Not all sensible ideas succeed

One of the best known vegetarian restaurant chains in Chennai is Saravana Bhavan. Serving a wide range of South Indian favourites, they have mastered the art of fast food along with a formidable range of dishes available throughout the day. They could give McDonald’s a run for their money with the sheer numbers and the diversity of the menu.

The other thing they manage is to put completely different serving styles of restaurants within the same premises and charge differential rates. Go to Mylapore and eat the ‘Special Thali’ in the general area and you can get away by paying just Rs.80. Go upstairs in air-conditioned comfort and the price rises to Rs.180, with a few extras thrown in. I’m not sure the air-conditioning and the cushions are enough to pay a 120% premium but it seems to work. The kitchens for both the restaurants are common. Upstairs, the waiter takes your order on a wireless device and communicates it to the kitchen.

It upsets a whole lot of branding rules that tell you a brand should be consistent and clearly demarcate between the segments it serves – not mixing one with the other. The Taj does not have a budget and a premium hotel in the same premises. In fact, Saravana Bhavan takes this to an extreme. They have one set of restaurants at Peter’s Road that has a ‘quickie’ format, where people stand and eat. Right next door is a fine dining restaurant where you are served the same dishes on silver plates at a big premium, where you take your boss or impress your girlfriend. Above that is a buffet, which has everything from vegetarian continental to vegetarian Chinese to good old South Indian fare. We Indians really like to mix things up.

Which brings me to the way the buffet evolved. Saravana Bhavan introduced the buffet determined by weight. The logic could not be argued with – those who ate more would pay more. The poor eaters could enjoy the buffet by paying a low cost and still get all the variety in small doses. For those who wanted to pig out – the price would have to be paid. The rule was – up to 500 gms of food, pay the minimum amount. Anything over that, pay according to the weight. It was discomfiting for people to pile up plates and discover that that had reached the 500 gms. mark with just one helping! Just like when people hate others being around when they step up on weighing machine and want the results hidden, this brought the whole unpleasant aspect of ‘how much’ into plain view.

There was a little notebook that the waiter would keep tabs on and though the light eaters loved it, the others were mortified. They would never come up with the real reason they hated the idea of the buffet – they didn’t want to know that they had just eaten 1 kilogram of food! They would protest that the whole idea was stupid, that it was inconvenient and that the weighing scales were wrong, etc, Just because an idea is sensible does not make it successful. The weight angle was dropped in just about six months.