Saravana Bhavan doesn’t look like a house of secrets. Its dining room at the corner of Lexington Avenue and 26th Street is clean and bright and often attracts a line out front. It doesn’t advertise because it doesn’t need to; the fact that it’s one of the world’s largest chains of vegetarian restaurants — 33 in India, another 47 in a dozen other countries — is considered too obvious to its core clientele of Indian expatriates and tourists to be worth trumpeting. In a city overwhelmed with underwhelming north Indian food, Saravana Bhavan is the standard-bearer of the delicacies of the south, but it makes no effort to educate the uninitiated. If you don’t know what a dosa is or how to eat it, you’re on your own.
The man behind the chain is an elusive 66-year-old named P. Rajagopal. Among his peers in the restaurant business in Chennai, the south Indian city where Saravana Bhavan is headquartered, Rajagopal is a legend. “He brought prestige to the vegetarian business,” said a restaurateur named Manoharan, who runs a competing chain called Murugan Idli. “He made a revolution.”
Born into a low caste in a remote province, he came to rule a field that was once the sole domain of Brahmins, cleverly updating their traditional fare in a setting that was both respectable and unpretentious, thereby catering to India’s middle class at just the moment it emerged. Today he employs more than 8,000 people in Chennai alone. His workers enjoy benefits fantastic enough for Silicon Valley (pensions, TVs, education), inspiring among them fierce loyalty to Rajagopal. Every day thousands of pilgrims come to pray at the temples he built in the village of his birth, and a hundred thousand come to eat in his restaurants.
His business model is so seemingly foolproof that the company has acquired an air of invincibility, even as its founder became sullied with scandal. As Saravana Bhavan went global, Rajagopal was charged with murder, found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. Yet he served a total of only 11 months, and today he’s free to continue his expansion — next stop Hong Kong, followed by Sydney, Australia. And then, if his health holds out, building his first luxury hotel.
Saravana Bhavan specializes in the holy trinity of south Indian snacks known as tiffin: dosa, idli and vada. All are made from ground rice and lentils, with remarkably different results. Dosas are crispy golden crepes that are most deliciously served with a masala of potato and onion; vadas are deep-fried savory doughnuts; and idlis, the south’s staple food, are pure-white saucer-shaped steamed cakes. At most branches of Saravana Bhavan in Chennai, you can also find for sale a little book titled, “I Set My Heart on Victory.” First published in 1997, the book is Rajagopal’s memoir and manifesto, a curious blend of mythmaking and self-effacement.
His story begins in 1947, 10 days before India’s independence from the British, when he was born in the vast brushland in the southern state Tamil Nadu. His village, Punnaiadi, was so inconsequential that it didn’t merit a bus stop; his home was a shack with mud-and-cow-dung floors. Rajagopal writes that he quit school after seventh grade, left home alone and took a job wiping tables at a cheap restaurant in a distant resort town, where he showered in a waterfall and slept on the kitchen floor. But he was proud of his work, especially after the restaurant’s tea master inducted him into the mysteries of making a perfect chai.
When he was a teenager, he moved to Chennai, then known as Madras, and in 1968 opened the first in a series of tiny groceries on the outskirts of the city. One day in 1979, at his grocery in a neighborhood called KK Nagar, a salesman made a casual remark: He’d have to go all the way to T Nagar for lunch because KK Nagar didn’t have any restaurants.
A century ago, there were virtually no restaurants in all of Chennai. “It’s a country that was very conservative about eating out,” said Krishnendu Ray, a food-studies professor at N.Y.U. When Rajagopal was born, the restaurant scene consisted of little more than Brahmin hotels: modest affairs catering to the traveling upper caste, whose dietary rules dictated that they couldn’t eat food cooked by any caste but their own. As a member of the Nadar caste, Rajagopal wouldn’t have been allowed to eat in most Brahmin hotels, let alone run one. But by the time he came of age, entrepreneurs from other castes had begun to meet Chennai’s increasing appetite for dining out.
There was little to suggest that Rajagopal was ready to join them. When he opened his debut restaurant in KK Nagar in 1981, his struggling shops had left him deep in debt, and he knew little about food service beyond selling groceries. He made the leap, he told me, only after an astrologer recommended that he try a line of work that involved fire. A business adviser insisted that he should use cheap ingredients and pay his staff as little as possible; food workers are vagabonds, he said, and they’ll take what they can get. “I did not like his argument at all,” Rajagopal writes in his memoir. He fired the adviser, started using coconut oil and top-quality vegetables and gave his workers surprisingly high wages. The business lost 10,000 rupees a month — a big deficit for a restaurant where most items on the menu sold for a rupee apiece.
