Shekar Mani, through Saravanaa Bhavan, wants to redefine Indian food in Australia
The secret behind a good dosa, says Shekar Mani, is the dough. “It’s the prep work. It can’t be done in a way that it’s not sour and it’s not bland. It should just be right. A food connoisseur should say wow when they taste a good dosa,” adds Shekar, the man who’s bringing Saravanaa Bhavan to Melbourne.
The world famous Saravanaa Bhavan, a South Indian restaurant chain known for its authentic dosas and sambhar, is gearing up to set up shop in Melbourne this April, its 57th global outlet, and Shekar and his partner Vinodhkumar, the company accountant, are not resting till the roots are well entrenched in Victoria.
The restaurant has its history in Chennai and is backed by a four-decade long family tradition of serving authentic dosa, idlis, chutney, vada and sambhar. Saravanaa Bhavan has been operational in Sydney for over 15 months and is based in Parramatta.
Shekar is as excited about the launch of Saravanaa Bhavan’s new outlet in Australia as he was when he helped McCann Erickson launch Coco Cola in India. With a vision to make South Indian food popular in Australia and get the merit it deserves, Shekar is now travelling between Sydney and Melbourne to set up the global vegetarian restaurant in Melbourne.
“South Indian food has a long way to go in Australia. People still identify Indian food with North Indian food and that must change. South Indian food has a lot of good qualities and is quite often organic and probiotic. This is a winner in today’s world and that word has to spread,” says Shekar, who is a shareholder in the Australian operations and is a main trading partner of the company here. Shekar cut his teeth with the Taj Group of Hotels where he was part of a crack team to launch iconic hotels such as the Taj Bengal, Taj Connemara and several others. In the mid 90s he joined the world’s largest advertising firm, McCann Erickson to head the relaunch of Coca Cola into Asia-Pacific. He was instrumental in re-launching Coca Cola in India in the 90s. He reintroduced Coca Cola’s hobble-skirt bottles, a big winner in the market. From a top management school in India, he has completed a PhD recently and moved to Australia to take up a management position with ANZ.
Saravanaa Bhavan in Melbourne will employee 40 people to run its operations in Wantrina, says Shekar. All the chefs have global experience and have worked in North America and the Middle East. With a dedicated set of professionals, Shekar has his eyes set on grabbing the limelight for his restaurant and redefining what Indian food means to many. The Australian food landscape may have changed since he first moved here 23 years ago, but a majority of Australians, including Indian Australians identify Indian food with roti/naans and butter chicken. Indian food is now one of the most popular eat outs in Australia. Shekar’s new venture is set to change the dynamics and reshape Indian food here.
Setting up the first branch in Victoria in Wantirna is to tap into the large Indian population that live in the South East. “Undoubtedly, the founders of Saravanaa Bhavan believe in word of mouth. We want the Indians living in the area to try our food and talk about it. The rest will follow. There is no competition when it comes to what we do. It’s a class apart,” says a confident Shekar who has already tasted success in Sydney. “Sydney is a different market. We get a lot of lunch traffic because it’s in Parramatta. That’s a hub. Wantirna will be different as it’s more suburban and we have to capture the weekend and dinner market to start with,” he adds.
Shekar’s main aim is to focus on the health aspects of South Indian food. He believes that fermented food is an important dietary requirement and dosas are tasty and adds a lot of value to improve ones health.
After the Sydney success, Shekar believes that the model works so well because of the standards set by its CEO Shiva Kumar. “I have never seen a more hard working CEO in my life. He’s a savvy businessman. He’s clued in with every nuances of the business. They groom their chefs like they are a family. It’s a tradition that’s passed on,” quips Shekar. “I have to make sure the same standards are adhered to in Australia for this business to excel and prosper.”
Shekar says the global reach of Saravanaa Bhavan has been made possible because of Shiva Kumar, the young and dynamic scion of the illustrious SB family. “I’m merely a foot soldier for Shiva in Australia. To carry out and implement a traditional food chain,” adds Shekar. The Group’s foray into the global scene would be a pipe dream without the stewardship of Shiva, says Shekar. “Shiva is unlike any other business owner. Before every launch, Shiva sleeps for just a couple of hours and personally directs the staff and management,” says Shekar, who has seen that first hand during the launch of the Sydney restaurant.
Saravanaa Bhavan will remain open seven days in Wantrina. They have a bar attached and will also serve North Indian food. Shekar says he is looking forward to opening a second outlet in the West once the Wantrina outlet is established.
A man, a dosa, and a dream
INTRO: How R Rajagopal, the owner of Saravana Bhavan, climbed the food chain from tea boy to top-notch restaurateur
Saravanaa Bhavan may be known for its trademark South Indian filter coffee, but the first ‘dish’ R Rajagopal, the man behind the restaurant chain, learned to make in his first job as a table cleaner was tea.
When Rajagopal, born in a small village in Tamil Nadu, a state in the southern part of India, left school after the seventh grade to earn a living, he went to work at restaurants where he wiped tables and slept on the floor.
Determined to make something of his life, Rajagopal learned to make tea at the restaurant and was promoted to helping in the kitchen. From there he found work as a sales attendant at a grocery store, finally opening his own little shop with a lot of help from his father and brother-in-law. But Rajagopal always wanted more, and it was while running his shop that he decided he was going to open a restaurant.
And that was what led to the opening of Saravanaa Bhavan in 1981.
The restaurant chain may have seen its ups and downs over the years, but one mantra remained unshaken from its inception—quality. Despite losing `10,000 every month in the initial years, because of the high standards he was looking to maintain at the restaurant, Rajagopal’s resolve in terms of quality could not be shaken. There are stories of how he fired an advisor who advised him to use old ingredients and pay low salaries to staff to cut costs. In fact, rather than cut his employees’ salaries, Rajagopal went out of his way to ensure that not only were they paid well, they even got annual grants to visit their families if they were elsewhere. “Having come up the hard way, he knows what it is like to be away from the family just to earn a living,” says an employee.
Today, four decades later, and built on a solid foundation of loyalty and quality, Saravanaa Bhavan has a flourishing 33 outlets in India, and 56 restaurants in 15 countries. This April, Melbourne takes the tally up to 57.
BOX: Rice and all that’s nice
When it comes to the vegetarian cuisine of South India, Sarvana Bhavan presents it in all its diversity and delicacy. From the humble curd rice, to zesty lemon rice, or the creamy coconut rice, the grain reigns with splendor at the restaurant.
World famous for its lentil offerings of crispy dosas, fluffy idlis, and crunchy vadas, the main dishes as well as the spicy chutney sides have become talking points around the world.
While in the past the restaurant chain restricted itself to the breakfast staples of idlis and vadas, over the years they have begun to add cultures to their cuisine — Chettinad from Tamil Nadu, Malabar from Kerala, each style known for giving its own little twist to vegetarian food.
No wonder Sydney siders are always lining up for seconds.
An average meal costs anything between $15 and $16.