When I first interviewed Jayaram Banan some ten odd years ago, I was immediately struck by his humility and politeness. Considering that he was touted then as the best thing to happen to South Indian food..and even now when he is known as the Dosa King in India and abroad too, his manner truly accounted for his being a winner. Such were my thoughts as I observed him go about his duties with lesser minions in his restaurant.
This assignment as a cub reporter for the city supplement I worked for was special. I had read and heard a lot about this man who was responsible for the stupendous growth of his native cuisine. So here was I, all anxious and eager to talk to this food baron and find out what really made him tick. I was, of course, measuring him up, even before we got talking, which is what we journalists do all the time: analyse!
Well normally, we figure out what they’re all about and if we’re really intelligent, base our questions and responses on things that they would be receptive to. It’s really a mix of just plain good journalism and acute interest in human psychology. if you ask me.
So here I have this confident man who has a huge business empire, is a force to reckon with and is still in touch with his roots, his humble upbringing. It was one interview I really cherished and one of the highlights of my career; a reason why I’m still in love with my profession.
A few weeks back, on popular demand, from my friends, I visited a Sagar Ratna yet again, after many years. It was convenient that this newest outlet in Starling mall, Noida, was located very close to my house. And, I fell in love with the food, all over again!
So, at the very outset, let me make it clear that this is not, I repeat, not a food or restaurant review. It’s just a smattering of my thoughts interspersed with my memories of this man, who is a forever star, shining brightly in the culinary world. Brands like this do not usually need to be reviewed; everybody knows what their food is about. Price friendly, tasty, fresh food that fires up the taste buds too.
I’ll just tell you what all I dug into: the excellent Rawa Onion Masala Dosa, my all time favourite, fresh delicious Upma and a bite of the Ghee Roast Paper Dosa, the sweet Rawa Kesari that felt very home-made and of course, the coffee that was just right. No frills, no pretences; just food that I truly enjoy. It was good to come back to Sagar Ratna, after all that time!
And if you are inclined to do so, read below for my interview with dosa king Jayaram Banan, as published in the Hindustan Times Sunday magazine, HT Brunch, some years back.
ACHIEVER: Dosa King Jayaram Banan
Location: Sagar, Defence Colony
It’s 1 pm and I’m waiting for Jayaram Banan at the city’s best known South Indian eatery, Sagar at Defence Colony market. I’m surprised he’s late because in business circles he’s known to be a stickler for time. His staff are very helpful though and after a few polite enquiries I find out that Banan is very much there, in fact, he’s reached much before the scheduled appointment time. He’s just busy sorting out some routine problems of the restaurant and then, of course, he has to perform the daily puja. It’s something that he hasn’t missed doing, since 1986 when he opened this restaurant, the first of the Sagar chain with 40 covers which has expanded to 255 now. “I’m very sentimental about this place. After all, this is where my fortunes changed,” says the man who has 40 outlets all over the country, has opened one in Dubai and is making plans to go to Singapore and then touch the US and UK markets as well.
With a 22 and a half crore business empire, clearly, he’s come a very long way. And his is the proverbial rags to riches story with a twist in the tale as well. When he ran away from home at the age of 13, it wasn’t with the idea of setting up a success model. “I wanted to get away from my strict disciplinarian father who was never happy with my poor grades in school,” laughs Banan, who claims that he’s also a little strict with his two sons, though he takes care not to overdo it. That journey took him from Karkala, Karnataka to Mumbai where he worked as cleaning boy at a canteen. Dirty dishes and dirty tables dominated his life for some time, as he struggled to make ends meet in a big city and keep his spirits up. The sense of adventure taught him hard lessons about life and about the seriousness of the choice he’d made. “My father was a driver but he had high hopes for his seven children. I realised that I couldn’t face him without achieving something first,” he says.
It was after years of slaving it out that Banan finally got the idea to branch out on his own and so he moved to Bangalore. “I wanted to make a start with a small business of my own- by opening a South Indian restaurant. But then began the darkest phase of my life. I don’t think I’ve experienced a low like that ever in my life. I had just got married and I didn’t have too much capital but I decided to take a risk. But it wasn’t working out and the losses were pouring in. I was completely shattered,” says Banan. What made him pull through? “My faith in God. All I did was pray and soon my brother called me to Delhi to work with him. That solved some of my problems,” he recalls. That’s how he landed up at Ghaziabad. The semi-government canteen contract that he bagged for six years kept him afloat for some time. “Good food has always been important to me and I tried to the best of my ability to deliver that,” he reminisces.
But destiny had other plans in store for him. In 1986 when he opened the first Sagar restaurant in Defence Colony, with an investment of Rs 5000, it was a while before he made any profits. “It was difficult to pay the rent for the restaurant,” he says. But his dogged determination and persistence paid off. The city had seen restaurants come and go but Sagar stood the test of time. It soon became the place to go, for its cheap and out of this world Onion Rava Masala Dosa, Dahi Vada & Neer Dosa among others. One followed another and another and Sagar’s success was the kind of business model that most entrepreneurs aimed at.
The opening of Swagath, Banan’s South Indian non-vegetarian restaurant was like the icing on the cake. From former PM Vajpayee to Robert and Priyanka Vadra, Banan’s restaurants were frequented by all the powerful and pretty people. It’s no mean achievement. But Banan says success hasn’t changed him. “I’m still a simple man and so are my needs”
With Swagath and Sagar serving South Indian fare only, his other restaurant in Defence Colony Sagar Ratna, however, serves a smattering of North Indian and Chinese also. Isn’t that bastardising taste? “Not at all. One has to be market savvy these days. Since people want variety, it’s my job to give them what they want, without taking away the essence of my South Indian food,” he says.
With places like Saravana Bhavan, Banana Leaf, Naivedyam, all serving authentic South Indian cuisine and grabbing a share of the food pie, isn’t he in a precarious position? “No. I thrive on competition. Besides I always have an ace up my sleeve. I send my men to taste my competitors’ food and make them cook it in the same way and check the difference. I believe in giving the best to my customers, after all,” chuckles the 49-year old who now plan to tap international markets, but says his lack of education is a big handicap. “I’m uneducated. It’s a problem because that limits my drive to go global. But I’ll be hiring the best in business to do that work for me. I believe I would be more successful if I completed my education. I’m making sure my sons are doing everything that I’ve missed out on,” adds Banan.
What are his dreams, his future plans? “Oh, I dream a lot. Next in line is opening self-service South Indian fast food kiosks all over. I also want my namkeen business to take off in a big way. I feel I haven’t achieved anything. There’s so much more to do,” says Banan.
One tip he’d give aspiring hoteliers? “Nothing beats hard work.”