For the masses
A filial son takes his father’s business to an international level.

FOR someone who runs a world-renowned chain of vegetarian restaurants, it is a bit of a surprise to discover that the managing director of Saravana Bhavan, Shiva Kumar, is not a vegetarian himself.

The Chennai native, who was in Kuala Lumpur to oversee the Bangsar outlet recently, revealed that he’d love nothing more than a serving of chicken tikka and naan when asked about his favourite food.

The omnivorous 32-year-old father of two daughters professed candidly that where dietary habits are concerned, he is the type who will “make do”.

“When I am in any of my restaurants, I’d definitely be eating vegetarian food because I make it a point to taste everything. But when I am out, I’ll eat anything as long as it tastes good,” said Shiva.

On the whys and wherefores of not becoming vegetarian, Shiva, who spends at least 220 days in a year travelling, offered a pragmatic answer.

“Look, I’ll definitely be on the losing end if I chose to go on a full vegetarian diet because I travel around so much.

“There are not many places which offer good vegetarian food so I think I’d be missing out nutritionally too,” he stated matter-of-factly.

Shiva revealed that Saravana Bhavan (which means “Abode of Lord Muruga”) is synonymous with the vegetarian way of life in South India with 27 self-owned restaurants in its name.

Around the globe, another 22 joint-venture arrangements with investors from Dubai, the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Oman, Singapore and Malaysia, serve to strengthen its position in Indian vegan cuisine.

Recalling how it all began, Shiva told the story of how his father, Pitchai Rajagopal, 61, had started life from the lowest rung as a bus boy who had saved up every rupee of his meagre earnings to set up a small grocery kiosk.

The kiosk expanded into three shops and it was not long before someone bandied the restaurant idea to Pitchai.

“The formula my father used to ensure the success of Saravana Bhavan was very similar to the one that he used to expand his grocery business.

“The first is to look for a good location and the other thing is quality consciousness.

“These two factors brought him his regular customers and that was how his business grew,” said Shiva.

And for that matter, Pitchai is not a vegetarian either.

“When my father started Saravana Bhavan in Chennai in 1981, he did so with the sole intention of fulfilling a need.

“In India, vegetarianism is a mass market.

“What he wanted to do was to offer comfort to this market group who could be ensured that they would find a good vegetarian restaurant when they are out of their homes,” said Shiva.

“It’s not like we started out with a mission to influence people to embrace vegetarianism.

“In fact, it was the other way around. Saravana Bhavan would not be here today if not for our customers,” Shiva added.

A graduate of the International Hotel Management School in Switzerland, Shiva obtained his industrial training at the Wallberg Hotel in Zurich, a four-star countryside resort.

The second child of two siblings, Shiva was the one who convinced his father to allow him to take the Saravana Bhavan name to an international level.

“Luckily, my father has two sons, so he could relieve one. Now my elder brother, Saravanan, takes care of the restaurants in India while I look after the overseas operations,” said Shiva.

Describing the journey of Saravana Bhavan, Shiva revealed that the first overseas restaurant opened in Dubai in 2000.

“Again, it was our customers who came to us and asked us to open up there.

“They were working overseas and found that there was a dearth of vegetarian restaurants so they asked us to consider opening a branch where they were working,” revealed Shiva on how they expanded.

On what it takes to open up a Saravana Bhavan restaurant in a foreign country, Shiva approximates a figure of no less than US$600,000 for a joint venture where he will take 5% in royalty fees.

For every new outlet, Shiva is there to oversee the operations for a month and after that, he rotates to the other 22 outlets all over the world spending at least a week in each branch.

In taking the business dynasty to an international level, Shiva surmised that it had always been part of an understanding that it would be his duty to make a mark with his father’s business.

“He made life easier for me in the sense that he had got the ball rolling but we were always aware that it had not come easy.

“As a child, I had seen him carrying bags of rice in his restaurants and I knew that he had to work hard to be where he is today.

“He had stopped schooling at age nine but he was very determined that we had a good education.

“So when I went to Switzerland, I knew the worth and was very focused about learning the proper implementation policies of running a restaurant,” he said.

So come Sundays, what will this jet-setter be up to when he is not working, one wonders.

“I have no hobbies since I do not get any time off at all,” he said frankly.

But there will be moments when boss and staff will have to call it a day and it is at such times when Shiva will try to catch a Bollywood blockbuster in the comfort of the staff quarters.
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