One of my fondest memories of childhood isn’t a unique one at all. Eating buttery, spicy, singularly satisfying Indian fast food meals at Shiv Sagar restaurant with my family. Though the favourites were interchangeable, the source never was, and just like that, this iconic brand ambassador for vegetarian fast food in Mumbai has forever embedded itself in almost every local’s DNA–a taste of the city incomplete without ever having had a meal there.
Today, Shiv Sagar is an expanding fast-food empire with 16 restaurants across India (Mumbai, Thane, Pune and Mangalore) under their flagship Shiv Sagar Resorts and Restaurants. The Udupi eatery has even ventured from simple Indian fast food, to fine-dining with their latest restaurant ‘Fish N Bait,’ though few patrons would know of it. By the end of next year, they plan to expand both to the Middle East and the U.K. inspiring comparison with very few other Indian chains, perhaps Saravana Bhavan, who have managed to accomplish worldwide recognition. That too, with vegetarian fare.
Though you may not have noticed the winds of change, sitting at Shiv Sagar’s posh outlet in Kamla Mills; home to several international food chains, it becomes quickly evident how greatly the fortunes of this once humble establishment have changed. Yet, when the pav bhaji (they sell almost 100 plates of it everyday!) arrives in a fancy ceramic plate and I take a bite of it, its delicious divinity transports me right back to my childhood. Just like the golden Shiva statue outside each of their restaurants, the quality of food and service here stands strong and unchanged. How was this living legend built and what are the secret sauces of its success? We spoke to Narayan Poojari, the man behind it all.
50 year-old Poojari’s life has the potential of being a blockbuster film. Poojari came to Mumbai, a young boy of 13, from the small town of Kundapur in Karnataka. “I came to the city to try my luck in the restaurant business. You see people from Udupi, the district I belong to, have for years been lucrative in establishing their own fast-food and juice centres. It’s easy to identify us from the suffix of ‘Sagar,’” he explains. “The nomenclature comes from the fact that we Mangaloreans are surrounded by the Arabian sea.” For the next ten years Poojari worked in various food canteens of the city doing odd jobs, he even worked as a waiter at Mahesh Lunch Home; Mumbai’s revered seafood restaurant (today, he is a partner there!) to gain first-hand experience in the culinary business and also to support himself through night school. When most teenagers his age were in the comforts of their homes Poojari’s was single handedly battling the adult world himself. Surely there must have been bleak times when he would have been tempted to give up his dream? Poojari’s ambition was made of sterner stuff. “I used to work for 18-20 hours a day. To keep going I would always tell myself that one day I will work at my own restaurant and create a successful brand for it. I had to be my biggest supporter,” says the self-made Poojari.
It was only in 1990 after meeting his “godfather” who invested in the first of his two restaurants at Kemps Corner and Churchgate in South Bombay that Poojari’s culinary passion had a head start. “Shiv Sagar was the first to bring Jain sambhar (without onion and garlic) to the city and became very popular in the Jain, Gujarati and Marwari communities,” Poojari identifies one of the most important strategic decisions the chain ever made. As a consequence Shiv Sagar began to offer North-Indian and Chinese food for the Jain palette, which again was a novelty in the city. “Our pizzas, Mexican rice and tacos were also a big hit because in the absence of international food chains we were the only ones offering these western dishes. Unfortunately, now nobody asks for it,” Poojari states matter-of-factly. Shiv Sagar has also seen its fair share of silver-screen glamour. Bollywood stars, loyal fans of their food, would often stop by for a delicious meal. On further probing the rather humble Poojari opens up. “Sachin Tendulkar was a regular, a young Kajol and her sister Tannisha would come accompanied by their mother Tanuja for a plate of pav bhaji, Jackie Shroff loved our steamed idlis and there were frequent home-delivery orders from the Ambanis and Lata Mangeshkar,” he rattles off.
This un-hurdled success for Shiv Sagar continued for the next three years before a violent event created a certain decline in business. “Following the 1993 bomb blasts Mumbai was on a curfew which required eating establishments to shut by 12:30,” Poojari remembers as if it were yesterday. “As a consequence, our business suffered because before the blasts we would keep our restaurant open till 2-3am for a large number of our customers came for pav bhaji in the wee hours of the night. This was just a passing phase, though, and soon everything stabilised.”
In the past two decades since Shiv Sagar first opened its doors the restaurant industry in the city has seen phenomenal changes. From the mushrooming of international food chains, culinary fusion (some rather outrageous ones) becoming the buzzword to western food fads taking over the Indian palette though, it’s difficult to imagine that an Indian fast food restaurant could both survive and thrive sans any tough competition. “Out of the five times my customers go out to eat four of those times will be at my restaurant and once at a another place; for a change of taste. By God’s grace I have never had a dearth of customers [a daily footfall 600-900 customers per outlet],” smiles Poojari putting my skepticism to rest while simultaneously making me realise what a remarkable feat he has gone on to achieve.
Surely there is a secret to Poojari’s growing success? Poojari laughingly denies it, “There is no secret! It’s all very simple and transparent- with patience and hard work one must consistently provide good service and quality food.”
22-year-old Nikita Poojari, however (she has recently joined Narayan Poojari, her father, in the hospitality business and has seen Shiv Sagar grow since her childhood) has a different perspective on the restaurant’s undying popularity. “My father gives the staff at the restaurant the significance they deserve. Whenever he goes to the restaurant, he first enters the kitchen to taste the masalas and pats the chefs on their back. He makes them feel like family and tries to form the same relationship with his customers. That’s one of the major reasons why Shiv Sagar is the brand it has become today.”
For me, the reason is even simpler. Even today, the minute our car pulls up at this small, simple and slightly shabby joint at Kemps Corner, my mouth begins to salivate with the thought of the pav bhaji. Within minutes of arriving, traditional steel, sectioned thalis are gracefully slid in front of us; white pavs glazed with butter, fiery orange bhaji mashed into one of the smoothest consistencies you’d find in this city, along with a small slice of lemon and chopped onions on the side. For me, this heavenly combination often puts the finest of gourmet delicacies to shame. The ritual, consistency and erstwhile dependability (in flavour and service) making everything else second-in-line, at best. For this reason alone, Shiv Sagar may just live forever in its most loyal customers’ hearts.
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