8-Connecting the Dots…


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Early years:

I was nine years old then I think. In those days back in early 70’s we never had a phone at home. The only person that had a phone and a car in our family was our Periappa and Periamma who used to live in Mahalingapuram. I remember their phone number even today 421531 for some weird reason. Those days when people wanted to visit relatives they would write a letter in advance about their intentions. My Periappa and Periamma came home one day unannounced.

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My father had gone out on some work and my mom had gone out to get Groceries. I offered the guests water and asked if they would like to eat something. They jokingly said sure and must have thought what 9 year old could possibly make. I made Rava Upma quickly and offered it to them with some sugar like how I would normally eat it. My Periappa and Periamma were surprised and shocked at the same time. My mom walked in and my Periappa quipped that one day I would grow up and become a chef. I had never heard of the word Chef till then. I had to look it up in the dictionary.

In my school days math and science never interested me. The thought of Engineering and Medicine was just not in my mind. I loved to make something at home all the time. Old left over rice soaked in water would become tasty Thayir Sadam the next day with Sautéed finely chopped Red Onions, Chillies, ginger, mustard seeds, Urad dal and Hing served with vintage lime pickle. Everyone used to love it.

When I say vintage lime pickle I really mean it. Two to three years old preserved in one of those jars used for storing strong acids like sulphuric acid and nitric acid.

to be continued…

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7-Connecting the Dots…


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Annalakshmi was getting popular day by day. Weekends were busy. On an average we used to cater 2-3 parties per weekend. That meant shopping for veggies, cleaning and prepping them the day before the event. My wife has always been a pillar of support in everything I do. I don’t think I ever thank her enough for all the support she has been providing all these days. I need several episodes (that may not be enough) to rave about her contributions.

For every catering event I used to maintain a chart.

Let us say the catering order was for

Medhu Vada
Chutney
Veg Biryani
Raita
Paneer Butter Masala
Dal Makhani
Rasmalai

and the pick up time was 11:00 am,

I used to make a chart to reflect what happens at what time.

Rabdi – make one day ahead and soak rasmalai patties. Pack and label.

Raita – Make one day ahead. Pack and label.

Prepping veggies – one day ahead

Grating coconut – one day ahead

Soak dal for dal Makhni – one day ahead

Soak and grind for Vada –
One day ahead

Paneer : Cube one day ahead.

7:15 am Make Paneer Butter Masala.  Put in Hot Box after cooking to 155 degrees.

8:15 Start Making dal Makhni.  Pack and put in hot box after cooking to 155 degrees.

8:30 am Soak and wash biryani rice

8:45 am Pre heat oven for finishing Biryani in Dum.

9:00 am : Prepare Biryani.

10:00 am : Fry Vadas

10:30 am make coconut chutney

10:45 am pack and keep ready for pick up.

I learned a few things.

Customers were used to IST and expected that I would work IST as well. I was not wired that way. I was unhappy that my would be wife was late on our first date. I am a stickler for time.

When a customer orders food to be picked up at 11:00 am and shows up at 11:45 am I was not too happy. I always wondered why the customers never update me that they are running late. If they updated me I could make the Vadas later so that they remain crispier.

I started asking customers more probing questions on what time they would start serving food so that my product remained fresh and warm. It was my reputation that was at stake.

The average Indian customer drives a hard bargain. They would compare apples to oranges and drive down the price. It was a learning curve for me.

In 2001, I catered for a function for a small weekend gathering for 15 people.

I made a little too much food and decided to give the extra food to the customer. Big mistake..!

The next time the customer ordered food for the same kind of occasion and quantity I gave the right quantity and the customer was unhappy that I gave less quantity. I had set the wrong expectations on the first occasion.

I was learning day by day..

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to be continued…

6-Connecting the Dots…


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The Bomb Shell :

Work at DHS (Department of Homeland Security) was going smooth sans any job satisfaction though.

The eight hours at work seemed like eternity. Weekends flew by fast as I was not only loving what I was doing but also hitting it out of the park every single day. At the end of the day at Bombay Bistro, Spandan and I would grab a bottle of beer and discuss what we could improve upon to deliver a better customer experience.

Just when things seemed to be going smooth came that phone call from my consulting company. Post 9/11 things were bad and many government projects got shelved. Consulting business was slow. My company wanted me to relocate to India along with my family and learn new skills and make myself employable and come back to USA.

I had two choices. Go back to India and they would provide a one way flight ticket or sign on the dotted line indicating my choice to stay back and fend for myself.

No pay while on “bench” but health insurance will be provided. I had to let them know of my decision in one week.

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That evening I was in no mood to work. I am a Tirupathi Venkatachalapathi devotee. I chant Vishnu Sahasranamam everyday and whenever I have a drive that lasts 30 mins or longer that is what I would chant. I prayed to Him to point me in the right direction.

That night when I went home and opened the mail box I had a pleasant surprise waiting.

My EAD (Employment Authorization Document) had been approved. That meant I can legally work any job I wanted and as many jobs as I wanted. My wife could do the same as well. We both could work and not depend on the software job anymore.

I not only found the answer to my prayers but also the answer to my company’s question of whether I chose to go back or stay back.

The next day I called Spandan and gave him the news and asked him if he could help me.

Spandan needed someone he could count on and was generous to offer me several jobs.

Opening and prepping at Quiznos in Natomas daily from 8:00 am to 10:30 am and from then handle the cash register till 2:00 pm.

Work at Bombay Bistro weekends and also help at Quiznos in Lincoln the remaining evenings.

I was delighted and grabbed all the opportunities he presented with both my hands immediately.

All of a sudden I had my hands full and in addition to that Annalakshmi had begun to take off nicely.

