Food King who challenges hunger

Food King who challenges hunger





When he contested the 2009 Lok Sabha elections from the South Chennai constituency, all of Sarath Babu Elumalai’s campaigns addressed the issue of hunger—not because he is in the catering business, but because Sarath knows what he is talking about.

The 31-year-old founder and chief executive of the Food King restaurant grew up with four siblings in Madipakkam, on the outskirts of Chennai. His mother Deeparamani, a single parent, cooked lunch for municipal school children under the government’s free midday meal scheme during the day, and ran her roadside eatery selling idlis in the evening.

“Income from both jobs was around Rs50 per day," recalls Sarath. “The good thing was that there were idlis for the next day’s breakfast, and idli upma for lunch. That was my first lesson in food and waste management."

Struggling to study under street lamps, Sarath was ready to give up academics by the time he was in class X. “Lack of food and basic necessities like electricity can be strong deterrents against education," he says.

But encouraged by a friend, he secured admission in the chemical engineering programme at Birla Institute of Technology and Sciences, Pilani, for which he got financial aid from the Central government.

It was an internship at the Central Fuel Research Institute in Bihar in 2000 that was a game changer. “I learnt that 30% of the Indian population lived in abject poverty and 7 crore mothers went hungry every day to feed their children," he says. “Much like my mother used to."

After a two-year stint at Polaris Software, Chennai, after graduation, he went to the Indian Institute of Management (Ahmedabad) where he resolved to start his own business, which could provide employment for thousands, rather than take up a job that would benefit only his family.

He started Food King catering services in 2006, when he was 27, with savings of Rs2,000. Sarath says: “Our first order was for 100 cups of coffee for a club meeting." Food King now has branches in Hyderabad, Ahmedabad and Pilani, and is set to open three-four more retail outlets in Chennai next month. It employs 250 people across its branches.

Sarath contested the 2009 Lok Sabha elections as an independent. “Our two-month campaign fetched us 15,890 votes. Preparation is in full swing for the 2011 assembly elections in Tamil Nadu," he says. He has joined Vijayakanth’s Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam for this election.

Sarath has now started the Hunger-Free India Foundation, which aims to feed at least 100,000 people every year. “I’ve been food- challenged all through childhood. Now is my turn to challenge hunger."

Niranjana Ramesh

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