But word spread that his food was tasty and cheap, and soon Rajagopal was turning a profit and opening new branches. He expanded his workers’ benefits, all of them unprecedented in Indian restaurants: free health care, housing stipends, a marriage fund for their daughters. Saravana Bhavan workers started calling him Annachi, a Tamil term of respect that means “elder brother.”
By the ‘90s, a Saravana Bhavan could be found in neighborhoods throughout Chennai. Locals sometimes refer to the brand as their version of McDonald’s: well lit, ubiquitous and uncannily consistent. Unlike McDonald’s, the restaurants make everything from scratch. One afternoon, a trio of bright-eyed assistants from the company’s R & D department gave me a tour of the branch in Mylapore, a Chennai neighborhood. I was surprised to find that there were no freezers, just a single walk-in cooler for vegetables that had been bought at market the day before. Even the rice flour for the dosas was ground on the premises.
When the tour was over, the assistants talked to me about Rajagopal. “He is the same as the father of a family,” one said. “Any problem I have, he addresses it.” The company pays for employees to visit Rajagopal’s home village for a few days each year, he told me, driving them down in a company bus. “When I go there, I can witness all the love and affection the village people have for Annachi.”
I asked if the company had cut back on its package of benefits as it has grown. “They’ve only been increasing,” a second assistant said. The company provides them with magazine subscriptions, a cellphone and a motorbike, he said, and covers the cost of fuel. (The only benefit it discontinued was a haircut allowance.)
“And we have mechanics so that we don’t have to go outside to fix our vehicles,” the third told me.
“My friend used to joke with me, ‘The only thing you can do with your salary is put it in the bank and save it,’ ” the second assistant said. “They take care of everything.”
In 2000, Saravana Bhavan branched out for the first time beyond India, opening a franchise in Dubai, where Indian expats vastly outnumber native-born Emiratis. According to Rajagopal’s elder son, Shiva Kumaar, the opening-day crowd was like “for a newly released movie.” They’d eventually expand to Paris, Frankfurt, London, Dallas and Doha, Qatar. The strategy is simple: open one restaurant in every city with a large expat Indian population. (One exception is Manhattan, which has two.) Prey on homesickness by importing skilled chefs to ensure that the food tastes just the way it does in Chennai. Don’t bother trying to pursue non-Indian customers.
In 2002, the year that he opened franchises in Singapore and Sunnyvale, Calif., Rajagopal was charged with murdering the husband of a woman he wanted to marry. In 2003, his restaurant expanded to Canada, Oman and Malaysia, and he went to jail for the first time. In 2004, a local Chennai court sentenced him to 10 years in prison. By the end of that year, the empire had opened 29 branches worldwide.
Eight months into his prison term, the Supreme Court suspended Rajagopal’s sentence on medical grounds while awaiting appeal, citing his diabetes. In 2009, the Madras High Court not only upheld the verdict but also upgraded the conviction from culpable homicide to murder and enhanced his sentence to life in prison. After another three-month stint, he was out on bail pending a Supreme Court hearing, which no one expects to happen anytime soon. The courts won’t give him back his passport, but otherwise he’s free to go about his life. All but one of Saravana Bhavan’s 47 foreign franchises have opened in the 12 years since the murder.
“It’s amazing how he managed it,” said Sriram V., a local historian. “I mean, our legal system is not that bad.”
Chennai’s tabloids published every lurid detail of the murder allegations, but the restaurant just kept growing. “Others in that position would have totally collapsed,” said Manoharan, of the competing chain Murugan Idli. “People thought he was finished. But there was no impact.”
It helped that Rajagopal has little interest in personal fame; he promotes the restaurant’s brand, not his own, which makes it easier for customers to compartmentalize. As one Saravana Bhavan loyalist told me: “Some of my friends used to say, How can you go and eat in his restaurant? You’re actually fattening the wallet of a murderer. And I used to tell them, Look, I don’t know with whom I do business in my day-to-day activity, whether he’s a drunk or beats his wife. I have no idea, but I do business. So as long as he’s giving me good-quality food, I go there.”
