“I hardly understood the language and did not know anyone in the city, but returning wasn’t an option since I was penniless. So I did the only thing I could--I decided to stay on and try my luck."
In 1990, Prem Ganapathy was among the multitude of people from across the country who set foot in the maximum city.
Lost and alone amidst a perpetually moving crowd in a sleepless city, he reached the Bandra Terminus with Rs 200 in his pocket. No older than 17, the young boy’s first day in the city of dreams was one he would remember for the rest of his life.
Hailing from a family of seven siblings in Nagalapuram in Tamil Nadu’s Tuticorin district, Prem wanted to complete his higher studies. But the financial crisis at home doubled with the responsibility of supporting his parents and six siblings caused him to abandon college education.
A mere Class 10 pass out, he first ventured to Chennai. Despite struggling day in and out, he was only able to earn Rs 250 a month, through a string of odd jobs.
At this time, an acquaintance offered him a job in Mumbai. He was also promised a salary of Rs 1,200 per month. This was more money than he had imagined.
Speaking to the Economic Times, he recalls, “I knew my parents would never approve of my decision to shift base, so I left for Mumbai without informing them.”
Little did Prem know that this acquaintance had a different plan. He met Prem and robbed him of the Rs 200 he had, leaving the young boy stranded in Bandra!
“I hardly understood the language and did not know anyone in the city, but returning wasn’t an option since I was penniless. So I did the only thing I could–I decided to stay on and try my luck,” he adds.
A job hunt ensued the next day. His first job was washing dishes at a local bakery at Mahim. “You will get a salary of Rs 150 per month,” he was told.
While it wasn’t the salary he had hoped for, the need for a roof above his head outweighed other aspirations. The owner allowed him to work during the day and sleep inside the bakery at night.
For the next two years, the young boy toiled hard and picked up all kinds of menial jobs at various restaurants. His aim was clear–work, work some more and save as much money as possible.
“In 1992, I managed to save up enough to start my own food business of selling idlis and dosas. I rented a handcart for about Rs 150 and ploughed in another Rs 1,000 to buy utensils, a stove and basic ingredients, and set up shop on the street opposite the Vashi train station.”
That was the beginning of Ganapathy’s journey. One which would see him building a food empire of Rs 30 crore.
Within a few months of starting the food cart, Prem arranged for two of his brothers, Murugan and Paramashivan, to come to Mumbai. Younger to him by two and four years respectively, the duo helped him with handling the food cart.
Competing with all kinds of eateries around, Prem was determined to stand out. And it was his work ethic that made his stall a people’s favourite.
“We were very particular about (the) quality and cleanliness, and unlike the people running other roadside eateries, we were very well-dressed and wore caps. I got the recipes for dosas and the sambhar from my native place, which attracted a lot of customers. Soon enough, the business was booming, and we were generating a net profit of around Rs 20,000 every month,” he beams, speaking to ET.
They soon rented a small space in Vashi. While it served as a makeshift kitchen during the day, the booming space also became their living quarters at night.
The trio took additional efforts to make the special masalas themselves.
If you are a Mumbaikar, you would know that the life of hawkers and street stall owners can be more difficult than exciting. And while the daily profits can be high, the biggest threat to their functioning is the municipality vehicle that seizes entire carts.
“We faced the risk of the cart being seized by the municipal authorities as handcart food stalls do not get licenses to ply their trade. In fact, our cart was seized several times, and I had to pay a fine to have it released. Thankfully, the harassment ended when we saved enough to open a restaurant,” says Prem.
The first restaurant he started was in 1997, by leasing a small space in Vashi. Paying a deposit of Rs 50,000 and a monthly rent of Rs 5,000, they named it Prem Sagar Dosa Plaza. They also recruited two more employees to work at the restaurant.
Prem Sagar Dosa Plaza was a raging hit among college students, many of whom became his good friends. It was with their help that Prem started using the internet to search for new recipes from across the world and experimenting with different mouth-watering combinations of ingredients for the stuffing inside the dosas.
From schezwan to paneer chilly and spring roll, Prem introduced over 26 varieties in the first year. And by 2002, they had conceptualised and mastered 105 varieties of dosas.
Prem dreamt of starting an outlet in a mall. But when he tried connecting with several suburban malls, he was repeatedly turned down as the authorities maintained that the space was reserved for other top food giants.
“My luck turned the day Centre One Mall decided to open up in our vicinity. Its management team and staffers had often dined at our restaurant and enjoyed our fare. They suggested that we set up an outlet in the mall and we happily complied,” he tells ET.
Soon, they had several clients approaching them to explore franchise opportunities. But the dosa connoisseur had a condition–he would supply the batter and other ingredients.
And so, the first Dosa Plaza franchise outlet opened at Wonder Mall in Thane, in 2003.
There was no looking back after that.
The restaurant’s website lists over 70 outlets of Dosa Plaza within India and abroad, with seven being spread across New Zealand, Dubai and Oman.
After everything that went wrong on his first day in Mumbai, Prem could have simply taken the first train out to return home, but he decided to stay and fight it out. It is stories of individuals like him that give hope to aspiring entrepreneurs. Where you come from doesn’t matter, when you have your eyes set on the goal and know where you want to go!
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)