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Shiva Kumaar: MD, Saravana Bhavan

Saravana Bhavan can easily be called the ambassador of south Indian food to the world. With branches in a number of major cities worldwide, Saravana Bhavan appears to be set to take down Punjabi food as the world’s perception of Indian cuisine and replace it with south Indian. The brand is already earning accolades in India for its combination of high standards of food and service and reasonable prices; it only appears to be a matter of time when it does the same abroad. Shiva Kumaar, Managing Director of this iconic brand spoke to Sid Khullar about Saravana Bhavan’s international operations and ambitions.

Mr. Shiva Kumaar, Managing Director of Saravana Bhavan
Mr. Shiva Kumaar, Managing Director of Saravana Bhavan

Saravana Bhavan can easily be called the ambassador of south Indian food to the world. With branches in a number of major cities worldwide, Saravana Bhavan appears to be set to take down Punjabi food as the world’s perception of ┬áIndian cuisine and replace it with south Indian. The brand is already earning accolades in India for its combination of high standards of food and service and reasonable prices; it only appears to be a matter of time when it does the same abroad. Shiva Kumaar, Managing Director of this iconic brand spoke to Sid Khullar about Saravana Bhavan’s international operations and ambitions.

Sid Khullar: What are your first memories of Saravana Bhavan from the point of view of it being your father’s business and not as the brand it is today?
Shiva Kumaar: I recall my school days when my cousins and I would visit the restaurant for meals. At this time, my father was very involved with running the business and would spend all his time working and very little with the family.

SidK: When did you become aware of Saravana Bhavan as the brand it is today and how did that realisation come about?
SK: Around the early 1990s Saravana Bhavan began blooming. At this time, it started becoming known for superior taste and quality, and high standards of hygiene and employee welfare. Both combined resulted in Saravana Bhavan becoming well known which in turn led to an increase in customers year after year as well as new branches. Watching all of this unfold led me to realize that Saravana Bhavan has truly grown and our business was now a brand.

SidK: One of the critical tasks in running a brand is maintaining a consistent product. Given the complexity of South Indian cooking and the traditional cooks we believe you employ how do you ensure consistency of output?
SK: We follow an apprenticeship process at Saravana Bhavan, where new recruits are placed under the watchful eye of experienced seniors who guide and tutor them. Ultimately, the process ensures a transfer of knowledge which in turn causes these youngsters to deliver output equivalent to those they learnt from. Our chefs are only transferred to production after extensive hands-on training, all of which helps with bringing consistency to our operations.

SidK: While we are sure that your food is consistent across outlets in India, do the same formulations apply to your international operations as well?
SK: I believe the success of our restaurants outside India stands testimony to the fact that our products are indeed consistent. Nonetheless, only experienced staff are deputed for overseas assignments. This, combined with our training and production process ensures customer expectations are not only met, but also exceeded.

SidK: Your experience in managing international operations for Saravana Bhavan implies, you would have experienced first-hand the differences in taste exhibited by customers from different countries, especially the natives of the land (as opposed to the Indian diaspora there). Can you share with us some insights into your experiences on this front?
SK: Meeting the tastes of the locals of any geography is always a challenge. As a matter of policy, we do not effect any major changes to any of our products to suit local tastes. This is a must in order to maintain product uniformity. We are however sensitive to the tastes of our customers and customise spice levels of food to suit local palates.

SidK: For most westerners, Punjabi food appears to be our culinary ambassador to the world. How have you tackled this phenomenon, given that your own work involves the marketing of Saravana Bhavan as an iconic Indian food brand?
SK: I agree that Indian cuisine has always been synonymous with Punjabi food and as such it becomes tough to convey the essence of south Indian food to our local customers. Nonetheless, we always advertise and market our brand as a south Indian restaurant chain. When the locals experience our fully vegetarian, wholesome and light food, they usually love it and spread the word, which results in our restaurants receiving even more local customers.

SidK: Plenty has been written about how Saravana Bhavan takes care of its employees. Is the same attitude attempted in foreign countries, where socio-economic criteria may vary? Conversely, is the same sentiment felt by your employees in foreign countries?
SK: As an organisation we believe our employees are our strength, to whom we provide the best possible salaries, perks and other welfare measures. Additionally, as a law abiding organisation we adhere to the local socio-economic regulations prescribed by the law of the land, which ensures they are on par with local staff.

SidK: What are your biggest challenges in taking Saravana Bhavan worldwide?
SK: Work permits! Our perpetual and only challenge in the growth of Saravana Bhavan to foreign lands is in obtaining visas for our experienced staff to work in local branches.

SidK: Are there any criteria you apply prior to considering the opening of an outlet in a new foreign destination? For example, one might say the population of ethnic Indians in a given geography may help in seeding a new restaurant.
SK: That is correct. We conduct surveys and studies aimed at understanding and analysing the demand for our products and services in that geography, to determine the suitability of a location and its ability to support a branch of Saravana Bhavan.

SidK: What are your plans for Saravana Bhavan’s international operations?
SK: My ambition is simple, if vast. I’d like us to open a branch of Saravana Bhavan in every city in the world where a sizeable segment of the Indian diaspora exists.

SidK: Which are your favourite dishes from the Saravana Bhavan menu that you would recommend to our readers?
SK: While we have a large menu of which, every dish is a star in its own right, we have quite a variety of dosas, which are my favorite items from the entire menu.

SidK: How do you balance your personal life with all the travel that your work involves?
SK: My kids are equally busy with their school work. So, all of us are busy in our own ways.

By Sid Khullar

Sid Khullar is a wellness coach who works with different aspects of lifestyle change towards the accomplishment of goals such as weight loss and blood sugar management among other health situations that require the presence of specialised, precise diets and lifestyle change. His methods address aspects of food, nutrition and the mind.