M. Mahadevan says he is opening more restaurants to give more back to society

Each day, across the globe, thousands of families dine at the restaurants of Muthalampet Mahadevan, Chennai’s most celebrated restaurateur, but he has rarely dined with his family for much of his life.

Reason: he is out 200 days in a year, either finding partners to boost his own business abroad, or to partner other established restaurant chains — such as Saravana Bhavan and Anjappar — in opening more branches outside India.

On the remaining days he makes it a point to have his meals at his various restaurants in Chennai — no one could be as spoilt for choice as him — just to ensure that his chefs don’t let their guard down.

“My taste buds are clean,” says Mahadevan, 59, “I don’t drink or smoke. I can tell what exactly is wrong with the food, whether the chilli is a little too burnt or the salt is less. Merely criticising the food does not help, you must be able to tell what exactly is wrong, only then will the chef take you seriously.”

Mahadevan and I are sitting in Bombay Brasserie, the newest addition to his string of restaurants in the city, on College Road. It is eleven in the morning, when silence, and not the smell of food, rules over the place. Mahadevan is sipping water, while I am sipping milky tea served in a roadside-chaiwallah glass that bears the Bombay Brasserie logo. Today he plans to have lunch at Copper Chimney, on R.K. Salai, and dinner at Marina, the fish restaurant he opened two years ago and which happens to be next door to Bombay Brasserie. Don’t you envy him?

To give something to the society, you need money. And to have that money, you need to make money

For the uninitiated, Mahadevan runs three companies in South India: Hot Breads, his brainchild, in 50-50 partnership with the Bhartias of Jubilant; Copper Chimney South India, in 50-50 partnership with Sunil Kapur of Mumbai, which has under its umbrella Copper Chimney, Bombay Brasserie, Cream Centre and Marina; and Oriental Cuisines, in 35-65 partnership with Peepul Capital LLC, which has under its umbrella Benjarong, Zara, Ente Keralam, Wang’s Kitchen, Teppan, French Loaf and Planet Yumm.

Didn’t I just say that no one could be as spoilt for choice as him? But dining at these places, for him, must be like a publisher going through manuscripts to look for deficiencies rather than enjoying them as novels.

“I got into the food business because I wanted to taste money,” says Mahadevan, when I ask him why he must be so reliant on partnerships, whether for doing business at home or for expanding it across the seas, when he could have easily been content with the full ownership of a restaurant or three in Chennai. “But as I got older,” he continues, “I realised that money is only a tool to live, it is not life. I began to see the poverty around me and realised that the more I expand my business, the more jobs I would create for people.”

Mahadevan today has 182 partners across 16 countries and has a hand in the running of 276 eateries worldwide — there is a Hot Breads even in Botswana, “which has 40 per cent of the world’s diamond reserves but remains one of the poorest countries in the world.” His restaurants alone — the ones that he runs directly — employ over 4,000 people, and many of them get a chance to work abroad each time he opens a new outlet.

“Even my son asked me the same question when he was six years old. I was in Paris at the time, and he called to say, ‘Dad, haven’t you made enough money? Why don’t you just come home?’ He is 18 now, and he was with me in London the other day, when I went there for the opening of Kailash Parbat (a Mumbai-based chain), and he said, ‘Dad, I would like to expand like you.’ Fortunately, my wife has always been very supportive.” He also has a daughter, 22, who is not interested in his restaurant business and is studying design in Singapore.

In the beginning, however, there was Mahadevan alone. He grew up in Udumalpet, near the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border, where his parents worked as doctors (his father was a Malayali and mother a Tamilian). He studied commerce in Coimbatore and moved to Chennai in the late 1970s to teach marketing and management at the Jain College.

In 1981, while he was still at the college, he opened a Chinese takeaway joint, China Garden, in a restaurant called Tic Tac, where Ispahani Centre stands today. His chef at the time was Kalay Ma, a 14-year-old Chinese boy from Calcutta, who today runs Wang’s Kitchen in San Francisco.

“I took a calculated risk at the time,” says Mahadevan. “When I speak in business schools, I ask the students to take calculated risks. I never advise them to leave their jobs.”

By 1986, Mahadevan had opened Cascade, a Chinese restaurant (the interiors, designed by Parameshwar Godrej, had cost him Rs. 4 lakh at the time). In 1989, after a visit to bakeries in Singapore, he opened the very first Hot Breads outlet, in Alsa Mall. “I realised that if I wanted to grow, I must look at the scalability. It can take years to develop a good chef, but only three months to train a baker because it is a science,” he says. As of date, there are 30 Hot Breads outlets in Chennai, two in Puducherry, 14 in West Asia, and one in Europe.

Today baking forms the core of his charity work. He has projects running across the city that teach the poor how to bake so that they can earn a living. “It is like teaching them how to fish, rather than giving them fish,” says Mahadevan, who also runs a bakery in the Puzhal prison and helps run the kitchen of the Cancer Hospital. “Tomorrow I am going to Karaikal, where we are starting a training centre for widows. Jobs for women, that’s our next target.”

And soon he will be off to Sydney, Hong Kong and Bangkok, to help Saravana Bhavan open its restaurants in these cities. “I now lead a balanced life. There is a commercial side, and there is a charity side. To give something to the society, you need money. And to have that money, you need to make money.”