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Can the idli-vada-dosa chain take on the MNC?

Written by Saritha Rai |
May 21, 2012 3:25:22 am

Can the idli-vada-dosa chain take on the MNC?

At Bangalore fast food chain Vasudev Adiga’s,a wholesome meal of two fluffy idlis and a crunchy vada served with chutney and tangy sambar costs less than Rs 40. As evidence of its ample popularity,its clientele spans several socio-economic groups. Men and women in business clothing throng its air-conditioned outlet by the metro station on MG Road. A middle class crowd mills about the self-service stations in the congested Majestic Area outlet.

Competition is ferocious. In each of the neighbourhoods that Adiga’s serves,several multinational chains woo diners aggressively. Round the corner from Adiga’s MG Road outlet,McDonald’s offers a burger,coke and fries lunch in a Rs 55 “Super Lunch” deal. Across the street is a KFC outlet,whose ads press young Indians to hang out at the chain with friends. A few steps away is an outlet of Subway,whose parent company has just announced that it will have 1,000 stores in India by 2015. Now,the idli-vada-dosa chain has to take on the multinationals by marrying the artisanal quality of its south Indian recipes with the slick formats of the multinationals. Very few — Chennai’s Saravana Bhavan is one — have dared.

It is not going to be easy. In a city blanketed by foreign fast-food chains,Adiga’s has a mere 15 outlets. Its owner Vasudeva Adiga’s ancestors trace back to the west coast where the Udupi and Darshini restaurants originated. Adiga founded the chain in 1994,inspired by the success of his parents’ Brahmins Coffee Bar situated in the charming Shankarapuram area. That tiny roadside eatery has a menu five items long,but crowds pack the pavement outside.

Adiga,armed with the recipe book borrowed from his mother,has chalked up a plan: he wants to grow his chain quickly,take it beyond Bangalore and touch a hundred outlets. That is no mean task. South Indian fast food,by definition,defies standardisation. For generations,instinct and experience have guided the cooks who prepare the dosa batter and sambar mix.

But a determined Adiga wants his brand in India’s metros by 2018. He wants the Adiga’s sign to beckon travellers on major highways,though McDonald’s and KFC have already preceded him there. So,conquering his twin fears of losing control and of outsiders meddling in his business,Adiga has brought in venture capital (Mumbai-based New Silk Route has invested in the chain.)

South India’s idli-vada-dosa restaurants have remained largely standalone or single-city brands. Their owners’ ambitions have been thwarted by the challenges of standardising recipes and sourcing ingredients. For example,the dosa batter,a ground mixture of dal and rice,depends on such variables as the quality of water,grinding time and fermenting time,besides the quality of the dal and rice.

The Adiga’s chain handles its share of challenges: at the Kannada Sammelana last year,Vasudev Adiga provided breakfast lunch and dinner for 1,00,000 attendees. Its catering unit is a well-recognised lunchtime brand at multinationals’ cafeteria in Bangalore,supplying some 50,000 lunches daily. Its food was relished by guests at the wedding of Infosys co-founder N.R. Narayana Murthy’s son to TVS heir Lakshmi Venu.

But all that cannot see him through the risks of expanding countrywide,acknowledges Adiga. He is hiring a chief operating officer to take charge of the expansion. The chain is corporatising on many others levels. Like the multinationals,all sourcing will be centralised,except for perishables like vegetables and milk. The back-end will be automated by bringing in industrial-style machines to chop vegetables and wash dishes. Just like the MNC chains,which get outside agencies to dice the potatoes just so,Adiga’s too wants to “outsource” such tasks.

On their part,the multinationals have learned that India is a price-sensitive market. Their offerings now start at Rs 20. They have tweaked and Indianised their menu,and included many offerings targeted at vegetarians. They give many south Indian idli-vada-dosa darshinis,as the stand-and-eat restaurants are popularly called,a stiff fight.

Adiga,however,hopes his chain will prevail amongst discerning diners. “Indians may tire of the assembly-line items of the multinationals but the fresh wholesomeness of Adiga’s south Indian food has enduring appeal,” he says.

Surveying the scene one morning at the stand-and-eat counter at his MG Road outlet,his swankiest yet,Adiga acknowledges that there are some things a south Indian chain will find hard to copy from the multinationals. “Hi,Sir!” he cheerily imitates the service at MNC fast-food chains as he glances at the poker-faced cashier doling out coupons to customers. “Good mornings begin with two idlis and a vada,” he says,borrowing from a retail food giant’s tagline.

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