IT’s no secret that Chennai’s cuisine has many takers outside the country. While on the one hand we have big chains like Saravana Bhavan and Anjappar that have opened branches from Canada to Colombo, on the other we have food champions like M Mahadevan (Oriental Cuisines) making sure that Tamil food (Copper Chimney) gets its due abroad. A quick search, however, revealed that even newer chains are getting bolder with their future plans of action—be it the popular sandwich chain Royal Sandwich, headquartered in Alwarpet, or the quick-fix Atchayam Foodbox, which promises to deliver meals at take-away counters in under 90 seconds. Both are expecting their overseas debut in Dubai and Singapore next month. Murugan Idli will also make its London debut this year. Perhaps it’s all about history repeating itself. Like the milagu thani soup that originated in the Madras Club (now popular as the anglicised Mulligatawny in England), our staple fare like dosas and idlis have fans even in places like Bangkok, where restaurants like Chennai Kitchen draw crowds from the nearby Mariamman Temple. Closer home, from Tirunelveli, Kumar Mahadevan went on to make a name for himself in Sydney, thanks to his two popular chains, Aki’s and Abhi’s, serving South Indian tiffin staples. So the next time you pack your bags for a trip abroad, map these outlets for a familiar palate.
From cycling 15 km from his home to his shop, to now gearing up for his Dubai debut, Dawoot has come a long way. “I started Royal Sandwich 16 years ago with an investment of `2,500. My mother helped me (she still does) by preparing handground Indian masalas (like garam, chilli and chicken) at home. I use them to make my sandwiches,” says Dawoot. Now he has four outlets in the city and insists that the Indian flavour between the breads is one of the main attraction for the crowds at his restaurants. Making up to over 300 sandwiches in a day, he is now cranking up his business to over 400 daily. Crediting his customers for his plans to expand, he says, “The majority of them insisted that I expand abroad, especially Dubai, as they thought the desi flavours of my sandwiches will be a hit there,” he smiles. So he is taking his sister chain, Sandwich Square (a cafe that has 20 branches in the city), to Jumeirah Park. “It is going to be a 400 sq ft (approx) place, where, besides sandwiches, juices, biryani, burgers and pizzas (that feature on the Chennai menus), I will also serve new items like kuboos sandwiches,” he concludes.
Better known as Chef Kaushik, or by his moniker The Mad Chef, Shankar has been guiding young food entrepreneurs in the city for quite a while through his company, Eatitude. Now the city-based chef is in the process of taking his brand Maplai to the West. The chain, which serves cuisines from all the four South Indian states, will see its overseas debut in the US and the UK very soon (date and locations yet to be decided). “This decision is based on research and feedback from my partners in both these countries, over the past five-six years. I feel that Maplai will have more takers internationally, considering the size of the expat population who travel from South India,” he opines. “The menu is going to be relatively similar, with a change in flavours in accordance with the local palate,” he informs. Besides this, franchise enquiries from Singapore and Malaysia are coming in, too, we learn.
“Absolutely not!” says ChamyVelumani, when I ask him if he is satisfied with the performance of his brand, Atchayam Foodbox. The brand, which was launched in 2014, uses dispenser machines at its outlets to pack food (from participating restaurants) and serve it to customers in under 90 seconds. “The main challenge is to try and convince the restaurants to trust the model. Moreover, many customers do not find it feasible to order food from fine-dining restaurants through us,” says ChamyVelumani, revealing that Foodbox is currently in 16 locations in Chennai and Bengaluru.
The company is currently in the middle of rebranding. ChamyVelumani is changing the brand name—to Frshly—revamping the outlets and trying to collaborate with bigger restaurant chains—all in time for its overseas debut in Singapore. “Restaurants there find it difficult to find daily-wage labour. So a few of them are planning to use our model as it requires less workforce,” he shares. His international plans do not stop there—talks are on with potential partners in Malaysia and UAE, too.
Adyar Ananda Bhavan
Adyar Ananda Bhavan, the confectionery and restaurant chain that has around 112 outlets in India alone, enjoys considerable popularity in Kuwait, thanks to its outlet in Al Farwaniyah. “But many of our customers from the Indian diaspora has urged us to expand to other countries, too. So we are setting up branches in Malaysia and USA this year,” says director V Shankar. However, for the overseas figures to show some stability, much depends on the Indian customer. “Sixty per cent of our customers at the Kuwait outlet are Indians,” he reveals, adding that, compared to the daily footfalls in their city branches (over 2,000), Kuwait attracts only around 300-400. But the costs are made up thanks to the low price of raw materials in the Middle East. Revealing that despite the many variants of dosas that chefs come up with nowadays, “people in Kuwait still stick to the traditional versions, like the ghee roast”, he says they are planning to introduce more millet-based items on the menu, like the samai pongal.
A different take
Sandesh Reddy, the maverick city-based chef who owns brands like Sandy’s Chocolate Laboratory and Old Madras Baking Company, opines, “It’s anybody’s guess as to how brands will work in a foreign environment. There are many experts, like Mahadevan, who have excelled at taking Indian brands abroad, but I don’t see myself in that space anytime in the future. I like to build food concepts that are local to the region I am working in. That’s what interests me,” he says. However, Reddy’s experience has helped many foreign brands. He consults for a number of them, including New York-based Cathcart & Reddy. “I also advice the SushiCo group in Istanbul on new concepts and help with recipe development,” he adds.
Ever since Chettinad cuisine pioneers, Anjappar, launched in 1969, they have opened around 75 outlets across the world—40 in the country and the rest abroad. And CEO KR Rajagopalan says that this aggressive expansion will continue. “We are going to open branches in Dallas, Las Vegas, Houston and Virginia soon,” he says, adding that a major
reason for this sustained expansion is the continued demands made by customers. He elaborates that they have outlets in countries like Singapore, the UK, Australia and Malaysia. Despite having proved their ability to sustain their overseas presence, Rajagopalan confesses that they still face challenges, such as “sourcing manpower and raw materials”. But as long as they keep serving items like chicken wings along with standard South Indian fare like dosa and sambhar, “we feel the crowds at Anjappar’s restaurants will only increase”.
There seems to be no stopping
M Mahadevan, Chennai’s most celebrated restaurateur, who holds stakes (five per cent to 40 per cent) in over 135 restaurants and bakeries in over 16 countries, and works with more than 250 partners abroad. He declares that he is heading next to Indonesia, Myanmar and New Zealand to establish his brand. However, he admits, it has not always been a smooth ride. “I’ve faced a number of challenges abroad—from getting the right location to procuring employment visas,” he says. Hence, he agrees that the Middle East is a favourable destination for entrepreneurs. “Employment visas are not a big problem there,” he quips. What does he think of the many restaurateurs who have followed his example and tried their luck overseas? “The entrepreneur with commitment and focus will always bring success home,” he concludes.