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Paragon's Sumesh Govind is putting ‘appams’ on the world map

Recently named one of the world’s most legendary restaurants, Kerala’s famous Paragon chain is now in Bengaluru

Appams from Paragon.
Appams from Paragon.

Like any establishment with a history of over 80 years, Paragon, the legendary restaurant from Kozhikode, Kerala, has had its fair share of ups and downs. But it’s now firmly on the up: It opened an outlet in Bengaluru on 20 July and won the 11th spot, among 150 entries, on the “World’s Most Legendary Restaurants” list brought out by the well-known food publication Taste Atlas at the end of June. It’s the first time Paragon has been featured by the eight-year-old publication, which focuses on local foods.

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Paragon is well ahead of the other legacy Indian outlets on the list, including the Amrik Sukhdev Dhaba in Murthal, Haryana, Karim’s in Delhi, Tunday Kababi in Lucknow and Peter Cat in Kolkata.

It has been a long haul. I meet Sumesh Govind, managing director, Paragon Group of Restaurants, in Bengaluru when he is overseeing preparations for their newest outlet. Sitting by the glass windows overlooking Museum Road, we take a walk back in time—from the beginnings as a bakery in Kozhikode to a restaurant specialising in Malabar cuisine, to battling debt, building a loyal clientele and spearheading a turnaround based on innovation.

Today, Paragon has branches in Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram, Bengaluru and Dubai. Sister concerns include M-Grill (which serves Italian, French and Thai), Salkara (Malabari), BrownTown (a European bakery and café with some Asian dishes) and the Paragon catering division, all of which together employ around 3,000 people. The group reports an annual turnover of around 225 crore.

It was in 1939 that Govindan Panchikail, Govind’s paternal grandfather, retired as a railway officer and opened The Paragon Baking Company with his son, P.M. Valsan. This was in the same place where the iconic Paragon stands today in Kozhikode. The bakery was soon sought-after for puffs, Christmas cakes and baked goods. A small restaurant attached to it would serve signature dishes like mutton chops curry, appam and stew.

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“My father (P.M. Valsan) took over the business on the passing of my grandfather and it did quite well with him at the helm. He chose to diversify but unfortunately, it backfired, leading to huge losses, which naturally affected his spirits,” recalls Govind, 59. Valsan died in 1978 and his wife, Govind’s mother, Saraswati Valsan, took the reins of the business.

She would sit at the cash counter and deal with all the issues that come with running a restaurant. “She must have been among the first women in Kozhikode to do such a thing. Remember, it was not a fine-dining restaurant but a typical Malayali one. People, including the family, were generally unhappy with this but she continued,” says Govind, adding that he did not want to be part of this “chaos” after he graduated in commerce and was leaning towards philosophy, literature and art.

But things came to a head. Between 1978-88, debts were rising. “We were dealing with the burden of debt that came from the businesses that my father had diversified into,” he says. His mother had to deal with a host of issues, including the threat of eviction when a part of the land and restaurant was acquired for expansion.

On the advice of his spiritual guru, Govind decided to take things into his hands, in 1988-89. Some financial assistance from a friend set the ball rolling for Paragon’s new story and Govind brought in what he thought was needed to change things—innovation.

Sumesh Govind.
Sumesh Govind.

“I realised, though, that innovation alone is not enough; creative disruption is essential. Quality was my topmost priority and I introduced innovation in our food and human resource activities and in six months we were able to turn the business around,” he recalls.

Taste Atlas says Paragon “… is celebrated for its mastery of traditional Malabar cuisine. The dish that reigns supreme is the biryani…” Govind adds that Paragon’s uniqueness is that it has up to 20 specialities. “When recreating a classic dish, no one will part with their secret recipes and so you have to tread your path. We brought in ustads, observed them and learnt what they were willing to share. And then reworked on the recipe till we got those classic flavours right,” explains Govind.

When it came to the menu, Govind would keep pushing his team to try something new. “Back home, I would tell my mother not to cut a mackerel up into pieces but serve it whole, with slices of onions and tomatoes. A friend reminded me of this and I decided to try it with the restaurant but was met by stiff opposition from the team. ... They even asked that I give them helmets to prepare for the brickbats they were sure they would receive,” laughs Govind. But the idea clicked and a few days after the dish was introduced, almost every table at the restaurant saw one being ordered.

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The same happened with the appam. It was always considered a breakfast dish, served with mutta (egg) curry. But it had been a staple for dinner at Govind’s home, served with kunji mathi (small sardine) stir-fry and gravy left over from lunch. Govind wanted it for Paragon but the restaurant team shot down the idea. Govind held firm and appam was introduced as a dinner dish. It became a turning point. Sales skyrocketed overnight. Within six months, the Kozhikode outlet’s earnings rose from 3,000 a day to 40,000. Today, they earn around 12 lakh a day.

“The good thing about Paragon is that we have always attracted the whole range of age groups—from children to senior citizens. At all the Kerala outlets, we have a clientele that cuts across society—from VVIPs to the everyday man,” he says. The average cost of a meal for two may range from 800 in Kozhikode to 1,000 in Bengaluru.

Govind was also the first in Kerala to provide staff quarters, where three people would share a room with an attached bath. A qualified human resources professional and a chartered accountant were also appointed. The latter, A. Unnikrishnan Menon, is the company’s chief operating officer today.

Govind also ventured into other cuisines. “I dabble in multiple cuisines because when it comes to food, I can’t think of borders,” he says. As we converse, parottas, mango and fish curry, prawns dry fry, boiled rice, and a coconut milk laced vegetable curry are served. He says he loves to challenge himself. “I am growing younger, not older, with such challenges. At Paragon, over the years, I have seen young couples come in with their babies, who have now grown up and bring their teenagers to us. Hopefully, soon I will see another generation too.”

Ruth Dsouza Prabhu is a features journalist based in Bengaluru.

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