” The server gave me a strange look and immediately went to his boss. The supervisor came over and asked, “Are you coming to Saravana Bhavan after a very long time? We stopped serving this particular dish many years back.”

Before Saravana Bhavan’s mini tiffin became the de-facto standard for breakfast in Chennai, kuzhaputtu and kadalai curry was a very popular item on their menu. It was so filling that people used to forget about lunch till 3 pm. Whether it was Tirunelveli,Tanjore or the rich legacy of Chettinad, the hallmark of Saravana Bhavan was its ability to bring together traditional recipes from various parts of Tamil Nadu on its menu.

From trendsetters like 14 mini idli sambars and the 7 taste oothappam, to comfort fare like aappam with kuruma and idiyappam soaked in coconut milk, Saravana Bhavan was all about variety and innovation. As they became a household name, they did not restrict themselves to South Indian fare and added to their signature buffet dishes from Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. Their dessert varieties became equally sumptuous, with western fare like eggless cakes and bread varieties.

Saravana Bhavan’s traditional full course meal served on banana leaves was synonymous with Tamil pride and provided value for money too. Many foodies who stepped inside their restaurants not only enjoyed their meals but were also entertained by the sight of expert chefs deftly making fresh, hot jilebis.

Scenes from the 1990s, of North Indian families flocking to the Peters Road branch in their Maruti cars to enjoy eating medu vadas are still fresh in my memory.

The USP of Saravana Bhavan was that, whichever branch you had a meal or tiffin at, the taste and quality of their dishes were always consistent, with unparalleled precision. The uniformity of service would make even a six sigma black belt engineer proud. There were many urban legends about how Sarvana Bhavan managed to achieve this. One such story claimed that they had a dedicated tasting team whose primary job was to visit all restaurant outlets first thing in the morning, to taste and certify the dishes.

Saravana Bhavan’s roaring success with its restaurant chains was so inspiring that many smaller players in little towns plagiarised its logo and named their own restaurants with variations such as OM Saravana Bhava. Perhaps this could be an interesting paper for marketing students to research.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Saravana Bhavan made hygiene and cleanliness an important standard in the restaurant business. The brand introduced the use of sterilised spoons, paper hats for chefs, and RO-powered, clean drinking water. Their staff was courteous, and big moustachioed supervisors in green uniforms were strategically appointed to ensure order while dining at the premises.

How many of us would have ever thought that soups could be made from drumsticks and cucumber as early as the eighties? Such was Saravana Bhavan’s passion for experimenting with new recipes.

In the nineties, I used to interact with some of their employees and it was so impressive to learn that the owner contributed to not just their Provident Fund, but also Life and Accident Insurance cover and their children’s educational expenses. From an employee welfare perspective, these were path-breaking commitments at that point of time.

I’ve enjoyed Sarvana Bhavan service in almost every part of the world, be it New Jersey, London or Southeast Asian countries like Singapore, Malaysia and of course, India too. Today, it has more than 40 outlets outside the country, and many more across various states in India. For a typical Chennaite, Kapaleeswarar temple, Rajinikanth movies, Idli-sambaar and Marina Beach are icons of Tamil identity. Saravana Bhavan has also joined this illustrious list.
I was working for one of India’s leading IT company a few years back. Our president, a Bengali, was a great foodie. During all our customer dinners at the Taj or Oberoi, he took pride in choosing signature dishes for our clients. Once, Chennai welcomed him with a unprecedented downpour because of which we could not drive down to our main office in OMR – we had to change the venue of our meeting to a nearby office in Guindy. It was customary for our president to have Saravana Bhavan’s masala dosa whenever he visited Chennai, but with rain playing spoilsport, we had to ask our cafeteria to make him one instead. As our president was enjoying his lunch, he said ‘When it comes to Dosa, no one can beat Saravana Bhavan.’ The naïve executive that I was, I was about to tell him the truth when my boss signalled me to remain silent. After the president left, my boss exclaimed, “What sort of a person are you! That man is enjoying his lunch thinking it is from Saravana Bhavan and you almost went and spoilt his happiness!” I learnt a lesson in corporate dharma that day. Though it has been many years since that incident, we still laugh about it – that is the impact that Saravana Bhavan can have on a person.

Saravana Bhavan’s founder P. Rajagopal (also fondly known as Annaachi) was from a small village in the district of Tirunelveli. For an illiterate person of humble origin, Annaachi’s business acumen and historic success in a challenging consumer business is the stuff of legend. There is a saying in the village, “People do not understand the value of herbs grown in the backyard of the house”. Management graduates of our country would do well to study Saravana Bhavan and its legacy alongside their case studies of western business models.

Every successful man has a dark side… so did Annachi. His personal weakness landed him in jail and he was in the news for all the wrong reasons. What happened in Annaachi’s personal life is strongly condemnable and there cannot be any second opinion about it. Even during those trying circumstances, the brand he built never took a beating – though it must be acknowledged that Saravana Bhavan is no longer what it was. But there are plently of lessons to be learned from him, especially for aspiring entrepreneurs. It may be true that today, Saravana Bhavan’s quality is not what it used to be. But Annaachi has left behind such a legacy by way of long-lasting impact on every Chennai foodie.

Goodbye, Annaachi.

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