Chennai: Chennai’s popular Grand Sweets and Snacks is as minimalist as a sweet store-cum-snack bar can get. It is essentially the front porch of a traditional home in upper middle class Adyar. A few plastic chairs are carelessly strewn around for customers.
The staff, mostly women in mustard-coloured uniform saris, take orders from behind office desks, receive payments, run to the kitchen at the back to shout out the orders, and rush back with packs of sweets, pickles, savouries and spicy concoctions used in traditional Tamil cuisine. A new customer would be struck by the sheer chaos.
A couple of months ago, even the regulars were in for some added confusion—a newly erected wall running down the middle and splitting the cult store into two.
The third generation of founder G. Natarajan’s family, which has been running the store since it began as a home canteen some 30 years ago, has decided to divide the fast-growing business among themselves.
Divided legacy: Employees in the kitchen at Grand Sweets and Snacks shop in Adyar, Chennai. Nathan G/Mint
Natarajan, who moved to Chennai from Perambalur district decades ago, tried his hand unsuccessfully at a number of trades before opening the canteen, says Chandran, an associate of Natarajan since his early days and a former manager of Grand Sweets.
“We started with about 12 people running the store, and employed 300 women before the split. They were all permanent employees with proper allowances, health and retirement benefits,” says Chandran, who goes by one name.
After Natarajan passed away in 2001, the Central Board of Direct Taxes recognized him as one of the city’s largest taxpayers; he had declared an income of at least Rs20 lakh for four consecutive years.
His daughters G. Ranganayaki and P. Rajeswari have three sons and one daughter, respectively. Two of Ranganayaki’s sons took up different professions and Rajeswari’s daughter Priyanka got married into a family of builders. That left G. Saravanamahesh, Ranganayaki’s first son, to run the family business, until Priyanka’s husband Madhan began taking interest. He, too, prefers going by his first name.
“Negotiations for the split began four years back,” says Priyanka-Madhan, “as we found Grand Sweets to be a much more stable and interesting proposition than the ups and downs of the real estate business.” Eventually, in November, the original store in Adyar was divided and registered as two separate firms.
It’s easy to see why the store is such a draw. As word spread, its ghee-dipped sweets and traditional snacks began drawing customers to Adyar from all over Chennai and even outside. It opened just one other branch in the city, in Anna Nagar, a few years ago.
Since the split, Saravanamahesh’s unit has opened four new branches and Priyanka’s two. Saravanamahesh got to keep the Anna Nagar branch.
He wants to open a branch in Bangalore as well, which would be Grand Sweets’ first outside Chennai. “We have been retailing out savouries through other shops in Bangalore and Chennai for years now. So we are confident about the demand in Bangalore,” Saravanamahesh says.
“Our revenues before and after opening the branches have pretty much been the same. It’s going to take some time for the branches to start selling big volumes. Our investments after the split will break even in three-four years,” he adds.
Despite the split, the cousins say their relationship is friendly. Both groups still use the same brand name, but their ads hint at the differences, at least in their approaches. Saravanamahesh’s chain promotes ragi thattai, a healthier version of a fried snack; Priyanka’s new chain prefers brash signboards and neon lights.
“While we have invested so much in the new shops and customers now find it easier to access us, it will still take time for our volumes and revenues to grow proportionately,” Priyanka says.
The split has left some sores, besides the awkward wall. The two divided stores in Adyar are spitting images of each other, selling the same sweets and savouries, prepared from the exact same recipes. Two sisters Kokila and Chithra run independent tiffin stalls on both sides, preparing the Chettinad delicacies of adai, kuzhi paniyaram and bonda that taste much the same. Two brothers from Rajasthan run jalebi stalls in the two stores.
An elderly couple, M.V. Sundaresan and Sabitha S., look amused. “We tried the first shop yesterday, today we are in the other. We cannot detect any difference,” they say.
Some of the original store’s oldest kitchen employees had trouble dealing with the split. Rukmani mami, an elderly lady nicknamed Poli mami for her speciality in making polis—a toasted sweet made of gram flour, refined flour, jaggery and coconut—has been separated from her assistants, who were sent to the new kitchen. “Only those trained by me could make polis exactly like I do… Now I have to hire some disciples and train them all over again,” she complains.
Rukmani mami was one of Natarajan’s earliest hires. “I used to make polis at home and supply them to hotels in the city. Natarajan himself visited my house and asked me to make polis in his shop,” she says. She makes only polis at Grand Sweets, even as many other sweets and savouries for the store are made in a factory on the city’s outskirts.
The factory, too, has a wall running through.
“There’s a lesson in this for family businesses. When they are nurtured and grown, there should also be a clear vision for future inheritance and succession of ownership,” says K. Ramakrishnan, executive director (ED) at consultancy firm Spark Capital.
S. Sriram, ED at Great Lakes Institute of Management in Chennai and who studies family-run businesses, says, “Even as there’s an opportunity in this (splitting of the business), there’s also the danger of brand dilution.”
“I don’t think we would dilute our brand,” says Priyanka. “See, there’s a north Indian sweet shop opposite to us. That has its own customer base and we have our own, only ours is much more rooted in tradition.”