Brothers S. Rajan, S. Damodaran and S. Murali give a fascinating account of where the story of A1 Chips all began
Theirs is a story begging to be told. If it were made into a movie, the opening shot would show a crowded bus stand in Palakkad where a man stood in the ebbing and flowing crowd. The camera would close up on a mountain of golden yellow nendrangai chips that the man would weigh, wrap up in a newspaper and sell to passers by.
In real life, that man would be Swaminathan. He made chips at home and hawked them at the bus stand for a living. When his son C.S. Mani was old enough, he would do the same. Only, he decided to go a little further afield. He packed up the chips his dad made and travelled all the way to Coimbatore to sell them. When Mani got married to Bhagavathy they moved to Coimbatore in the 60s.
Bhagavathy and Mani made tapioca and banana chips at home and Mani carried them street to street, mostly in and around Big Bazaar and Vysial streets. The goldsmiths were his main clients.
‘These chips are A1’, he would say to his customers.
Fifty years on, that description still holds good as his sons Rajan, Damodaran and Murali have made A1 chips a household name in Coimbatore. Today there are 14 posh outlets of the brand. Eleven are in Coimbatore, one in Tirupur and two where it all began, in Palakkad.
In the beginning
“I remember walking behind my father, carrying heavy bags of chips, shop to shop. I would lug 25 kilos of uppu seedais to bakeries,” says Rajan. When Mani and Bhagavathy needed more hands, the brothers dropped out of school. They were in classes four, five and seven respectively. “We would go to school, mainly for the midday meal they served,” smiles Rajan. “If we had to eat that day, we had to sell chips, it was as simple as that,” adds Damodaran. But he says with pride, “We did not have much to eat those days, but today we provide livelihood to 200 families who have food on their table thanks to A1.”
Murali, the youngest brother, recalls selling chips near VOC park. “I would go up to the cars to hand over wrapped chips through the windows. I met a gentleman many years later who told me he would regularly buy chips from us. But he also told me that as we sold chips on the roadside, he would not come himself, but send his driver.”
To make the chips business into something more than just a street-side venture became the dream, one that was fuelled by their mother. And slowly the business took shape, brick by brick. In the 80s they put up a small shack outside the vegetable market on Cross Cut Road. In the mid 80s, under a staircase landing in a building in Big Bazaar street, the first A1 shop was born. “It was four feet by six feet. We could not afford paint so we stuck wallpaper that was nothing but gift wrapping that came at 25 paise a sheet,” smiles Damodaran. “But we were different, even then. We stood out. While other shops had painted walls, we had flowery wallpaper!” Sudheesh, Damodaran’s son, proudly shows pictures of his uncle Murali, standing by a huge black cauldron, slicing chips straight into the hot oil! The brothers still own that place and plan to make something of it.
When a regular customer at their Sai Baba Colony outlet bemoaned the fact that their goodies were not available at Dubai where he worked, an idea was born. They decided to send a consignment abroad. In 1999 Murali drove a tempo full of chips (750 kg) to the airport to fly it to Dubai. He learnt the flight to Dubai was only the next morning. “I parked my tempo outside the airport and spent the night in it, so that I could watch the flight with our chips on board take off to Dubai. We couldn’t afford a trip, but our chips went instead of us.” That was the beginning. Today, every month, the brothers ship three to four containers, each holding six to seven tonnes of their products, to the Gulf, France, Mauritius and the United States.
Murali says they have learnt about business over the years. He recollects how a foreign client had shown interest in their products. “He asked us at what temperature we fried the chips. We were stumped. We did not know. Needless to say that was the end of that order. We realised then that we had to standardise and keep strict quality control.”
In 2007 they set up a huge three-storey factory with state-of-the-art technology. The factory turns out murukkus, thattais, chips, mixture…(there are nearly 800 varieties of sweets and savouries. Hygiene and quality control are the bywords. But the sweets and savouries still taste the way they did in their childhood.
The R&D is continuous. From flavoured murukkus and morkozhambu podi to homemade chocolates and any number of sweets, A1 is on the job constantly. “Now the fourth generation is coming into the business,” says Murali. The brothers’ sons Sathish, Sudeesh, Vignesh and Sabarish are showing keen interest. “We believe each generation can take a family profession to the next level. My grandfather sold chips out of a bag outside a bus stand. Today, we sell those very same chips in hundreds of kilos. Who knows where our children will take A1 chips tomorrow.”