Saturday, August 13, 2011

It was not my cup of tea, perhaps....

Year 2003. I had been heading a $20 mill plastics manufacturing company in Dar-es-Salaam for two and a half years. I wanted to return to Chennai. Instead of taking up a job, I wanted to do something on my own; wanted to run a restaurant!

I started going through the “classified” columns of The Hindu and some neighborhood newspapers. I spotted an ad offering a successfully running restaurant in Adyar for sale. A phone call from me and the self proclaimed consultant S.P. Nathan was at my doorsteps!

“Prime place in Adyar… Many call centers are around. Nalli is going to open a mega showroom just 100 metres away from the restaurant. You’re investing at the right time. You’ll have good crowd. …..” Nathan was smartly selling the project to me.

Why is the present owner selling, if it is running so successfully?

“Old age…sons are irresponsible. He wants to sell and retire.”

What price does he expect?


I was shocked.

“Goodwill, sir… goodwill! Daily collection will be easily Rs.………. 15 tables and 60 people can eat at a time…small and beautiful. Generator back up. Air conditioned. …….. 40% margin. You can recover your investment in 6 months.”

I visited the place one Sunday evening. There were about 15 people dining in the restaurant. “Sunday evening is generally a dull period…people watch movie in Sun TV…or go to beach… Fridays and Saturdays are busy days…similarly daily lunch…” Convincing, his reasoning was to me.

I consulted my wife, father and brother. They encouraged me. My co-brother said he had full faith in me and agreed to invest 40% in the equity. But one of my uncles volunteered his ‘Dimag karaab ho gaya kya? Vinaacha kale vibhareedha buddhi!’

Nathan took my brother and me to the seller- an old man by the name Muthu, fondly referred to as Pannayar by his aides. He wearing a simple white khadi dhoti and shirt, a long, heavy gold chain, diamond studded rings in 8 out of 10 fingers, chewing tobacco; he had all the essential ingredients of “Tamil big shot” Pannayar had two restaurants and was selling one of them to me.

We agreed on the price and other terms- lease deed for the premises to be transferred to my name, cook and other staff to remain with me, all licenses/ NOCs etc to be transferred to me, etc. Since I was new to running a restaurant, Pannayar would help me whenever I sought for the same.

Ambi, my brother’s childhood friend from my native place was unemployed. We wanted to help him. We offered him the job of supervising the kitchen. Padmini, my wife’s cousin volunteered to supervise the dining hall; another cousin said she would take care of billing. We had about 18 staff- cooks, servers, cleaning staff, etc.

We got the restaurant painted. Parvathy, my wife helped me choose uniform for workers, finalize menu.

Sunday, October 12, 2003. We performed a small puja and commenced operations. We had advertised in the neighborhood news papers about the inauguration.

Lunch time. Dining hall was full. People had to wait for their turn. Dinner time. Again a huge crowd. We found it difficult to service the customers. Parvathy and Eshwar, my son joined the workers in serving the customers. One of the customers lost his patience and created a ruckus. Around 11 pm when we closed the restaurant, though we were all physically tired, we were very happy with the customer turnout!

Next day also was good. The day after…and the day after…a full fortnight was good. Some customers said they were very happy with the personal attention we were giving. It was music to our ears.

“Sir, the cook is not to be found!” I got a call early in the morning from the restaurant. All the staff used to sleep in the restaurant. No one seemed to know when, where and how the cook left the premises! There were three cooks- Swaminathan specialized in South Indian cuisine, Satish was taking care of North Indian cuisine and Arputha Raj was a Dosa Master. Satish was missing.

I did not know what to do. I called Nathan and asked for help. “Don’t worry sir. I’ll speak to Pannayar and arrange a spare cook from his other restaurant. You need North Indian items only in the evening. We have time.”

He sent the replacement by 6 in the evening. Around 8, the dining hall was full. I was in the kitchen. I heard some commotion in the dining hall. I assumed that some customer was getting agitated because he had to wait. A few minutes later, Murugan, one of the servers brought back Paneer Butter Masala, the specialty of the restaurant from the Dining Hall. Customer had rejected it! Replacement was given to the customer. 10 minutes later, second rejection…thereafter third rejection…One customer wondered at the billing counter what had happened to the restaurant.

I was tensed, perspiring profusely. I called the new cook Nathan had sent and asked why there were so many rejections. He had joined Pannyar’s other restaurant only the previous week; he was not trained; if I wanted, I could call Satish who was working in Pannayar’s other restaurant.

What??? Satish is working in Pannayar’s restaurant! Both Nathan and Pananyar did not tell me. They gave a replacement as if they didn’t know anything. I was raging with fury. I called Nathan. He feigned ignorance. Then I called the Pannayar. He accepted that he had poached Satish by offering higher salary! That was not fair. Did I tell you that I would be fair, Pannayar shot back.

I did not know where to get a new cook from. Meanwhile there frequent complaints from customers. A week later Arputharaj took me to a dirty, stinking 10x10 bachelors’ room where 4-5 people were staying. He introduced a guy wearing a lungi and sporting a beedi in his mouth as an expert in North Indian cuisine! I took him to the restaurant and made him cook all the varieties in the menu card. We all tasted. He was no doubt a good cook; but I realized that in the previous 10-15 days, we had lost quite a few customers.

Over the next 10-15 days Parvathy, my brother and I visited the residents of the neighborhood and the employees of call centers and other offices and explained the problem we went through and the solution we found. We invited them to visit our restaurant again. These visits were unconventional- the owner family meeting the customers at their residence! Many of them liked our approach. Gradually we started getting back the crowd.

Diwali was approaching. The staff wanted to go to their respective native places. We paid them bonus (though it was not due) and closed the restaurant for two days. When we reopened after Diwali, two of the cooks did not return!

Did we manage to tide over this difficulty? Let’s see in Part II.


  1. Very interesting Hariharan, a classic trap was laid i presume, you sold off to the original owner at 40% discount. Maybe that is their regular ploy to fleece NRI investors

  2. Umesh- It was a bitter experience. It has taken me 8 years to fight the shame and muster courage to write about it. Further details, in my next post.

  3. I think there is no shame in this. It is the cheats that need to be ashamed!

  4. Very interesting first part. Sometimes we learn through loss both financial and of face but the lesson is well worth. The world is full only of cheats and the good ones have to be searched for high and low.

    you are not the only one who has faced loss in the hotel business. Labour problems are highest in that industry.

  5. I hope you did manage to tide over the difficulty.
    Waiting for the 2nd part

  6. This is the first time I am reading your blog, and it sounds very interesting. I love reading about real-life experiences and this definitely promises to be one. I hope you managed to overcome the troubles.
    Waiting eagerly for the next edition.

  7. Very interesting. Eagerly awaiting Part II

  8. Thanks for your soothing, comforting comments.

  9. Aww... the dirty politics is everywhere!! I am wondering if the missing two are also poached by the same person!! But then, that is how the business is... The employees look for better opportunity.. and the employers make use of it... need not be in the right way!

  10. Thanks Sunil. The two cooks came back. I have posted Part II.

  11. Oh.. That would have been very bad.. and stressful...!

  12. Ayyo! What a horrible time you would have gone through! Earlier your experience with the builder in Coimbatore and now this... So sad! :(

    Dealing with labors (or people in general) is such a painful thing that almost all industries are facing today. It's better to be employed peacefully somewhere and leave all the risks to those who were born to handle them instead of inviting paid trouble!