I’ve written before about the remarkable success story of Jayaram Banan so some of what follows might seem slightly repetitive to those who have read about him already or have seen him on
A Matter of Taste
. But such is Jayaram’s success – which shows no signs of ending – that I reckon he deserves another piece.
If you don’t live in Delhi or North India, you might be a little surprised by the impact that Jayaram has had on the food habits of this region. And even if you do live in Delhi, you might be a little surprised to discover that Jayaram’s mammoth Sagar and Swagath chains are not South Indian imports but began in the Capital.
Jayaram’s origins are the stuff of Hindi movies (or South Indian movies maybe). He grew up in Udupi in Karnataka (this is near Mangalore) where his father was a driver. Like many people in that era, Jayaram’s father had a spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child philosophy and his kids were regularly thrashed. (According to Jayaram, he would also punish his children by putting chilli powder in their eyes which certainly does not strike me as being normal though Jayaram thinks it was okay).
When Jayaram failed a school exam in his early teens, he knew that his father would bash the living daylights out of him. So, he stole money from daddy’s wallet and hopped on to a bus to Bombay.
In those days, it was not uncommon for people from Udupi to flock to Bombay (according to Raj Thackeray, it’s still quite common…) to make their fortunes. The Udupi community introduced dosas and idlis to the city and eventually made the masala dosa India’s No. 1 dish (or so it was voted in a recent
Jayaram found work as a dishwasher-cum-serving boy in a small canteen run by members of his community and began his slow rise up the catering business. From then on, his story is not that different from other Udupi successes: from waiter to manager to partner in small restaurant to acquisition of second restaurant etc.
What makes Jayaram different is that he recognised, early on, that the Bombay market was saturated and that he needed to find a new territory. Accordingly, he turned up in Delhi. In those days, you got what he contemptuously refers to as ‘Haldiram ka dosa’ in most Delhi markets. The dosa was known to the residents of the Capital but the version that was popular and easily available was not terribly authentic.
To get the real thing you had to go to one of two relatively expensive restaurants, Woodland’s at the Lodhi Hotel and Dasaprakasa at the Ambassador. Jayaram’s ambition was to serve Woodland’s quality dosas at
prices. This was not as easy as it sounds. Contrary to what is often assumed, good idlis and dosas are difficult to make in large numbers because you have to get the fermentation of the batter just right and you need cooks who can fry perfect dosas in minutes. Jayaram had another disadvantage. Woodland’s and Dasaprakasa were branches of South Indian chains and had access to local cooks and recipes. Jayaram was starting from scratch in Delhi.
Nevertheless, on December 4, 1986, he opened the first Sagar in Defence Colony market which was then a friendly neighbourhood market, not the overpriced, overcrowded monstrosity it has now become. The restaurant was an instant success and as the revenues piled up, Jayaram began looking for locations to open new branches.
His crowning glory came, however, when he was asked to replace Woodland’s at the Lodhi hotel. He invented a new brand called Sagar Ratna (same old menu but prices were 20 per cent higher) and enjoyed even greater success than Woodland’s had. The Nineties were the decade of Sagars. The Defence Colony original expanded to the extent that it now feeds 2,000 people a day and there is always a queue at mealtimes. New Sagars opened all over Delhi and a Sagar Ratna appeared at the Ashok Hotel. (It still exists).
Then, in 2001, Jayaram decided to enter a new area. He had noticed that people in Bombay raved about such restaurants as Trishna and Mahesh Lunch Home. Many of these restaurants had owners from Udupi but they served spicy coastal cuisine which was often seafood-based. Jayaram had the vision to see that this cuisine could work in Delhi as well.
The first Swagath opened in Defence Colony, a few shops away from the original Sagar. It was not an instant success and was panned by
(we don’t always get everything right!). Then, slowly, thanks to word of mouth, Swagath began to take off. Its crab (copied from Trishna) became a Delhi standard and foreigners, who had tired of eating five star North Indian food, chose Swagath for an entirely ‘safe’ ethnic experience.
