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Cooking up a global recipe

MTR Foods is set to replace the burger and Coke with masala dosa and Coorg kaapi, writes N Madhavan.

india Updated: Dec 15, 2006 16:55 IST

The portly Sadananda Maiya is a familiar figure in Bangalore’s Chinnaswamy Stadium.

The country knows him as the man who built up MTR Foods with its array of packaged foods and ready-to-eat snacks that found an export market on the back of the brand value of his family’s old-world southern Indian eatery, Mavalli Tiffin Room (MTR), on Lal Bagh Road.

But he is also the honorary treasurer of the Karnataka State Cricket Association, to which he supplies both food and financial skills.

Managing food and money together is something very native to the Udipi region of the state to which Maiya belongs. This month, the two traits are meeting in a merger and acquisition story of a strange kind.

US-based McCormick and Co, the largest spice company in the world, is said to be close to buying MTR Foods, a Rs 135-crore sales company which has already attracted minority investors like JP Morgan Chase. Some days ago, the Tatas and Marico were said to be interested. Whatever the outcome, the fact is that a grand old name from Bangalore’s history is up for sale in the game called globalisation.

There is gentle irony in McCormick showing interest in buying out MTR.

Five years ago, on a pleasant, windswept morning, Sadananda Maiya took me to the MTR factory in Bangalore’s suburban Bommasandra, declaring confidently, “I want MTR to be the McDon ald’s of Indian food.” There it was.

A great Indian dream to replace the burger and Coke with masala dosa, to be washed down presumably with robusta-rich kaapi from Coorg.

I have not been in touch with Maiya lately, but I do want to probe him about this dream. It is quite possible that McCormick may globalise the rava idli said to have been invented by MTR. After all, if McDonald’s can peddle an aloo-tikki burder and trademark McImli, MTR’s ready-toeat dosa may yet discover an identity beyond its description as “crispy fried rice pancakes” in travel books!

However, a certain joy may vanish in Indian hearts if vada-sambar were to be sold under the corporate tutelage of an American company. Maybe Arundhati Roy or Medha Patkar will pass hats around Bangalore’s IT and BPO offices for a leveraged buyout to save a cultural heritage.

Earlier this month, Florida’s Seminole tribe of native Indians bought Hard Rock Café for $965 million (Rs 4350 crore). I am exercising a fantasy involving our own IT tribe.

At $1000 (Rs 45,000) each from four lakh IT workers, I should think MTR can get $40 million, and strategic investors may chip in to come close to the $100 million that McCormick is said to be offering for MTR.

Maiya’s brilliance needs to be replaced with an institutional vision that he, alas, has not exhibited. He temporarily had J Suresh, a former Hindustan Lever executive, to run his show, but MTR needs a unique touch.

With a booming economy of one billion, private equity firms by the dozen, and homesick non-resident Indians (NRIs) by the millions, MTR’s problem is not money or market. What the old eatery needs is the ability to retain an identity while sustaining innovation.

Email Narayanan Madhavan:

First Published: Dec 15, 2006 16:55 IST