It is said that in India, the food, the palette and flavours change every 100 kilometers or so. No surprise then that we have so many regional specialties of dishes, each with its unique offering. For Mumbai, a melting pot of India, pav bhaji is one of the most beloved dishes. With the butter laden pav that always melts in the mouth and the piping hot and flavourful bhaji to accompany it, it was once prepared as a quick lunchtime dish for textile mill workers.
It was once a dish that would be rustled up with leftover vegetables. Over the years, pav bhaji has gone through several iterations to now become a dish that is served at various fine dining restaurants around the world.
In a way, the story of the humble pav bhaji—rising from a working-class staple to becoming a gourmet dish—is akin to the story of Narayan Poojari (54) the man behind all the success of Shiv Sagar in Mumbai. He started his life as a waiter and is today a successful restaurateur.
It is no wonder then that they serve close to 3,000 plates of pav bhaji each day across their – outlets and a revenue upwards of Rs 50 crore year-on-year.
Coming To The ‘Bay’
Narayan came to Mumbai at the age of 13. Like many others in his generation, Mumbai was a city that enabled you to fulfil your dreams and was aspirational. He says, “I was born in Gujjadi in Karnataka and had just completed my Class 5 when an opportunity to come to Bombay presented itself. I jumped and grabbed it. There was an aura attached to people from Mumbai and I remember looking at them with such awe. I wanted to be amongst those people.”
Being the eldest amongst six siblings also meant that the responsibilities of the family fell on his shoulders. While the family was involved in farming Narayan’s dreams were bigger. In April 1980, with Rs 30 that his maternal grandmother handed over, he left for Mumbai with her. The first port where he docked was his aunt’s house in Santacruz and that is how his life here began.
“The first job I took up was in Mumbai’s Ballard Estate as a cleaning in a canteen. I would work in the mornings and attend night school to ensure that I completed my education alongside. I used to earn Rs 40/month and would, on most nights, sleep in the canteen itself after I finished my classes,” he recalls. By attending the night school Narayan completed his Class 10 and Class 12 examination.
The next stop was a job at the PWD office canteen, which he did for almost two years.
During the time I was working at the PWD canteen I got an opportunity to run and manage a canteen on my own at Cuffe Parade. That was a solid training ground and helped me understand the nitty gritty of running my own place. A lot of what I learnt then has held me in good stead even today,” he says. Working here also led to Narayan meeting many people, some of whom went on to play significant roles in his life.
The Turning Point
In 1990, Narayan met Babubhai Patel who helped change his fortunes. “He had the financial means to open a restaurant and asked if I would come along and work with him. That was how the first outlet in Kemps Corner opened. What’s interesting is that pav bhaji wasn’t on the menu when we started – it was eventually added and we found it to be a huge hit.”
“Pav bhaji was a meal that young couples on dates would come to eat, families would enjoy together and so many B-Town celebrities would order from their own cars,” he says.
Asked about the celebrities who frequented the restaurant, he laughs and rattles off names – Sachin Tendulkar, Jackie Shroff, Tanuja with her daughters Kajol and Tanisha.
Reminiscing about the early 90s, Narayan says, “Before 1993, when the Mumbai bomb blasts happened, there was no night curfew and we would serve food until the wee hours of the morning. Things changed after the attack on Mumbai.”
He says during that period pav bhaji and pizzas were in high demand and almost 700 plates of pav bhaji were sold in one outlet alone each day. A plate of pav bhaji that was priced at Rs 8 in 1990 is today priced at Rs 180. “Things started looking up for me from 1994. I decided to buy a larger stake in the company and suddenly felt flushed with the capital to make such decisions. It was also significant since that was the year I got married,” he shares, adding that his wife joined the business.
Over the last two decades, Shiv Sagar Resorts and Restaurants has found its presence in over three states with more than 15 outlets. While their pav bhaji continues to reign supreme, Narayan adds that the steam idli comes a close second. “Even other items like dosa, pizza, sandwich, juice and milkshakes are ordered frequently,” he says. A plate of pav bhaji that was priced at Rs 8 in 1990 is today priced at Rs 180.
Taking Inspiration From Big B
“The one thing that has kept me going is the routine I have. No matter what time I go to bed, I am up at 5.30 am and head to the gym for a workout,” says Narayan. Once he leaves his home after breakfast by 9.30 am, he says that he only gets back at night after the day’s work. There is no fixed schedule or centre he spends his time at and shuttles between various outlets.
Adding to this, his daughter, Nikita Poojari says, “I have seen my father work tirelessly to build this brand and get it to this position. One of the biggest lessons I have learnt from him is how to manage people. Even today, he will walk into the kitchen, taste what is being made, pat the chef on the back, and utter a word of encouragement when needed. These are small gestures that mean the world to the staff who work at Shiv Sagar.”
Narayan has forayed into several other cuisines with multiple restaurants, including Fish N Bait, Butterfly and the recently opened Kyma.
“I knew this is where I wanted to be,” Narayan asserts, adding, “My dream was to make it big and I worked hard to get here. I was inspired by Amitabh Bachchan’s movies where he makes it big and I wanted to become a bada aadmi (big man) like him.”
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)