Saravana Bhavan Rajagopal: Idli, Dosa (And Murder)

P. Rajagopal, founder of the Saravana Bhavan food chain, on a menu at one of the popular restaurants in Chennai. (Photo by ARUN SANKAR / AFP/Getty Images)

Saravana Bhavan’s P Rajagopal, who passed away in a Chennai hospital on Thursday, will probably be remembered as "that convicted hotel owner who murdered the husband of the woman he lusted after".

While the details of the case are well known and his involvement also established, there is also another side to Rajagopal.

It is the story of a poor village worker who overcame impossible odds to set up a chain of restaurants across the globe that today remains the byword for South Indian, especially Tamil, cuisine. The cliché rags to riches fits his rise to a T, but behind that sensational growth lies not just hard work and effort but also innate intelligence and a hardy entrepreneurial spirit.

"Yes, his womanising ways that became a criminal activity will deter us from seeing him as a role model. But the chapters in his life surrounding his business development are truly deserving of being made into classroom lessons for management students," says R Adarsh Shankar, a management consultant in Chennai.

Nobody knows up to which class Rajagopal studied. He dropped out of school quite early to take up work and sustain himself and his poor family in Punnaiyadi village (in Tuticorin district of Tamil Nadu)- a village nobody would have heard of, had it not been for him. He came to Chennai in the '70s, and did multiple jobs before setting up his own small grocery shop. That is when he earned the sobriquet 'Annachi' (Annachi means elder brother in Tamil, and is also generically used to describe shop owners from the Nadar community to which Rajagopal belonged).

Rajagopal started his first restaurant in 1981 in KK Nagar, Chennai, after a chance exchange with one of his suppliers complained of having to go to T Nagar for lunch as there was no decent eatery in the vicinity of KK Nagar.

"This early story from Rajagopal clearly suggests that he was good at spotting an opportunity in the market," says Rahul Kumar, a culinary consultant and a food historian. "In the initial days, Rajagopal's eatery suffered losses because he was insistent on providing quality. In six months’ time people understood his sincerity and there was a turnaround in the fortunes of his outlet."

The ‘80s was also the time when the people of staid Madras were opening up themselves to the idea of eating out, and quickly pouncing on this trend, Rajagopal expanded his restaurants. By the ‘90s, Saravana Bhavan had established itself as a brand in the restaurant business. Till then, the middle-class eatery outlets business in South India was mostly dominated by Brahmins and Udupi folks. It was Rajagopal who managed to break the shackles and arrive big-time, and his success helped usher in a major sociological change; folks from the so-called 'backward castes' now made bold to follow Annachi's trail.

Not for him the annoying management jargon or the overrated discussions over excel sheets. He understood business in its elemental glory, says one of his team members. "Annachi can cut the clutter and zoom in on the business realities. It is a remarkable quality to have. But at the same time, he was not averse to bringing in experts when it came to going into new territories."

By the 2000s, Saravana Bhavan had begun to set its foot in foreign locales, and it is now an important culinary port of call in many important cities where the Indian diaspora is in good numbers.

"The thing about Saravana Bhavan was what you tasted in Chennai T Nagar would find an exact replica in, say, its Singapore or London outlets. Standardisation is the key to its success. Annachi had ensured this even in the 80s across his outlets in India," says Rahul.

He adds that the prices at Saravana Bhavan can be a bit high (in comparison to other restaurants of its type). "But Saravana Bhavan's success was driven by the middle class who were given quality and neatness that was in those times not available in such hotels. Verily, Annachi was a visionary." He had established a chain of restaurants and brought branding to his business even in the 80s. He tried home delivery when it was not even thought of in the industry (in the 90s). He took care of his employees in a manner that would be the envy of a modern IT company.

Says Adarsh, "If he had been more accessible it would have been great to pick his brains on how he planned and plotted his rise. But he was a recluse of sorts. He seldom spoke to the media. In all of his 40 years as a top-flight hotel owner, he has possibly given only one interview and in that too, his quotes were meagre."

Alas, a weakness for women and an extreme faith in astrology derailed a life that should otherwise have been exemplary in native business management ideas.