Where comfort food is better than home

On days when the late Rajiv Gandhi toured the South, a specially-designed flask would appear at Hotel Sree Annapoorna Sree Gowrishankar in Coimbatore every morning. “His security men would bring it to our hotel and fill it with coffee,” recalls K Ramaswamy, one of the founders of the hotel.

“The flask held easily about 20 coffees and it accompanied Gandhi as he travelled through the day, whether it was Kerala, Karnataka or Chennai.”

Gandhi was not the only fan. The late MGR and Jayalalithaa were fans, as are Karunanidhi and Rajinikanth. “Film personalities and politicians have always been our customers.”

Annpoorna’s fame has evidently spread far and wide. “A group from Canada who studied at the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University ate our dosas and coffee almost everyday. When they returned to Canada, they sent us an appreciation card,” says Ramaswamy adding with a smile, “The address? ‘Sree Annapoorna, India, Tamil Nadu’.”

Quality matters

Quality standards set by the founders are still followed meticulously. Jegan S Damodarasamy, the eldest grandson and third-generation entrepreneur, says “Even today, we source raw coffee beans from Karnataka, which are then roasted and powdered in-house. We don’t mix chicory and that’s a norm we have always followed. My grandfather was a trendsetter in many ways. He introduced uniforms for the staff, which was unheard of in those days.”

Damodarasamy goes on to tell the story of how a small canteen that served crisp keerai vadai and aromatic coffee became an iconic food chain.

It began when four brothers — K Damodaraswamy Naidu, K Rangaswamy, K Ramaswamy and K Laskhmanan —decided to start a petty shop in RS Puram to make extra money. They stocked vada, murukku and karasev, as well as sherbet, prepared by their mother.

“The shop was next to Kennedy Theatre which was run by Paul Vincent, son of Samikannu Vincent, the cinema pioneer. Paul liked a particular brand of cigarettes, and once when he ran out, he bought it from our shop. This made him so happy that he asked my grandfathers to run his canteen,” recounts Damodarasamy.

The four brothers later moved to Central Theatre where they became popular for their keerai vada and filter coffee.

“My great grandmother prepared the vada. It was small, crisp, and had a distinct aroma that came from the goodness of fresh greens,” says Damodarasamy.

Favourite haunt

P Suresh Kumar, who is his 60s, remembers hanging out at the Central Theatre canteen.

“Along with classics such as The Guns of Navarone, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Where Eagles Dare, and The Sound of Music, we savoured tasty food and coffee. Every weekend, my father took me to Hotel Annapoorna. The masala dosa there was always served with a dollop of butter. I would wait for the butter to melt and soak into the dosa before biting into it. It tasted so good.”

Seventy-four-year-old A Venugopal, a retired math teacher and a customer for over four decades, still loves the ghee roast, onion roast and the uthappam generously topped with chopped onions and tomatoes. “For the last 20 years, I have had my breakfast and dinner at Annapoorna. This is the only restaurant I go to.”

Ramaswamy says it was his mother Krishnammal’s kai pakkuvam that accounts for the distinctive taste of the food at Annapoorna. It earned them a steady stream of happy customers, right from their canteen days.

From a single outlet in 1968 at DB Road in RS Puram, there are now 18 branches across the city. There is one central kitchen, a sprawling 15,000 sq ft space on Mettupalayam Road that works like clockwork 24x7.

“Our pre-production work begins at midnight. We have 200 people in production alone. They ensure that the breakfast and coffee leaves the kitchen by 5.30 am. Except for the rice and appalam, everything else, including the sambar, rasam, kootu and poriyal, is made at the central kitchen and loaded into vehicles by 10.30 in the morning. By 5 pm, the kitchen shuts down,” explains Damodarasamy.

There are some unwritten rules in place. For example, the rice, ghee, dal, vegetables, and fruits used at the hotel are of the same quality as the ones used at the homes of the owners. And no food item leaves the central kitchen without being tasted and approved by a family member.

“The food business is like marriage; you have to be involved and have passion. And, there is no holiday,” says Damodarasamy. A mechanical engineer, he joined the business a decade ago after his Masters in Food Technology in the US.

“It is my grandfather who got me interested in food. When I was in college I would drive him to the restaurant and he would taste the idli, coffee and vada and bond with customers. His passion for food was infectious.”

With the younger generation at the helm now, the organisation is more professional. “One of the first things we did was to reward employees who contributed to growth. We wanted to empower them. Our kitchens are now state-of-the-art and energy-efficient. We took measures to conserve water, and put formal food safety standards in place,” he says.

K Kalaimani, who has worked at Annapoorna for 35 years, says, “Anyone is free to meet the directors at any time. They are very particular about quality and hygiene,” he adds. S Kathirvel, who shuttles between Coimbatore and Ooty on business, often visits Hotel Annapoorna to get his daily fix of coffee and ‘me time’. This has been a ritual for the last 20 years. “I enjoy the food. I also bring my international clients to Annapoorna. The hotel gives you a sense of comfort, like home.” He wants the brand to introduce options such as diet food, sugar-free sweets, and maybe an exclusive coffee lounge.

Kumar says that the coffee tastes as good as it did in the earlier days. “This kind of consistency in taste is in itself a great achievement. The staff is always courteous and friendly.”

The eatery also has North Indian and Chinese food on the menu now. Says Damodarasamy, “Ours is a synchronised operation. Customers trust us and we want to always live up to that trust. We have a strong brand value as a South Indian regional eatery. Now, our priority is to expand to other regions.”

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Printable version | Sep 15, 2021 11:32:21 PM |

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