Tradition and innovation are not mutually exclusive.
In India, restaurateurs who think of setting up ‘traditional’ or ‘soulful’ restaurants, as we often think of them, contrasting them with ‘modern restaurants’ that tend to focus on presentation instead of the kind of complex flavours most Indians are accustomed to, must remember this truth. The Indian customer is, and always has been, used to inventiveness, especially when they are eating out – the restaurant is expected to serve something new or ‘different’ from what the customer eats at home or during their daily routine.
The irony is that Indian customers are often thought of as conservative – unwilling to try newer foods. Observers of the restaurant business often point out how Indian, Indian- Chinese and Indianized pizza and pasta are the bestselling cuisines in this country, and that there is low acceptance for foreign cuisines. While all this is true, what people don’t realize is this: the demanding Indian customer wants both familiarity and novelty at the same time. Restaurants that we now think of as ‘traditional’, in fact, are often brands built on the bedrock of inventiveness. Nothing exemplifies this inherent contradiction (that still holds true) within the Indian restaurant-scape than a super brand like Mavalli Tiffin Room (MTR) in Bengaluru, one of India’s oldest and most celebrated restaurant brands.
In 1920, three brothers, Parameshwara Maiya, Ganappayya Maiya and Yagnanarayana Maiya, from a small village called Parampalli in Karnataka’s South Canara district, left home to escape poverty and came to Bengaluru, then Bangalore. The brahmin boys, like many others of their caste, could cook. Parameshwara found employment in an affluent Indian judge’s home as a cook. The employer must have taken a shine to him because he assisted the young man and his brother Ganappayya in setting up a tiny eatery selling coffee and ‘tiffin’ items on the posh Lalbagh Fort Road. Brahmin’s Coffee Club opened in 1924 and started growing in reputation.
When Parameshwara died five years after setting up the business, the youngest brother, Yagnanarayana, took over the reins. He proved to be a savvy restaurateur, building the business and the brand, and the eatery grew so popular that affluent Indians started patronizing it too, stopping by for ‘car service’ – to pick up food in their cars or send their chauffeurs over for it.
By the time the country gained independence, the client base had expanded and its stature had grown even more. In the 1950s, a quarter-century after the coffee club had been first set up, Yagnanarayana, by now firmly driving the business, started thinking of making it bigger. The brothers bought a piece of land near the original eatery and started building a restaurant. Their thoughts now turned to branding, and so in 1960, Mavalli Tiffin Room, named after the locality where it was situated, opened and stands to this day at Lalbagh Road.
On weekdays, the Lalbagh Road restaurant caters to about 1,000 to 1,500 people, Hemamalini Maiya, its third-generation co-owner, told me when I met her one day over filter coffee in one of the hidden rooms inside MTR that sometimes functions as her office. On weekends, this number doubles, she adds. Every day, approximately 20 kg of bisibele bath is cooked and sold; 600 to700 idlis are made fresh every morning and by 9 a.m. they are all over, as is the sambar made in huge steel vats, steaming and aromatic with freshly ground spices. MTR is an institution for a reason.
Hemamalini runs the original restaurant and its sister outlets (there are 10 MTRs in India and four abroad at the time of writing) along with her brothers Vikram and Arvind. We sat and sipped filter coffee, a speciality of the restaurant, whose aroma comes from a trademark blend of Arabica and chicory. Over this, I listened to the story of an enterprising family.
As we went through the key moments of their restaurateuring journey, it became evident that MTR the brand owes much of its success to the personality of the youngest of the Maiya brothers, Yagnanarayana, who in fact spearheaded the restaurant’s growth after he joined the business. Yagnanarayana, it seems, was always inventing, always full of new ideas, always up for new lessons. In 1951, he decided to undertake a trip to England to see how restaurants functioned there. He came back impressed with the standards of hygiene and cleanliness and soon incorporated steam sterilization of the utensils, crockery and cutlery at his restaurant. MTR still maintains this system; one of the pop legends about the brand is how people would be invited to walk in through its kitchens to see for themselves the level of hygiene. Cleanliness thus became a brand value for MTR, one on which the audience’s trust still rests.
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Yagnanarayana’s penchant for novelty found expression in MTR’s food as well. Rava idli, one of the star dishes, was invented because of the shortage of rice during World War II. The recipe for bisibele bath, another bestseller, that the restaurant still follows was improvised by him, says Hema, who points out that the original Mysore dish is a lot milder than the spicy MTR recipe. The audience lapped it up. So popular is the MTR version of the bisibele bath that a person who has eaten this may be excused for believing that it is the ‘authentic’ version. There were also innovations such as ice cream with a mix of canned fruit. This again became an iconic MTR dish and still sells well. In fact, recipes for sambar, khara bath and other star dishes associated with MTR were all improvisations eventually standardized by Yagnanarayana.
All these are thought of as ‘traditional’ dishes today, but in his time they were inventive.
In 1968, Yagnanarayana Maiya passed away, handing over the mantle to his nephew Harishchandra Maiya, Hema’s father, and the legacy continues with the third generation in the saddle today. (Yagnanarayana’s son Sadananda Maiya, who had started building up the range of ready-to-eat foods around the time of the Emergency, got that part of the business in 1994, when the company was divided. He sold off MTR Foods to Orkla, a Norwegian company, in 2007 for $80 million. He and his family went on to launch Maiya’s, another brand of ready-to-eat food with similar products, as well as restaurants under the Maiya’s brand name.)
Today, as the third-generation owners go about trying to cautiously expand the original MTR restaurant brand, they are clear that nostalgia is their USP. Hema is candid when she tells me that while it is impossible to recreate the Lalbagh Road ambience at other outlets, they try to tell the history of the iconic brand through story boards and various touchpoints in the consumer experience. And there is no tampering with the ‘original’ recipes, which are all now highly standardized.
Wherever a new MTR restaurant opens in the world, the sambar cook is always sourced from the Maiya’s home village of Parampalli, as are one or two other key cooks. The family is in touch with the families of these cooks and Hema tells me that the first thing they do when they visit any of their restaurants is to enquire about the well-being of the families. This close connection with their cooks and community is necessary to ensure that the taste of dishes is maintained. In short, the brand value at MTR is authenticity backed by tradition.
The brand today does not want to innovate or change its core product – even though, ironically, as we have seen, its founders always kept innovating and much of the newness they introduced in the early years of the 20th century is what made MTR.
When MTR was coming up as Brahmin Coffee Club, on the other hand, its audience was more restricted. Its patrons were largely already acquainted with the kind of food being served by the small restaurant. It was convenience dining initially – as exemplified by the story of the ‘car service’. To turn this convenience dining into experience-led dining, innovation was needed to create something that would be a little different from what was available at home – but not so different as to alienate an audience that was neither diverse nor cosmopolitan. MTR got it right then. It continues to get it right now. Restaurants need to understand their audiences at the end of the day – that’s where most brands go wrong. Those who get it right are richly rewarded.
This excerpt from Business on a Platter: What makes Restaurants Sizzle or Fizzle Out by Anoothi Vishal has been published with permission from Hachette India.