Try this, it’s plain chocolate without any sugar,” says M. Mahadevan, picking out a bar of fresh chocolate from a pile, wrapped and gleaming in a bin marked “Maple Leaf”.
It’s a scene straight out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. “Hot-Breads Mahadevan” introduced the first fully automated, open-to-view bread-making pastry and bread café in Chennai, way back in the 1980s. His latest venture, a chocolate factory with French inputs, is set in the midst of a leafy neighbourhood of Chennai’s school district.
It’s as transparent as a chocolate box of clear plastic. You can press your nose to the glass walls and watch the chocolates being made. The air is filled with the aromas of cocoa butter, sugar and milk solids. Gleaming jars filled with sugared fruits await their turn in a refrigerated cabinet. Chopped nuts, dates, chocolate nibblets and other garnishes are on display.
Trendy in a designer shirt, Mahadevan dashes in between small conveyor belts that carry pre-moulded knobs of white chocolate that are being dunked in a coating of melted brown chocolate, talking all the while. He picks up a young chocolatier who supervises operations and displays him like a piece of chocolate that has popped off a tray.
“This is what I enjoy doing the most, ” he says, “Teaching people to fish, teaching them a trade.” The young chocolatier, curly hair encased in a clear plastic cap and wearing white overalls, is a typical south Indian lad. He’s probably never seen Mahadevan before but, like everyone else, he succumbs to the ambient heat of his boss’ enthusiasm.
He is one of the several thousand people Mahadevan has placed on the conveyor belt to success by giving them basic training in a specific area of a culinary skill and sending them to distant corners of the world.
Besides the bakeries, Mahadevan has mixed and matched different types of cuisines. He has married existing brands and found trading partners all over the world. The French have learnt to relish croissants with tandoori chicken fillings, the Americans in San Jose love the vegetarian curry puffs, as do the South Americans, Botswanians and South Africans, while Indians in Dubai can look forward to authentic south Indian sambhar and chutney that go under the Saravana Bhavan brand. His code name should really be “Franchise King”, but this would be to take away from the secret of Mahadevan’s success.
His real talent is in people management. He is able to mould young people as easily as his chefs roll out a pastry, or turn a tandoori roti. The Chennai operations are, in effect, the training ground for the cooks, bakers, chocolate makers, patissier and dosa experts who have replicated the Mahadevan brand in different parts of the world.
“T.N. Seshan famously said that all those who come from Palakkad are either crooks or cooks. Well, I am happy to say that I am just a cook,” he says. This is just one of Mahadevan’s ploys to put people off track. He may love food but he is not a cook. He may be from Kerala, but he is more at home in Tamil Nadu, where his family lives. He is ubercool in jeans and T-shirt and in Chennai, everyone claims to be his best buddy. But his profile describes him as a Dubai-based NRI businessman and lists his company, Oriental Cuisines Pvt. Ltd’s holdings at Rs35 crore in India and Rs45 crore internationally.
He started out teaching management to students at a local college, but it is his ability to create brands that makes him stand apart.
“When I opened Hot Breads in 1988 at the Alsa Mall—one of the first malls in Chennai—I knew I was taking a big risk because in the south, the idea of bread is that it is a sick man’s food,” says Mahadevan. It was a stylish café-style shop, with self-help counters and a young staff that could be seen kneading, plaiting, shaping and adding the different fillings and topping to diverse kind of breads. The machines were automatic and were bought from Japan. As Mahadevan recalls, the idea of adding different fillings to the basic dough mixture and the open-to-view operations was something he picked up during a visit to Singapore.
“It’s all scientific,” Mahadevan explains, “Anyone can be trained to do it. You add the exact ingredients, set the timers on the machines and the results will always be the same. This was why it was so easy to create the franchises for Hot Breads. We just found a successful formula.”
“We are used to the soft sweet buns that we can dip into our coffee,” says a young woman shopping at the Hot Breads outlet in Madurai, further south in Tamil Nadu. “We could not understand why people would want to use salt in their breads. Even today, we call the place Salt Breads. But, we soon realized that we could eat it with curry.”
Mahadevan concedes that it has been difficult to maintain a consistent quality in the image of the various Hot Breads outlets. He is planning to replicate the formula of some of his other brands in other parts of the country. “It’s the same with ‘Zara—The Spanish Tavern’. We may owe our success to our Spanish barman Sebastian, who has such charisma. But, I can tell you that mixing a cocktail is also a science. You may need an artist to make it a success, but it can be done with a little practice.”
The other popular restaurant in Chennai is the Thai one called Benjarong. Here, too, two Mahadevan features make it exceptional. He transformed a typical Chennai-style house into a fine-dining restaurant with Thai touches and put a young chef he had poached from the Taj’s West End hotel in charge.
“Regi Mathew had both the passion and the knowledge to be able to adapt Thai cuisine to the south Indian palate and I think that’s what made the difference,” says Mahadevan. “Now, I am happy to see how he has grown with the brand. He has become an entrepreneur as well as being one of the best chefs in the business. This is why I feel confident that Benjarong will succeed wherever we take the brand.”
Both Mahadevan and Regi Mathew have collaborated to create their latest product. It is a Kerala food restaurant called Ente Keralam that serves the best of Kerala cuisine in a setting that is both intimate and elegant—in fact, it is like dining in your grandmother’s house. Though the customers who dine there are more than ready to complain that the texture of the fish curry is not creamy enough, or that the Kozhikode biryani lacks a certain spice, the way in which the traditionally dressed Kerala women twirl appams in a round-bottomed wok in the see-through recesses of the restaurant has many of them coming back for more.
“Hot Breads Mahadevan” has stirred the batter with just the right amount of style and timing to make even his native food a fashion statement.
Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org