I’ve written before about the remarkable success story of Jayaram Banan so some of what follows might seem slightly repetitive to those who have read about him already or have seen him on A Matter of Taste. But such is Jayaram’s success – which shows no signs of ending – that I reckon he deserves another piece.
If you don’t live in Delhi or North India, you might be a little surprised by the impact that Jayaram has had on the food habits of this region. And even if you do live in Delhi, you might be a little surprised to discover that Jayaram’s mammoth Sagar and Swagath chains are not South Indian imports but began in the Capital.
Jayaram’s origins are the stuff of Hindi movies (or South Indian movies maybe). He grew up in Udupi in Karnataka (this is near Mangalore) where his father was a driver. Like many people in that era, Jayaram’s father had a spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child philosophy and his kids were regularly thrashed. (According to Jayaram, he would also punish his children by putting chilli powder in their eyes which certainly does not strike me as being normal though Jayaram thinks it was okay).
When Jayaram failed a school exam in his early teens, he knew that his father would bash the living daylights out of him. So, he stole money from daddy’s wallet and hopped on to a bus to Bombay.
In those days, it was not uncommon for people from Udupi to flock to Bombay (according to Raj Thackeray, it’s still quite common…) to make their fortunes. The Udupi community introduced dosas and idlis to the city and eventually made the masala dosa India’s No. 1 dish (or so it was voted in a recent Outlook magazine poll).
Jayaram found work as a dishwasher-cum-serving boy in a small canteen run by members of his community and began his slow rise up the catering business. From then on, his story is not that different from other Udupi successes: from waiter to manager to partner in small restaurant to acquisition of second restaurant etc.
What makes Jayaram different is that he recognised, early on, that the Bombay market was saturated and that he needed to find a new territory. Accordingly, he turned up in Delhi. In those days, you got what he contemptuously refers to as ‘Haldiram ka dosa’ in most Delhi markets. The dosa was known to the residents of the Capital but the version that was popular and easily available was not terribly authentic.
To get the real thing you had to go to one of two relatively expensive restaurants, Woodland’s at the Lodhi Hotel and Dasaprakasa at the Ambassador. Jayaram’s ambition was to serve Woodland’s quality dosas at halwai prices. This was not as easy as it sounds. Contrary to what is often assumed, good idlis and dosas are difficult to make in large numbers because you have to get the fermentation of the batter just right and you need cooks who can fry perfect dosas in minutes. Jayaram had another disadvantage. Woodland’s and Dasaprakasa were branches of South Indian chains and had access to local cooks and recipes. Jayaram was starting from scratch in Delhi.
Nevertheless, on December 4, 1986, he opened the first Sagar in Defence Colony market which was then a friendly neighbourhood market, not the overpriced, overcrowded monstrosity it has now become. The restaurant was an instant success and as the revenues piled up, Jayaram began looking for locations to open new branches.
His crowning glory came, however, when he was asked to replace Woodland’s at the Lodhi hotel. He invented a new brand called Sagar Ratna (same old menu but prices were 20 per cent higher) and enjoyed even greater success than Woodland’s had. The Nineties were the decade of Sagars. The Defence Colony original expanded to the extent that it now feeds 2,000 people a day and there is always a queue at mealtimes. New Sagars opened all over Delhi and a Sagar Ratna appeared at the Ashok Hotel. (It still exists).
Then, in 2001, Jayaram decided to enter a new area. He had noticed that people in Bombay raved about such restaurants as Trishna and Mahesh Lunch Home. Many of these restaurants had owners from Udupi but they served spicy coastal cuisine which was often seafood-based. Jayaram had the vision to see that this cuisine could work in Delhi as well.
The first Swagath opened in Defence Colony, a few shops away from the original Sagar. It was not an instant success and was panned by HT City (we don’t always get everything right!). Then, slowly, thanks to word of mouth, Swagath began to take off. Its crab (copied from Trishna) became a Delhi standard and foreigners, who had tired of eating five star North Indian food, chose Swagath for an entirely ‘safe’ ethnic experience.