Ahmedabad: In nearly 30 years of selling tea (milky), cigarettes (assorted) and omelettes (deeply greasy, deeply satisfying), Ram Attar Kori has developed his diminutive name, Rambhai, into something of a brand. Eagle-eyed analysts have noted how wholly appropriate this is. Rambhai’s stall—four stalls, really—can be found just outside the gate of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A), within the premises of which management boffins debate endlessly about the strategies of branding.
One cannot expect to hand out nicotine fixes and hangover-alleviating cups of tea to the nation’s foremost management students without making a deep impact on their lives and careers. And so it has happened with Rambhai. When a few IIM-A graduates set up a website to replicate Digg.com in India, they named it Rambhai.com. When students need to explore an offbeat business model, Rambhai is the perfect live case study. When IIM-A wrapped a high, sturdy wall around its campus, it left a small window unbricked, for Rambhai to continue to ply his trade.
Recently, Rambhai says, when two graduates met up over dinner at a five-star hotel in Mumbai and fell to reminiscing, they decided that the perfect end to the meal could only be Rambhai’s tea—and so they drove, overnight, to Ahmedabad, reaching his stall just as he was brewing the first kettle of the day. Edited excerpts:
There was a rumour going around that you’re quitting soon. Is that true?
Not at all. Maybe in eight years or so. I’m 52 now. So maybe when I turn 60.
What was it like over here, when you first set up?
That was in 1982. It was all jungle here. There was the gate, and just one paan shop and another kaka selling snacks. There wasn’t even a pucca road. I’d come here to buy beedis for a relative, and I saw these students going to the paanwala, and it struck me then that there would always be a good demand here for tea and cigarettes and so on.
And how difficult was it to set up your own stall?
I only had Rs1,000 to invest, at the time. So I put it all into the business, and every time I made more money I’d invest that right back into the business. Also, I figured that I couldn’t just sell one item. Students always want to save time. So I sold tea and cigarettes, but also paan, omelettes, buns and samosas. I learned the students’ night schedules. Everybody else would pack up and leave around 10-11pm, but I stayed until 2-3am in the first few years. That’s when students were studying, so that’s when they would need food or tea.
For the record: Rambhai, earlier quite liberal with giving credit, now keeps accounts on small cards made out of cigarette cartons. Amit Dave/Mint
Have you always lived in Ahmedabad?
No, I came here in 1962, from Uttar Pradesh, with my father and brother. I even went to school—I don’t think I could tackle IIM students without having gone to school! I studied for a technical diploma, which I left midway, and I then worked as an electrician at the Indian Space Research Organisation. But I left that job too. I wanted to start something up by myself, which is when I had the idea for this stall.
Wasn’t the competition fierce? This is, after all, prime area.
Oh, it was! Before me, there were 10 or 11 stalls that had all disappeared, so when I set up, I remember that one of the IIM staffers said: “Let’s see how long this fellow stays.” I told him at that time: “Not only will I stay, but I’ll watch others leave.” But the thing was, everybody else was looking for their profits to continuously increase. I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t operating at a loss, and that my revenues were growing.
There were other difficulties. Once, in 1992, I came to my stall to find that some of my competitors had slapped a lock on it, so that I couldn’t open it to start work. I had to get a lock-cutter. Then, a few years ago, IIM-A decided to build a wall around the entire campus, for security reasons, and they had to move me away from immediately outside the gate. (He now sits roughly 100m along from the gate, on the pavement.) But they were kind enough to cut a small window into the wall, so that students could still buy what they wanted without having to go out of the campus.
What happens during summers, when the students aren’t here?
I think my business must drop by 50%, at least. May be even more—I’d say, of all the sales I do, at least 75% must be because of IIM being here.
And how do you keep track of who owes you how much?
Earlier, I used to give people quite a bit of credit. In fact, I’m told there was a tradition: A recently graduated batch would email their juniors, who would be in their final year, telling them how much I was owed, and those juniors would settle these debts. Sometimes, an account could run to as much as Rs10,000 per student, over the course of two years.
But in 2003, I had a few financial troubles. At that time, I remember, I was advised by a couple of professors that I shouldn’t be offering so much credit. So I stopped. And I started maintaining accounts on these (indicates a pile of neat cards, cut out of cigarette cartons).
Do the students give you advice too, about how you should be running a business?
Sometimes. Actually I am very prone to scolding them, if I think they’re being lazy. I tell them: “Your parents are spending so much money on your course. How can you not study?” You know, I still have some regrets that I could never study more. But I look at these students, and when I see them studying, I feel, in a way, like I’m studying.