Inside Chennai’s Mylapore, there is Arundale Street. No more than two motorcycles can be parked next to each other in the area. In that narrow space, one can find a beeline of people standing patiently, waiting for their turn to treat their taste buds with scrumptious pongal, idli, and vadas.
There is no loud chatter, there are no chairs or tables set up for the waiting customers, and the customers are also not anxiously checking their mobile phones and wristwatches to see how long they need to wait to get their hands on the food. They feel at home. Some lean over the wall, while some sit on the available space. The entire scene takes place at Rayar’s Mess, where both the customers and the owners try their best to stay loyal to each other.
While the customers are waiting, the mess staff asks them if they wish to have coffee or milk and apologizes if they are made to wait for a little over 15 to 20 minutes.
Rayar’s Mess, formerly known as Rayar’s Café, has been running for over eight decades. It was started by Srinivasa Rao (who hailed from Karadipakkam in Tamil Nadu’s Villupuram district) on Kutchery Road (Mylapore) in 1935.
After Srinivasa Rao, the baton was passed to his son Padmanabha Rao and later the mess was taken over by Padmanabha’s sons, P Kumar, 62, and P Mohan, 57. Mohan says people used to call his grandfather Rayar or Rao, and the space came to be known as Rayar’s Café.
“During the times of our grandfather, customers used to sit on top of manapalagai and have their food on the banana leaf. After the 1960s, we put up six tables… and now we have the capacity of accommodating 16 people at a time,” he says.
When asked why they continue to operate from a small space despite good footfall, Mohan says they prepare their food based on the number of customers and their USP has been serving food hot and they don’t wish to change that.
“Our mind is computerized (he quips). We know how many people will turn up on Monday and Tuesday and how the number will get reduced during the next three days and how it will reach its peak on Saturday and Sunday. We prepare food based on this ratio. If we try to expand, we will end up preparing more and if there are fewer customers on that day, the food will be wasted. And also, we wouldn’t be able to serve hot to everyone so it will affect our quality as well, we will lose that personal attention that we give to each of our customers,” adds Mohan.
Rayar’s Mess starts its operation every day at 7 am and continues to serve breakfast till 10:30 am. Idli, pongal, vadas are the primary items available in the morning. Customers might be disappointed if they reach the place after 8:30 am as pongal, one of the most sought-after items, gets exhausted by that time. In the evening between 3:00 pm and 8:00 pm, rava dosai, adai, plain dosai, bondas, and a sweet item – either jangiri or gulab jamun – would be available in addition to their signature coffee. The mess operates till the afternoon on Sundays.
“Serving the food hot, preparing the items without any adulteration, and providing individual attention to each customer are the reasons for our success,” says Mohan.
Rayar’s mess caters to at least 100-120 people on a day-to-day basis. From serving people on manapalagai to accepting online bookings through food delivery aggregators, the mess and the people who run it have seen how times have changed. But yet, the mess doesn’t have a computerized billing system.
People come out after having their breakfast or tiffin and let the staff know what they ate. Be it Mohan or others, they just note down the items on paper, calculate the prices and tell their customers how much they need to pay. Some pay by cash, and some use mobile-payment services. Even if people say they are Rs 10 or Rs 20 short, the mess owners ask them to pay the balance amount on their next visit to the eatery. As Mohan says, to them it’s more about customers and their bonding with them over price or profit.
According to Rayar’s Mess owners, their place is a hit among judges, police officials, writers, and film personalities as well.
From MK Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, VK Ramasamy, Thengai Sreenivasan, Nagesh, and Cho Ramasamy to Vivek, Sivakarthikeyan, Simbu, Santhanam, everyone has set foot here.
Swapna from Bengaluru, who paid a visit to Marina beach on a Saturday morning and learned about Rayar’s Mess through her friends, says she was surprised by the quality of food and the service here.
“The food is nice, and it was like proper Jain food. There were no onions or garlic and we were able to have everything available here. I will recommend this place to everyone, please come and have a bite. The vadas are really nice, they are soft, crispy, and yummy. They are not serving anything cold, everything is hot and tasty,” she notes.
For some like Akila Chandrasekhar, a higher-secondary teacher in Tiruvottiyur, Rayar’s Mess is a home away from home. She has been coming to this place for more than 30 years and she doesn’t bother traveling far to have her breakfast.
“I travel more than 15 kilometres to reach here. Despite having several work commitments, I never fail to visit this place and it is because of the quality of food served here. After having the darshan of Parthasarathy Perumal, our next program is visiting Rayar’s Mess. Yes, there is a heavy rush and we need to wait for half an hour or so but that doesn’t matter because we know it will be crowded and we still come here for the food. Apart from the quality, the price is also very less when compared with hotels or even messes in the area. You can never get a sweet for just Rs 15 anywhere. I keep telling the owner to increase the price but they say the customer’s satisfaction is more important than anything,” she adds.
A few other customers also note that they don’t get frustrated owing to the waiting time as the owners keep apologizing to them after every 10 or 15 minutes for making them wait.
The owners, however, say they get a tad disappointed when customers come late and learn that their desired item is not available.
Manoj Kumar, 30, who started to work alongside his father P Kumar after completing his graduation, says he has some plans to make this mess even more appealing to the younger generation.
“I am feeling proud to run this mess now with the support of my father and others. My grandfather’s friends used to visit this mess, later their sons came, and now the next generation also keeps coming to this place, so it’s not just us but also the customers who keep this place running for these many years. This is more than an owner-customer relationship, it’s like a family,” he says.
When asked how difficult it was to run the mess during the pandemic, Manoj says, “Like others, we also faced difficulties… We had to shell out our savings to keep this mess running and to ensure this historical place doesn’t down its shutters. We didn’t want to lose our customers. During weekends… I ask customers if they wish to take parcels as the waiting time is more and, in the meantime, also serve them coffee as we don’t want anyone to leave this place without having anything.”
Commenting on the plan for expansion, he says, “We have an idea but we don’t want our quality to get compromised at any cost. The current generation wants things quick and innovative. They believe that the ambiance can be improved and we have plans for that. But it will take some time and we will aim to achieve that.”