Saravana Bhavan employees have been especially faithful. M. Mahadevan, a consultant who has helped with the chain’s international expansion, told me a story to illustrate their devotion. “I was at the Saravana Bhavan down the road, drinking coffee with some friends,” Mahadevan said. “The old man” — that’s what Mahadevan calls Rajagopal — “was in prison at that time. These big hulky guys came in, eight of them — they were local rowdies. They wanted to eat without paying. One of them was bullying the waiter, saying: ‘Hey, mister, how’s your boss? Don’t act funny, I know he’s inside.’ There was a boy pouring water, and he told them: ‘You’re talking about my boss. You say anything against him, and I’ll put this jug of water into your mouth. Not on you — into your mouth.’ I was astonished. The boy was three-foot-nothing. And immediately all the waiters came and stood next to him.
“For him, the old man was a god. Period. He’s got that kind of loyalty. He takes boys from the street, from the villages, and he teaches them. He picks them up and molds them.”
One gloomy Wednesday evening in August, I went to meet Rajagopal at Saravana Bhavan’s headquarters, passing several of his restaurants as I inched my way through the city’s eternal gridlock. Mahadevan met me in the dining room and escorted me to the boss’s office, introducing me on the way to Rajagopal’s 39-year-old son, Saravanan, who is gradually taking over the company’s domestic operations. (His elder brother, Shiva Kumaar, runs the international business.) For a while the three of us sat and stared at the walls: Every surface was covered with blown-up images of Rajagopal’s family and favorite Hindu deities. Then suddenly Mahadevan and Saravanan rose. The office door swung open, and Rajagopal entered.
He was grayer and jowlier than he was in the photographs I’d seen. He regarded the room with mild amusement, bowed politely and walked behind his desk, where he faced a portrait of a popular guru and folded his hands for a moment of prayer. With him was Ganapathi Iyer, his oldest friend, and a personal assistant and a valet. We all sat but the valet, who stood ready with a glass of water the instant his boss coughed. Nobody relaxed.
I asked Rajagopal about his origins and business philosophy. Each question was answered with a cascade of replies: Rajagopal would answer in Tamil, then Saravanan or Mahadevan or Iyer or all three would jump in to elaborate or clarify in English, a language Rajagopal doesn’t understand. It was a dynamic that sometimes clearly frustrated the boss.
When I asked about the murder, everyone started talking at once, until Rajagopal cut impatiently through the chatter. “I’m not responsible for anyone’s death,” he said. “I used to pray to my god, why was I punished for someone else’s mistake?” There was a reason, he decided: “God wanted to give an opportunity for my son Saravanan to learn business.” Saravanan smiled faintly.
By the time we finished talking, it was nearly 11, and Rajagopal’s workday still wasn’t over. In the foyer outside his office, eight employees were standing in line waiting to speak with him. An older man with a handlebar mustache and a proud bearing told me that he was a night watchman and was there to ask Rajagopal for a promotion. Another said he hoped to be transferred to a different branch. A third said he wanted to inform Rajagopal of his coming wedding.
I went back into Rajagopal’s office. He sat at his desk, studying a spreadsheet with the aid of a magnifying glass. He consulted his assistant and then called in the first man. Rajagopal ignored him and barked into a walkie-talkie, asking the voice on the other end what had brought in this man who stood before him.
From the walkie-talkie came a surprising answer: “They keep fighting the whole night.” That was not what he told me outside. The man hung his head. Rajagopal fired him on the spot.
The next man came in, and another voice on the walkie-talkie told Rajagopal that he’d been fiddling with his cellphone in the dining room. It turned out that nearly all the employees in line had lied to me; they were there to be disciplined.
“You’ve been with us for two and a half years — don’t you know that you’re not supposed to use your phone during work hours?” Rajagopal said.
“I did it by mistake,” the man mumbled.
“Answer my question!” Rajagopal snapped.
“I forgot,” the man said.
“How can you forget? When you’re in service, you should serve.”
He decided to give the man another chance. Next up was the watchman.
“I heard you got drunk and abused everyone and used foul words,” Rajagopal said. “And you should shave off your mustache. These are not good habits.”
“I’m sorry, Annachi,” he said. “Forgive me.”
“How can I?” Rajagopal asked. “There’s an age to forgive. At your age, it doesn’t make sense.” The watchman stared at the floor. “Are you listening?” Rajagopal asked.
Again he decided to have mercy; the man would keep his job as long as he laid off the booze. He whispered his thanks and left without ever looking up.
The night’s work was over; Rajagopal sat back in his chair. “What to do?” he said. “Everyone makes mistakes.”
According to the document, Rajagopal — possibly on the advice of his astrologer — became determined to marry Jeevajothi, the young daughter of one of his assistant managers. That would have made her Rajagopal’s third simultaneous wife: In 1972, he married the mother of his sons, and in 1994, he married the wife of one of his employees.
