Ocean’s 102

Rashmi Pratap | Updated on: Oct 10, 2014
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When he ran away from home, little did the Mangalorean teen imagine he would conquer Delhi by recreating the very flavours he left behind at home

What does a 13-year-old do after he spends his school fee on fun and frolic? Get tied to the tamarind tree in the courtyard to be caned by his strict father? Or run away to the city of dreams? Jayaram Banan, the boy from Karkala in Mangalore, chose the latter when he came to Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1967 to escape the beating.

He was found crying in a city bus by a man who took him to the canteen of Hindustan Organic Chemicals (HOC) in Panvel, Navi Mumbai, to wash utensils for a living. After barely a week, the harsh washing powder affected the child’s hands and he was asked to serve the staff tea instead. This was how he lived for the next six years until the now young man started drinking country liquor after work, forcing his boss to inform his family back home.

In 1973, Banan moved to Delhi, where his brother worked at an Udupi restaurant. Around this time the Government was setting up Central Electronics Ltd in nearby Ghaziabad.

The personnel manager, formerly with HOC, remembered Banan and thought of him for the canteen at the new company.

Fresh from the South “I bagged the contract to set up the CEL canteen in 1974 and there was no looking back,” says the Mangalorean. He has wooed the Capital with a chain of South Indian vegetarian restaurants since 1986.

Mangalore’s famous vegetarian Udupi cuisine was not unknown in Delhi, but the choices were limited. “There were not many eateries offering South Indian specialities for the middle class at affordable prices,” Banan recalls.

With his savings of ₹5,000 and a loan from family and friends, he set up his first outlet — Sagar — in Delhi’s Defence Colony, paying a weekly rent of ₹3,250. The first day’s sales at the 40-seater restaurant was ₹408.

Word spread, but not before Banan had booked losses. “The initial days were tough but my credibility was, and remains, very high in the market. Commitments were always met on time. My family and friends supported me,” he says.

Down the years, Sagar has hosted the Gandhi family, the Birla clan and many other famous personalities. A waiting list of 400 was not uncommon and Banan remembers nearly losing his voice calling out to people whose turn had come. Today, daily sales exceed ₹3 lakh and the eatery can seat more than 225 at a time.

Back then, Banan’s only priority was to expand business. “I worked from 7am until midnight.”

He soon had his next big opportunity: to take over the Woodlands Restaurant at Lodhi Hotel. He bagged the tender, beating 34 other applicants. As this was a star property, he decided to name the venture ‘Sagar Ratna’.

“That name has stayed on,” says the restaurateur, who opened 102 outlets in all.

Spreading aroma

Banan relied on two models for expansion: revenue sharing and franchisee. All the while he kept a tight grip on quality. The taste and quality of food are consistent across his outlets.

“All the main cooks in any Sagar Ratna restaurant are trained at the Defence Colony outlet for a minimum of six months,” he says.

As location is key, he inspects the property and surrounding areas before opening an outlet. “We need [clientele from] offices nearby for afternoon business and local residences in the evening. Ample parking space is also a must.”

Even as Sagar Ratna thrived, Banan sensed the Capital was craving for something more — coastal food. “While non-vegetarian restaurants were in plenty, those offering speciality food were just a handful. I hail from coastal Karnataka and have first-hand knowledge of seafood, which again was beyond the reach of Delhi’s middle-class. And so, Swagath was born in 2001,” he says.

The Swagath chain with 17 outlets serves Mughlai, Chinese and coastal cuisines from the Mangalore, Chettinad and Malabar regions.

“The focus has been equally split between the veg and non-veg segments. But setting up a veg restaurant costs about a third of what it takes for a non-veg multi-cuisine restaurant. That, in turn, determines the direction and focus for expansion,” he says.

Bittersweet moment

That focus convinced the New York-based India Equity Partners (IEP) to pump in ₹180 crore for a majority stake in Sagar Ratna in 2011. The idea was to extend the chain from the NCR to the whole of India and take the restaurant count to 200 in three to four years. IEP founder and managing director Gaurav Mathur joined the chain as a non-executive director.

After he left IEP, the private equity firm’s principal Abhishek Sharman handled its restaurant portfolio.

However, it was a matter of time before relations soured between IEP and Banan. But he regrets nothing. “Every decision taken had solid justifications and reasoning behind it,” he insists. He has filed an FIR against the IEP management at Sagar Ratna, alleging “cheating, fabrication and forgery of documents”. He also resigned as the chairman but retains 22.7 per cent equity.

Taste the new

Even as the dispute takes its own course, Banan and his son are expanding to other businesses. His JRB (the initials of his name) group owns star-category hotels, banquet facilities, budget hotels, canteens at industrial establishments, a snacks manufacturing company under the Ratnagiri brand, and a bakery called Raro.

“Ratnagiri products are manufactured at a plant in Noida and we are planning to set up another factory soon,” he says.

“One has to constantly adapt and evolve with the changing demands of the market.”

Naturally, that sees Banan testing the ready-to-eat segment, both veg and non-veg. But until those heat-and-eat packs hit the shelves, his loyal patrons will continue to wait in line for a table at Sagar Ratna.

Published on October 17, 2014

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