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Wednesday, Sep 18, 2019

The man who built the Saravana Bhavan empire, and murdered a man, dies

In March, the Supreme Court upheld the life term that Rajagopal was awarded in 2009, for murdering his employee Prince Santhakumar.

india Updated: Jul 19, 2019 08:47 IST
TR Vivek
TR Vivek
Employees pay tribute in front of a portrait of P. Rajagopal, founder of Saravana Bhawan
Employees pay tribute in front of a portrait of P. Rajagopal, founder of Saravana Bhawan(REUTERS)

P Rajagopal, 72, founder of Hotel Saravana Bhavan (HSB), a chain of south Indian quick service restaurants, passed away on Thursday in Chennai, a week after he surrendered at the Egmore Metropolitan Magistrate Court to serve out a life sentence for abduction and murder.

In March, the Supreme Court upheld the life term that Rajagopal was awarded in 2009, for murdering his employee Prince Santhakumar. Rajagopal had wanted to marry Jeevajyothi, the daughter of one of his assistant managers and Santhakumar’s wife. Had she agreed, she would have been Rajagopal’s third simultaneous wife. Rajagopal was first sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2004; the punishment was expanded to life in 2009 in an appeal filed by Rajagopal. The case dates to 2001.

He is survived by his sons, Shiva Kumaar and Saravanan, and two wives, Valli, and Kiruthiga.

Founded in 1981, Saravana Bhavan soon became a Chennai cultural icon. For nearly two decades, eating out meant, for millions of middle class Chennai citizens, going to a Saravana Bhavan. The show stopper was its sambar, a side dish that accompanied most items on its menu. Home cooks obsessed about recreating Saravana Bhavan’s lentil and turmeric heavy version of the sambar. Like any successful restaurant chain, its secret sauce was standardisation and consistency: the sambar tasted exactly the same in Jurong (East in Singapore; there is one there), Janpath or Jafferkhanpet. The getti chutney or a thicker variety of coconut chutney became the symbol of its superior standards, and the phrase made its way into several popular Tamil film dialogues.

Such is the chain’s popularity that every city in Tamil Nadu has dozens of copycats with names such as New Saravana Bhavan or Sri Saravana Bhavan with signboards similar to the original’s white lettering on a navy-blue background. For many years the chain comprised seven outlets in Chennai, usually in commercials hubs such as Parry’s Corner or T Nagar. In the early 2000s — around the time that he was sentenced to prison — Rajagopal expanded the chain with a pace unusual for homegrown quick service restaurants. Today, Saravana Bhavan has nearly 80 outlets overseas (thanks in part to the wonders of franchising), from Canada to Singapore, serving homesick south Indians, and about 30 in India. It is one of India’s biggest restaurant chains with revenues close to Rs 3000 crore.

Saravana Bhavan’s consistency was remarkable given that its kitchens, unlike western fast food chains, weren’t centralized — the food was freshly made. Until Rajagopal diversified into ice-creams, the firm barely used any refrigerated trucks. Almost all its vendors are based in Tamil Nadu and the headquarter sources, supplies and ships ingredients to all branches, even the ones overseas. For instance, Saravana Bhavan’s Delhi outlets are sent thousands of coconuts, plantain leaves, a tonne of rice and lentils, and vegetables such as sambar onions and drumsticks twice a week from Chennai on the Grand Trunk Express.

Born in a tiny village near Thoothukkudi at the southern tip of Tamil Nadu, Rajagopal who belongs to the Nadar community, had a nose for the retail business. Before venturing into hotels, he ran a grocery store in Chennai. Among the pious Nadars, it’s a popular belief that ventures bearing the name Saravana (a name of Lord Murugan or Karthikeya, the son of Shiva and Parvati) rarely fail. When Rajagopal started his restaurant business in Chennai in 1981, the choice of name was a no-brainer.

His booming food business had a willing, ready and inexpensive employee base in the form of young fellow Nadar men and women from the state’s southern districts. “Annachi” Rajagopal, as men of stature in the community are called, offered the young not just better than industry standard wages, but also food and lodging, and an escape route from poverty.

The SC verdict in March knocked the stuffing out of a once ubiquitous chain. Its headquarters in Chennai’s Vadapalani, also one of its largest restaurants by size, now resembles a warehouse in disuse. The eatery itself is a shadow of its former self with the colour on display pictures fading away.

Rajagopal’s pursuit of Jeevajyothi, despite her disinterest, proved a killer blow for one of India’s most successful food brands. In 2001, the murder of Santhakumar became of the most sensational cases of crime in Tamil Nadu that its films couldn’t better. The lurid details leaked by Tamil weekly magazines inspired several filmmakers. But this was not the first time that Rajagopal was attracted to the wife of an employee. His second wife Kiruthiga, whom he married in 1994, was married earlier to one of his employees. At the time of Saravana Bhavan’s furious global expansion in the early 2000s, Rajagopal’s astrologer advised him that if he married Jeevajyothi, his empire would grow double quick. Not only did Rajagopal continue to harass Jeevajyothi, who was married by then, he used his clout to ensure that the couple got no support from the police. He eventually had Santhakumar killed in Kodaikanal. The final verdict took nearly two decades in making, about as much time it took Rajagopal to make Saravana Bhavan a global chain.

First Published: Jul 18, 2019 23:58 IST