Jeevajothi was not interested in Rajagopal. She was in love with her brother’s math tutor, Santhakumar. In 1999, Jeevajothi and Santhakumar eloped, but Rajagopal’s fixation persisted; he gave her jewelry, dresses and several installments of cash to help her open a travel agency. While Jeevajothi accepted the gifts, she continued to resist Rajagopal’s advances. On Sept. 28, 2001, Rajagopal came to Jeevajothi and Santhakumar’s house at midnight and warned Santhakumar that he had two days to sever their relationship. He told Jeevajothi that his second wife, too, had at first rejected him, but now she was living “a queen life.”
The young couple tried to flee to a place where they hoped Rajagopal wouldn’t find them, but five of Rajagopal’s employees, led by a restaurant manager named Daniel, intercepted them. The henchmen forced the couple into an Ambassador car and drove them to a Saravana Bhavan warehouse in KK Nagar, where Rajagopal appeared. According to the court’s narrative, Rajagopal hiked up his dhoti and gave Santhakumar a beating. Jeevajothi fell at Rajagopal’s feet and begged him to stop. Rajagopal told his men to take Santhakumar to the next room and continue beating him. Jeevajothi sat in the corner and wept.
The next day, Daniel called Jeevajothi to apologize and suggested that she go to the police.
Though Rajagopal’s men held Jeevajothi and Santhakumar under a kind of house arrest, they escaped on Oct. 12 under the pretext of going out to attend a “felicitation function” for Rajagopal. Instead, they went to the city police commissioner’s office to file a complaint. Six days later, Rajagopal’s employees kidnapped the couple again and forcibly separated them. They pushed Jeevajothi into a Mercedes with Rajagopal, who brandished a photocopy of her police complaint and asked her mockingly about its contents.
Jeevajothi didn’t know what became of Santhakumar. He reached her by phone two days later, telling her that Rajagopal had paid Daniel 500,000 rupees ($10,000) to kill him, but Daniel had instead let him escape and advised him to hide out in Mumbai. She urged Santhakumar to come home to her; together, Jeevajothi said, they’d plead with Rajagopal to leave them alone. “It is obvious,” the court wrote, “that their overwhelming love for each other persuaded them to take the risk.”
Later that night, the couple, joined by Jeevajothi’s parents and brother, went to Saravana Bhavan headquarters to meet Rajagopal. He told them to wait in a nearby room. Then he interrogated Daniel about what happened to Santhakumar. Daniel lied and said that he had tied him up on a railway track, where a train ran him over, and then he burned his clothes. With a dramatic flourish, Rajagopal then called Santhakumar into the room. Who’s this then, he asked Daniel, Santhakumar’s ghost? Daniel started beating Santhakumar there in the office, enraged that he’d revealed his betrayal of Rajagopal. Jeevajothi and her family tried to intervene. Eventually Rajagopal and his henchmen put them all into a van, which, according to the court, took them to a specialist in a faraway village “for removal of witchcraft.”
Two days later, Rajagopal’s men forced Santhakumar into a car with Daniel, and they drove north. On Oct. 31, high up in the Western Ghats mountain range near a resort town called Kodaikanal, forest officials discovered a body. An assistant surgeon at the local hospital concluded in his post-mortem that the cause of Santhakumar’s death was “asphyxia due to throttling.” The police later found the alleged murder weapon — a sarong — under the seat of Daniel’s car.
Daniel was convicted of murder along with Rajagopal and has also been released on bail, but I was never able to track him down. Jeevajothi, too, has made herself impossible to find.
Three days after I met Rajagopal in Chennai, I took a short flight to visit the village where he grew up. Rajagopal’s driver picked me up, and he beamed when I asked him what the boss was like. “He’s like a living god to us,” he said. “He understands every problem, and he resolves it.”
The village’s name has been upgraded from Punnaiadi to Punnai Nagar, because of Rajagopal’s development of the area, he told me. The bus even stops there now. In terms of population, Punnai Nagar is no bigger than it was when Rajagopal was born. Yet the village has been transformed. In the middle of the red-dirt moonscape, Rajagopal has erected a surreal monument to his success, in the form of a four-acre Saravana Bhavan campus. The centerpiece is a million-dollar Hindu temple, which is flanked by a Saravana Bhavan restaurant that employs 140 people — all for a village that has fewer than 90 homes.
