Jayaram Banan, the owner of the popular restaurant chain, Sagar Ratna, talks to Manit Moorjani about completing 25 years of serving South Indian food in the Capital
After Jayaram Banan mentions his favourite dish at the Swagath restaurant is its prawn koliwada, I am utterly tempted to sample it. After all, the owner knows best. I go for it and am certainly not disappointed. The crispy flavoured coating on the freshest of prawns makes for the most delicious of starters, one of the many reasons why diners continue to throng the Swagath chain of restaurants even so many years after it set shop in the Capital. Its vegetarian avatar, the Sagar Ratna chain, has also become synonymous with quality vegetarian South Indian food in the Capital and also most other places in North India. There are countless Sagar Ratna outlets now, and also that of Swagath, its fine dining sister chain that specialises in Managalorean style of seafood. This year, Sagar Ratna is rounding off 25th years. And as Banan says, the silver jubilee celebrations are on till this December. As part of it, the chain has undergone cosmetic changes, like introducing fresh banners and advertisements, besides opening a host of new outlets across the city and also the country. If you visit any Sagar Ratna outlet today, you will be served sweet dishes post meal, and it is on the house.
Although Banan seeks help from a colleague to brief me about the 25-year journey of his culinary enterprise in Delhi as he has a slight difficulty conversing fluently in English and Hindi, he is a businessman who looks into every bit of the restaurant experience personally, be it for the customer, the waiter or the chef. He wakes up much before the sun rises and visits each and every outlet in the city on a daily basis. At times, he takes the order from the customer himself.
Jayaram, who left home early in life, picked the skills while working at a canteen where a large batch of people had to be served in little time. He dreamt big and eventually opened the first Sagar Ratna outlet in the Capital's DefenceColony market in 1986. “In the starting days, a masala dosa would cost Rs.12 and an onion rawa dosa Rs.14. Today, a masala dosa at the outlet costs Rs.90. Initially, we started with a small capacity of only 40 seats, and now we have 28 branches and 42 franchise outlets,” says Banan.
From Sagar Ratna, where standard vegetarian food is served like fast food (“Diners are done within 30 minutes flat”), Banan moved on to complete the South Indian culinary experience in the city by introducing the non-vegetarian fine dining restaurant chain, Swagath. Banan offers the reason why his food chains are popular. “It requires love and discipline in unison, and the employees consider me like an elder member of a very large family. I have my lunch every day standing in the kitchen with them.” And then, he has Sai Baba by his side. An idol of Sai Baba is always behind his desk. Pointing at it, he says, “Finally, it is all because of god that I am able to do what I am doing.”