Forty years of Corner House: Narayan Rao on how he built Bengaluru’s beloved icecream brand

Narayan Rao (in the middle) with his staff

Narayan Rao (in the middle) with his staff | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

During my conversation with Narayan Rao, the founder of Bengaluru’s popular icecream brand Corner House, I tell him, rather unwittingly, “Corner House is a legacy brand–”

“You are saying this, not me!” he interjects, with the smile of a chess player who has snared his opponent.

It is, however, not preposterous to assume that Corner House is, indeed, a legacy brand in Bengaluru. It has, after all, 19 parlours across the city and two more in Mysuru. It has been around for 40 years, withstanding competition from other international icecream brands. It sells, on average, 1.5 lakh litres of ice cream  every month.

More than these numbers, though, it is the familiarity the people of the city – at least those who can afford ice creams – have with Corner House that begot my assumption of it being a legacy brand. Three people I know shared their unsolicited comments when I told them I am going to write about Corner House. 

“Don’t you dare leave out Death By Chocolate (one of the most-soldflavours) in your article,” threatened a former colleague.

A lawyer texted: “We used to go there for everything. Good day? Corner House. Bad day? Corner House. Exam started? Corner House. Exam over? Corner House. Saturday afternoon? Corner House.”

“Corner House is perhaps the only thing in Bangalore that has either stayed the same or got better,” said a journalist.

For people like them, who grew up in Bengaluru in the 90s and early 2000s, Corner House evokes childhood or adolescent nostalgia. The black-and-white photos at its parlours, displaying frozen moments from Bangalore (not Bengaluru) of yore, going back as far as the late 1800s, make it seem like the brand is much older than it actually is.

Rao plays down suggestions of a meticulously built brand. “Except once, I have never given advertisements,” he claims. The Corner House story, according to him, is about happiness and happenstances (the hot chocolate sauce, he perhaps felt, was needless to mention).

The best thing about being in the ice cream business, Rao says, is that you get to sell a happy product. “You try to keep the customer as happy as possible.”

Two years ago, a customer asked the staff if he could take a bowl of Rum-and-Raisins icecream for his 95-year-old father in Kadapa, which is a six-hour drive away from Bengaluru. Rao had arranged for a thermocol box and dry ice to make sure it lasted the journey.

“We want to touch people’s lives in small ways we can; we want to be Bengaluru’s darling brand.”

There are two moments Rao recalls that were monumental in the making of the brand. 

The first was on a hot June afternoon in Delhi in 1980. Rao had just returned from Canada after studying hotel management. He was waiting outside the office of the general manager of a five-star hotel for his interview when he met his schoolmate, who was the personal secretary to the manager. She had a hunch that he would not like working there. “She said, ‘If you ask me, you should just turn around and walk out of here.’ I did just that. .” If he had not bumped into her, he might not have come to Bengaluru and started Corner House. “Forty years later, I called and thanked her.”

The second moment of serendipity came a few years after he started Corner House, which was then a fast-food joint. Business was stuttering. He ran out of the money he borrowed from his father. Banks, then, were not liberal with loans as they are now. He had no collateral, either. He was at a restaurant, contemplating the future of his fledgling food business over a coffee, when a fellow diner joined him. They exchanged pleasantries. It turned out that the guy sitting across the table was a bank manager whose brother was Rao’s classmate. Seven days later, Rao got the money he needed to keep his business afloat.

“Bangalore has always been good to me,” he says. It is where he met the love of his life, whom he is married to for 41 years. It is where he established his livelihood. For someone born and brought up in Delhi, it is now his home.

I ask him what the city means to him. After a pregnant pause, he replies, “You know the  sampige flowers? You can find it lining many streets of the city. It produces a sweet, fruity smell. That’s what Bangalore is to me.”

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Printable version | Jun 6, 2022 4:59:25 pm |