A worker took me on a tour of Rajagopal’s house, which he built in 1994 on the spot where his childhood hut once stood, and where he has increasingly been spending his time. It’s a huge beige block, nearly all of it given over to dormitory rooms for his staff. The only decorations are pictures of gods. The worker led me to a black couch on the second floor, and a few minutes later, Rajagopal emerged from a back room and sat on a chair opposite me. Ganapathi Iyer was there again, as were his assistant and his valet, who pricked Rajagopal’s finger for a blood-sugar test. But this time Rajagopal was less willing to let them control the conversation.
I asked him about a rumor that while in prison he had managed to improve the food served by the prison canteen. “You can’t change anything there,” he said. “I had to spend one lakh [100,000 rupees] every month in order to get home food delivered to me.”
“Don’t tell him about this,” Iyer said to Rajagopal. “Do we have to talk about the corruption?”
“They should know how corrupt we are,” Rajagopal said. “We can’t just keep bragging that we are good all the time. The truth has to be told.”
I asked him what he likes least about his work.
“I don’t like employees drinking and lying,” he said. “If you ask me, I don’t like that I went after Jeevajothi.”
“Sir, not that,” Iyer said, “just office work, office work.”
“There’s nothing I dislike about the work,” Rajagopal said.
After a while Rajagopal said he was getting tired. As we got up to leave, he talked about how important it was for successful villagers like him to support the places they came from. “Developing villages was Gandhi’s dream,” he said. “I believe in Gandhi.”
I asked what he admired most about Gandhi, and he laughed. “I like that he had a girl on each arm.” He turned to my translator. “Tell him that having girls around keeps a guy young forever.”
“Tell him these last comments were just a joke,” his assistant said.
Shortly before I left Chennai, I met again with Rajagopal’s son Saravanan. This time it was just the two of us, and we talked for hours in the foyer outside his father’s office. Saravanan is a large but gentle man, his husky voice rarely much louder than a whisper.“You don’t know what he will come up wanting,” he said. “A phone call comes, and you have to be dead sure what he’s asking and what you’re answering. That fear is there for everybody.” Is he an intimidating boss to work for? I asked. “When he wants things done a certain way, he’s quite intimidating,” Saravanan said. “It has to be done at any cost
If he’d had his choice, he said, he would have become an engineer. “My dad said, No, we come from a business community; you have to study commerce.” So he did two years of commerce, and then Rajagopal told him he had to study hotel management. From there his father assigned him to a seven-year rotation through the company’s departments: purchasing vegetables, working the graveyard shift in the kitchen, manning a Saravana sweets shop, making ice cream, working in maintenance and accounting and human resources.
It’s clear that Saravanan never gave up his dream of becoming an engineer — he just transferred his ideas to his father’s business. Rajagopal’s exacting standards were dictated by the instinct of a self-made man. Saravanan wants to translate that instinct into a science, and when he talks about the company that’s becoming his, his conversation is peppered with terms that would be foreign to his father, like “management information system” and “total dissolved solids.” In a biochemical lab Saravanan set up on the top floor of the company’s ice-cream factory, he has been trying to determine the exact chemical composition of Saravana’s dishes in their ideal form, and the lab uses this information to test daily samples from each of the company’s Chennai branches to ensure that all are supplying the same quality.
As the company continues to grow, manpower is a worry. Saravanan said he is committed to making everything from fresh ingredients — in fact, he wants to take it further, and he has been experimenting with replacing the artificial stabilizer in Saravana’s otherwise all-natural house-brand ice cream with flaxseed. But such cooking requires vast kitchen staffs, and as better education reaches more and more Indians, he said, fewer workers are interested in that kind of labor.
One solution Saravanan likes is automation. Another in-house lab is developing prototypes for everything from coffee machines to vada fryers, according to Saravana Bhavan’s very particular specifications. He recognizes, though, that the mass utility of such machines is still years away; in the meantime, personnel remains the company’s most treasured asset, so he has also systematized the hiring process. An in-house medical team records each applicant’s vital statistics using software Saravanan developed. A coffee man, he explained, should be small and quiet, while a dosa chef needs to be at least 5-foot-6.
But he was quick to note the limits of such algorithms. Just that morning, he said, the medical team alerted him to their concerns over a particular applicant: They noticed that he had cigarette burns on his forearm, apparently self-inflicted. Saravanan decided to call the man and ask him what happened. “He told me, ‘I had a love affair, it failed, she got married, I got agitated,’ ” Saravanan said. “He made a mistake that was a small part of his life.” The company is strict, but not unforgiving. He told the man he would hire him. And if the job worked out, Saravana Bhavan would pay to erase his scars.