Unforgotten Brands: Saravana Bhavan

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Saravana Bhavan is a testament to Rajagopal’s legacy, continuing to delight customers with its delicious cuisine and commitment to quality

The hamlet of Punnaiyadi in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu is the site of Pitchai Rajagopal’s birth on August 5, 1947. His mom, Mani Ammal, stayed at home while his dad, Pitchai Nadar, sold onions. A bus stop wouldn’t have been necessary in his little town. He lived in a makeshift cabin with mud and cow-dung flooring.

In 1960, after finishing seventh grade, he quit school to work as a server in a resort town restaurant. He began his career as a teenager in Madras.

P. Rajagopal, supported by his father and brother-in-law, established a little grocery store in KK Nagar, a suburb of Chennai, in 1968. 

He overheard a salesperson mentioning that he would eat lunch three miles away due to the lack of eateries close by. The statement served as motivation for Mr. Rajagopal.

With a bold move, he took over the struggling Kamatchi Bhavan restaurant by rebranding and renaming it.

Additionally, Rajagopal’s profound faith in astrology started at a young age. After hearing from an astrologer that he should pursue a career involving “fire,” he also decided to join the hotel industry in 1981.

Saravana Bhavan, his first restaurant, was founded in Madras in 1981 despite his lack of knowledge in food service and the substantial debt he had accumulated from his failing grocery stores.

Rajagopal defied advice and paid his staff relatively high pay while using high-quality components in his meals. His work ethic was fully displayed, but he was rapidly losing 10,000 rupees (equivalent to almost $2,500 in modern currency) monthly.

Serving freshly made dosas, the restaurant specialised in South Indian food. His media persona would take on the moniker of “dosa king” as his chain grew. Idlis and vadas, along with chutneys that he made himself, were among the goodies that he sold.

During an era when these terms were not even popular, Rajagopal also prioritised the customer’s experience. As a means to alleviate client concerns about using previously used plates and to facilitate quicker plate washing for his staff, Rajagopal instituted the practice of placing banana leaves on each plate before placing food on them. 

 Even after receiving advice to utilise inexpensive materials and giving personnel pitiful salaries, he dismissed the advisor. In the beginning, he had to lose money running the restaurant so he could give the best meals. 

His business made enough money to build other locations as word spread about his delicious and affordable meals.

Taking care of its staff and maintaining strong workplace standards were just as important as offering high-quality cuisine when it comes to Saravana Bhavan’s success. To keep his staff looking sharp and to prevent any complaints about hair in the meals, Rajagopal mandated that they receive haircuts once a month. No one could stay up late watching films since it would hurt their work the following day. Providing job security to his staff was Rajagopal’s first move. He raised their wages and made accommodations for his staff. A yearly stipend was also provided for workers whose relatives lived in rural areas so that they could visit them. Rajagopal encouraged every married employee to send up to two children to school. Two individuals would be dispatched from the business to attend to a sick employee. Everything was done to ensure the well-being of employees because their productivity is directly correlated to their family’s well-being.

Rajagopal expanded worker perks as his business flourished, providing them with medical care, housing help, and even jobs for their family. He would give them books as gifts for their kids and marriage allowances for the girls. His employees treated him with loyalty befitting an older brother (annachi in Tamil).

It was well-known that Mr. Rajagopal was strict, much like an older brother. In his workplace, employees would be made to stand in queue to be reprimanded for infractions such as drinking on the job or using their phones.

In 1992, Rajagopal visited Singapore and watched how fast food chains like McDonald’s operated. He modelled his restaurant chains after them.

During a period when dining out was often frowned upon, Rajagopal joined a market segment that had previously been controlled by Brahmin chefs who specialised in “vegetarian cooking.” Back then, the thought of going out to eat wasn’t simply digestible. Rajagopal, a member of the Nadar caste, confidently positioned himself to provide vegetarian meals to middle-class South Indians. He encouraged many others in the neighbourhood to dream big and grow their businesses. Other well-known brands in Tamil Nadu’s commercial sector, such as Pothys and Saravana Stores, followed the success story of Saravana Bhavan.

Saravana Bhavan has established several restaurants across Chennai by the 1990s. Saravana Bhavan expanded internationally in 2000, with around 20 facilities in India, by expanding in areas with a large Indian diaspora. Starting in Dubai, the chain soon spread to other major cities like New York, London, and Sydney, Australia. 

The restaurants mostly cater to South Asian expatriates, however, they have also become popular with non-Indians. They are “canteen-like joints strictly aimed at Indian expatriates missing a taste of home,” according to one publication. Saravana Bhavan sends employees to their overseas offices from India so they may save money on labour. Even though it’s a franchise, the cooks still hail from Chennai.

With 80 franchise locations throughout the globe, from London to Thailand, Saravana Bhavan transformed the southern food industry for over four decades, 

Rajagopal’s entrepreneurial journey exemplifies the transformative power of resilience, innovation, and a relentless pursuit of excellence. From humble beginnings in a remote village to building a global brand, he defied the odds and inspired countless others to dream big and pursue their passions. Today, Saravana Bhavan is a testament to his enduring legacy, continuing to delight customers with its delicious cuisine and unwavering commitment to quality.

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