Since the first Swagath opened, Jayaram has not looked back. The size of his empire is staggering. There are now 59 Sagars all over North India and ten more will open shortly. There are nine Swagaths and another (at the Janpath Hotel) opened this week. He has branches (on a franchise basis) in Canada, Bangkok and Singapore. The first Bombay Swagath will open later this year and he has planned a Jain restaurant (“no onion, no garlic but with its own bar”) for the Bombay market.
The Swagath formula is well established. The Defence Colony establishment has a daily turnover of Rs 5 lakh, more than most five star restaurants can manage. Sagar is a byword for quality: it is Indian fast food at its finest, freshly made, reasonably priced and delicious.
But Jayaram is never content. One of the qualities that endear him to his customers in Delhi and irritate the rest of the restaurant trade is that he is a magpie, always stealing other people’s menus, recipes and cooks. When Swagath took off, he told me proudly “
Ek din mein humne 30 log udaya Trishna se.”
The new Swagath at Janpath has a different menu from the Defence Colony original. There is more Goan food (the weakest point in the menu, so far, alas), a whole new Andhra section (I’m betting that Andhra food will be the growth industry of this decade) and a determined stab at Malvani cuisine (“Hum bhi Gajalee jaisa kar sakta hai”).
Not all of it works but enough does to make eating there a memorable experience. His bombil is on par with Gajalee’s (the original Swagath never quite made the grade) and his crab is absolutely outstanding. (Please don’t go and order crab in butter garlic, a dish that is unknown in any part of South India and probably invented in Bombay’s Fort area). Unusually for a Swagath, the high point of the food is not the fried fish (though there’s lots of that) but the quality of the curries. Finally, they’ve got the balance of spices right.
And then of course, there’s Jayaram, India’s most humble restaurant tycoon. He still bows low as guests enter, still calls everyone ‘sahab’ and still acts as though he is no more than a head waiter.
I discovered that he has never once sat at a table and eaten at one of his restaurants. Most days he eats at the Defence Colony Swagath but takes the meals in the kitchen. I’ve known him to drink the odd whisky but he will not touch liquor at one of his restaurants. As far as he’s concerned, the restaurants are places where he is meant to serve, not enjoy.
His dedication and drive are also exemplary. He leaves home at 9 am every morning and rarely returns before 11.30 pm, trying to visit as many of his restaurants as he can. On Sundays, he leaves at 7 am and visits all 29 restaurants in the Delhi area. There is no other way of maintaining standards, he says.
Dining with him at the new Swagath (in a manner of speaking: I ate while he refused to touch the food or even sip at a Coke) I was impressed by his commercial drive. I’d gone with my friend Gautam Anand of ITC (we often go to new restaurants together so I can benefit from Gautam’s technical knowledge and rib him about how the stand-alone sector is leaving the hotels far behind) and Jayaram wasted no time: “Sahab, aap Dakshin ka jagah, humara restaurant rakho aapka hotel mein.” Gautam looked awkward and focused on the crab. But Jayaram was undeterred.
I suspect that the Janpath Hotel Swagath will be something of a breakthrough for Jayaram both in terms of food and profile. The menu is probably the most adventurous thing he has ever done. And the location will open up a whole new clientele for him. Finally, he has a Swagath that can take on the upmarket Indian restaurants of Delhi, his own answer to Bombay’s Trishna.
If the formula succeeds, then we can expect a change in the other Swagaths as well, which is great. I’ve got a little tired of the old menu (how many times can you eat Malabari prawns?) and would welcome some Malvani dishes. If he gets his Andhra food right, then he might just launch a craze.
There will always be success stories in the food business. But nobody else seems to me to epitomise the way in which India is changing as much as Jayaram does. His success demonstrates that for all our hierarchies and inequalities, it is always possible to rise to the top if you have the initiative, the drive and the talent.