A class X passout with no particular skill set, I was lured to Mumbai, only to be robbed. It was an inauspicious start to my entrepreneurial journey, but it turned out for the best.
I belonged to a poor family from Nagalapuram in Tamil Nadu’s Tuticorin district and had to abandon my dreams of higher studies to support my parents and seven siblings. I headed for Chennai, but only managed odd jobs, which fetched around Rs 250 a month that I’d send back home.
One day, an acquaintance offered me a job promising a salary of Rs 1,200 per month in Mumbai. I knew my parents would never approve of my decision to shift base, so I left for Mumbai without informing them. It was 1990 and I was just 17 years old. The acquaintance robbed me off the Rs 200 I had, leaving me stranded at Bandra.
I hardly understood the language and did not know anyone in the city, but returning wasn’t an option since I was penniless. So I did the only thing I could: I decided to stay on and try my luck.
The very next day I got a job washing dishes at a local bakery at Mahim for a salary of Rs 150 a month. The good bit was that I could sleep at the bakery itself. In the next two years, I picked up odd jobs at various restaurants and tried to save as much as possible.
In 1992, I managed to save up enough to start my own food business, selling idlis and dosas. I rented a handcart for about Rs 150 and ploughed in another Rs 1,000 to buy utensils, a stove and basic ingredients, and set up shop on the street opposite the Vashi train station.
The same year, I brought in two of my brothers, Murugan and Paramashivan, who were younger than me by two and four years, respectively, to help with the business. We were very particular about quality and cleanliness, and unlike the people running other roadside eateries, we were very well-dressed and wore caps.
We even managed to rent out a small space at Vashi, which doubled as our living quarters and a makeshift kitchen, where we would prepare all the ingredients and masala every day.
However, it wasn’t smooth sailing. We faced the risk of the cart being seized by the municipal authorities as handcart foodstalls do not get licences to ply their trade.
In fact, our cart was seized several times and I had to pay a fine to have it released. Thankfully, the harassment ended when we saved enough to open a restaurant.
The restaurant was frequented by college-goers, some of whom became good friends. They taught me how to use the Internet, which helped me get new recipes from across the world. Soon, I began to experiment with dosas, rolling out offerings, such as the schezwan dosa, paneer chilly, and spring roll dosa. In the first year, we introduced 26 innovative dosas.
By 2002, we had managed to create more than 105 dosa varieties and our outlet had become very popular. However, I dreamt of opening a shop in a mall and even tried to get a place in some of the suburban malls. I was repeatedly turned down as the space was reserved for branded eateries like McDonald’s and Pizza Hut.
Our dosas won us publicity and people began approaching us with franchise requests. We agreed, with the stipulation that we would supply the dosa batter and other ingredients. The first franchise outlet opened at Wonder Mall in Thane, in 2003. Around 4-5 years ago, we got a new brand logo, Dr D.
We’ve been getting several requests from people who want to set up Dosa Plaza outlets in other countries. We have three outlets in New Zealand, two in Dubai and are looking at opening some in Muscat this year, along with 10-15 more restaurants in India.
These will add to our current tally of 43 (including franchisees) across 11 states. The business I started with a seed capital of Rs 1,000 has grown into a Rs 30 crore company and we are aiming for a Rs 40 crore revenue for this year.