The leafy green neighbourhood of Malleshwaram in Bengaluru has an interesting story that resonates with the times we live in. Nearly 150 years ago, when the city was gripped by plague, Malleshwaram was built to provide hygienic living conditions. With time, memory and traces of the plague faded. Now, it is an area marked by vintage charm that spills over into the iconic, almost 90-year-old, eatery Shri Sagar (CTR).
CTR, acronym for Central Tiffin Room, was set up in the 1920s and changed several owners. In the 90s, it was bought over by Sanjeeva Poojari who renamed it Shri Sagar (CTR). When he died two years ago, his then 28-year-old son, the young and ambitious Sandesh Poojari, took over.
The pandemic has brought about a sea change to everything in our lives, but it is heartening to know that a few things remain untouched, like the benne (butter) masala dosa, maddur vada and Mangalore bajji at CTR.
Lounge caught up with Sandesh Poojari, who says that his business has witnessed a rebirth. He had to take special care of his staff, some of whom have been with CTR since before he was born.
You say CTR underwent a rebirth. How so?
Our menu and the taste of the food have not changed. But, our backend processes were overhauled. There are about 30-35 employees and we monitor each person’s health. The way we interact with our customers is completely different now. Pre-covid, people would rush into the restaurant and it was ok to eat amidst large crowds. Now, they have to wait longer for the tables to be cleared and sanitised. Our diners come from all walks of life and some of them get offended when we point our thermometer at them. Overall, I have to put double the effort to keep my customers and team happy.
What else changed for you as a restaurant owner?
My schedule. Earlier, my work timings were from 9 am in the morning to 9 pm at night. Now, I come to the restaurant at 7 am and leave by 10:30 pm. I oversee the cleaning and sanitisation of the restaurant which explains the longer work hours. My staff needs to be trained on how to handle food and service according to safety guidelines. And, training them once is not enough. So, we have team meetings every four days. Before covid, meetings would be once in two weeks. Most things were on auto-mode then. Now, each person needs individual attention and I ask them about their health, tell them about the news on covid-19 and how we plan to run the restaurant. If someone has a mild cold or flu, I take them to the doctor. We have arranged for monthly health check-ups too. I have to give them a clear picture, you know.
Some of your team members have been with you for almost 50 years. How do you take care of them?
They need special attention. So, I arranged the medical check-ups. Some of them left for their villages and they are still on our payroll. We did have a pay-cut of 10%-20% depending on the job position of each employee, but now their salaries have been restored. Most of my employees stay in the building where the restaurant is located. I keep a close watch and remind them to limit their social interactions outside of work. There are some employees who live a little away from the restaurant. I pick them up for work to avoid risking exposure.
What did you notice in the lockdown?
We reopened in May. But, when we were closed for a few weeks, there was a palpable need for people to step out. We had to arrange for takeaways, especially of our dosas.
How many dosas do you sell?
Before covid, the number of dosas sold on a weekday would be around 1000 to 1200 and shoot upto 2000-2500 on weekends. Now, it’s around 800 on a weekday and maybe 1000 on a weekend.
That’s not so bad…
But, our business has been affected. Right now, we have recovered only 60%. People are saying that restaurant businesses will bounce back by April. I don’t think so. It will take at least a year for food businesses like us to match pre-coved profit levels.
What is the one big 2020 plan that the pandemic derailed?
I wanted to open another branch this year. But, that plan has been pushed to 2021, if we recover.
What is the one lesson that the pandemic taught you?
To take better care of my staff. If one person gets affected, then everyone else will.
Turning the Tables is a series of interviews with chefs and food entrepreneurs on coping with covid-19.