34 years ago, P Suresh, a school dropout, started a small Udupi restaurant right opposite the Madras High Court. Little did he know that it would serve as the foundation stone to a 300-crore food empire.
From serving food in small time restaurants, the sibling duo of P Suresh and his older brother, P Rajagopal, established their own extensive desi vegetarian food chains–the Sangeetha group of hotels.
The duo share their journey in an exclusive interview with The Better India.
Growing up in the capital of Kerala, Trivandrum, finances were tight in the Padamanabha Potti household. While their father, R Padmanabha Potti, ran a small Udupi restaurant, their mother R Kasiammal, was a homemaker. Suresh and Rajagopal were the only boys among seven siblings.
It wasn’t until 1978 that the family decided to shift to Chennai. The family ran two outlets then, but they weren’t up to the mark, says P Rajagopal.
While 22-year-old Rajagopal moved on to studying Chartered Accountancy, Suresh, at the tender age of 17, decided to explore the food industry and build a name for his family.
Growing up, Suresh had first-hand witnessed the struggles their father had to go through to run their food outlet, and so he spent over two years travelling to remote locations in Tamil Nadu.
“My brother, he immersed himself in understanding how the food business works. From 1981-84, he went out and worked in many restaurants. From cooking to serving, he did all kinds of jobs. He even slept in the staff quarters of the restaurant after a hard day’s work. This helped him gain a lot of knowledge about building a USP, customer behaviour, working conditions of the staff and most importantly, food preparation. This helped us a lot in setting up the right outlet in the right place,” says P Rajagopal.
P Suresh started the first ever restaurant under the brand ‘Sangeetha’ in 1985, opposite the Madras High Court. It wasn’t long before his brother joined him. He dropped out of his CA Course during the final exams and decided to join his brother to open their second Sangeetha outlet in Mylapore, near the iconic Kapaleeswarar Temple in 1990.
“While we first began with authentic South Indian food, today, we serve all kinds of cuisines under one roof. Our basic aim was to give good quality food to customers always and create a separate brand for ourselves. It wasn’t until 1998 that we started spreading out to various spots in Chennai. In 2001, we started branching out abroad too.”
Today, the Sangeetha chains of restaurants have over 54 outlets in places including Chennai, Dubai, Malaysia, Hong Kong, US, London etc. They have about eight franchisees where they hold stakes and their 17th restaurant abroad is opening in Qatar.
“When we had only started, we had a turnover of Rs 3 lakh per year. But over the years, with our exceptionally loyal customers, staff and partners, spread across all our franchisees and units, we have an annual turnover of Rs 300 crores.”
As the duo age gracefully, their younger generations, including their own children and their nieces and nephews have stepped up to take the family legacy forward.
They share, “We have allotted the responsibility of taking care of units to our family members because that is the only way we think we will be able to maintain quality. The only reason we have been able to set up a successful business model is because of our reasonable prices and loyal employees who have served us for years together.”
They recall their childhood days and how their community in Udupi would serve free food to the underprivileged in temples. And that’s how setting up a food business was not as much about money as about service, they say.
“Our customers have always been our priority. Every time a customer asks for extra sambhar, it reinstates our belief that our hearts are in the right place and our hard work is making them happy. The satisfied smile on the faces of hungry travellers who come to us in search of food gives us more satisfaction than any money could ever give.”
When I ask them about the secret of their success, they say, “We weren’t born with a silver spoon. But we worked hard to make our way up. Our days would start at 7 in the morning and end at 12 at night. We also fostered a cordial relationship with each of our staff members. That gave us the strength to grow.”
They may be based in Chennai, but the duo continue to get hourly reports from all their outlets, no matter where they are situated.
Their next aim is to take one step forward. And with their younger generations stepping in, the future for the Padmanabha Potti household only seems bright.
The brothers sign off with a message for budding entrepreneurs,
“Hard work never fails. And though things may seem to not always work in your favour, don’t lose hope. If you are confident about your idea, nothing can stop you. Remember that the food industry is about more than just minting money. If you are passionate to serve, you will go places you never thought you would.”
If this story inspired you, get in touch with the brothers. Write to them at firstname.lastname@example.org
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)