Packaged food seems soulless. Convenient, yes. But also regimented, standardised and unimaginative. After all, we’re a country that exults in family recipes. In individuality. In the stories behind favourite foods.

But that’s exactly what makes MTR is so interesting. From little idli house to global food giant, it has a ripping story line.

If you’re a foodie and have been to Bangalore, you’ve probably stood in line at the iconic Mavalli Tiffin Rooms (popularly known as MTR) for a breakfast of dosas and rawa idlis. There’s plenty of history here. Started in 1924, it was set up by two brothers: Yajnanarayana Maiya and Ganappayya Maiya, who were originally from Parampalli, near Udupi.

Their first advantage was Yajnarayana Maiya’s legendary European tour. He travelled to learn how restaurants around the world functioned. Impressed by the organisation and hygiene, he came home to ensure that MTR followed similar standards.

Then came the Emergency in 1975. The Government told them they had to sell their food at Government-approved rates, to ensure that it was affordable to all. With an idli priced at 25 paise, this meant it ended up costing the company money. The obvious solution would have been to cut production costs, but they decided to maintain quality. Instead, MTR used the opportunity to do some very smart advertising, putting up a board stating the losses they made every day. On day 16, they closed down. But by now, the public was completely enamoured.

Sanjay Sharma is the CEO of MTR’s packaged food division. In 2007, the MTR family retained control of the restaurant and sold their packaged food to Orkla of Norway. “It was a Rs. 180 crore company when we acquired it,” says Sharma, discussing how the family nurtured the brand. “When they were forced to shut shop during the Emergency, they had about 150 employees. Many were from villages, and had nowhere to go — so they couldn’t be fired… So they opened a grocery store. Then the young engineer son thought of putting raw material into a packet and selling it.”

One of their master strokes was the rawa idli. “They came up with it during WWII,” says Sharma. “There was a shortage of rice. So MTR introduced the novel concept of using wheat and semolina to make idlis.” It worked out particularly well for the packaged food arm of the company. Today they sell 1,000 tonnes of rawa idli every year.

“It’s not just about people having less time to cook, it’s also because technology has made processed food healthier,” says Sharma. “Most packaged food does not have preservatives… With pickles, the oil is a natural preservative. With jams and juices, the sugar.” He talks of how food’s main enemies are moisture, sunlight and temperature. “You just have to control these three, and today’s technology gives us multi-layer packaging that does that.”

Their big move now is going regional by designing products specifically tailored for individual markets. In Tamil Nadu they just launched a Kulambu masala, Rasam powder and Sambar powder. It’s an interesting move: Going niche to appeal to a mass market. After all, in India, even niche translates to big numbers. Tamil Nadu is India’s biggest masala market at Rs. 712 crore with a growth rate of 23 per cent. And just two players control 93 per cent of the market.”

Admitting that their original sambar didn’t work in Tamil Nadu, Sharma says “Karnataka sambar is sweeter, more yellow. In Tamil Nadu it’s spicy and red.” So they worked with chefs and about 3,000 housewives over one year, travelling between Chennai, Madurai, Coimbatore...

Yes. It involved eating a lot of sambar. “Luckily I love sambar,” laughs Sharma. What next? A sambar for every region? “It’s possible,” he says thoughtfully. It’s an interesting new path for processed food, and perhaps one unique to the Indian context. Instead of standardising flavours, encourage their quirks and individuality. Even your grandmother may approve.

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Shonali MuthalalyMay 11, 2012