 –to be continued…

5-Connecting the Dots…


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Annalakshmi the early days:

I decided to invest all the money I had made until then from my part time job at Bombay Bistro in buying equipment from Yaffee Restaurant Supply. I had saved close to $3300. I first had to establish who my competition was and how I wanted to differentiate myself from my competition. I believed that not only the food has to be outstanding but the presentation has to be stellar as well.

I invested in cooking equipment as well as service related hardware.
1. Tables
2. Table Cloth
3. Chafing dishes
4. Serving Ware
5. Skirting for the tables
6. Cookware
7. Stove
8. Propane Gas cylinders and so on.

My first customer was Intel. Subra Chandramouli from Intel coordinated the whole event. It was for a cricket tournament on the concluding day at Folsom High School. The lunch party was for 25 people. Unfortunately for this event I did not have all my hardware in place and had to cook in the apartment kitchen. The number of people was a moving target and changed every 4 – 6 hours. What started off as a party for 25 quickly changed to 35 and then 45 and finally the number became 70.

I remember the previous night we had to make Gajar Halwa for 70 people in a large vessel that would barely fit on top of the electric stove in my apartment. My sister in law was visiting from Minneapolis and she ended up helping the whole night. The menu had Bisi Bele Bath and Medhu Vadai among other dishes. The party was a super duper hit.

People loved the food and the professional way it was arranged. My first check for the catering order of 70 x $7 = $490 felt nice to hold in my hand but it came with a lot of hard work.

Annalakshmi had arrived..!

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to be continued…

4-Connecting the Dots…


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அன்னலட்சுமி

I was loving my job at Bombay Bistro. I was making about $300 to $400 per week on the side by working a few days in the evening. I also had a software job that was paying me decent. I was finally feeling “comfortable” with my new found part time job not just because it was my passion but because I hated my software job. The hate was primarily because I knew nothing about software. I never learnt programming but I was a programmer by accident.

Those days I used to work at DHS on 7th and P. Everyday I used to take a walk during lunch. I must have walked the same route so many times in the past but on that particular day I happened to notice a store by name Yaffee Restaurant Supply. I was curious and decided to step inside.

It was a store that specialized in new and used restaurant equipment. I was like a kid in a candy store. I had never been to a Restaurant Equipment Store prior to that. Before I could realize the time was 2.30 pm. I had been there for 90 minutes well past my 30 minute lunch period. I rushed back to my desk.

That evening while I was working at Bombay Bistro a customer asked me why Bombay Bistro did not serve Idlies and Dosas. I explained that Bombay Bistro was a Northern Indian restaurant and Southern Indian Food was not their forte.

But in my my mind an idea was brewing about a business that catered to the needs of the South Indian population. An eatery that would operate only on the weekends. A business that catered to the weekend birthday parties, poojas, house warming parties, Ayushhomams.

I discussed this with my wife who was very positive about the idea.

Thus was born அன்னலட்சுமி.

to be continued…

Photo of Mylapore - Roseville, CA, United States

 

3-Connecting the Dots…


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The meeting :

I was eager to work and Spandan I could tell was eager to hire and so the meeting was scheduled for the next day. I could barely wait to meet Spandan.

The meeting happened at Bombay Bistro. It was fairly quick. Spandan told me in clear terms that he was looking for a person that could wear multiple hats : Waiter, Sommelier, Cashier, Manager, Busser, Prep Cook, Dish Washer and more depending on what the need of the hour was.

He said that I would be paid by the hour plus whatever tips that were collected.

I was thrilled that I was being paid for this valuable experience. I would have agreed to work even if I were not paid..

I started work the same evening. I was dressed for the job, black shirt, black pants, black shoes and a smile on my face. I did not need any time to brush up on the menu or the wine list as they were all very familiar.

Bombay Bistro was a fairly large restaurant with more than 100 covers. The restaurant was busy every evening from 5:00 pm and frequented mostly by the locals. With my gift of the gab and love for the business I was able to suggest great food and wine pairings and almost every table would buy a bottle of wine.

On a good evening I would sell at least 6-8 full bottles of wine and dozens of wine by the glass as well.

When people used to ask questions about the menu and the dishes I would bring the seekh (Skewer) and explain in detail on how a dish was made.

By the time it was 8:00 pm the local crowd would die down and the Desi crowd would start coming in.

Handling the Desi crowd is a totally different ball game.

By 9:15 it was time to sweep, mop, take the trash out, count the cash and pack dinner and leave. I had another day job from 7:00 am to 4:00 pm and I better get some sleep.

There was a great amount of job satisfaction and also the feeling that every day at the new job is helping me understand the nuances of this business. Most of the evenings I was all by myself with Spandan and Balroop (his partner).

Handling 10 -12 tables single handed was not a problem. Multitasking was my forte.

Did I mention that I used to leave with at least $100 or more in tips every evening ? For about 4 hours of work that was quite a lot plus of course the hourly wages too. That was big money 16 years ago..!

to be continued…

The author J a.k.a Sriram with his parents… (in the below picture)

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2-Connecting the Dots…


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Varalakshmi Poojai :

I got a call from my Aunt during the first week of September 2001.

“Sriram, this is Lalitha Maami here from Suisun City. Can you and Sudha come for Varalakshmi Pooja at our home”.

My mother does Varalakshmi Poojai with a lot of Shraddha and purity. I know a lot of families that do the same.

I was pleasantly surprised about this Pooja happening in USA and me being invited to attend.

The Pooja was on a week day (Friday) and I skipped work and attended the Pooja along with My Wife. The Pooja was performed in a Grand way by Pandit Ravichandran. My Mama and Mami have been living here for more than 50 years. My Maami loves to cook and entertain people.

My Wife and I had an amazing time at their home.

We left around 4:00 pm to return back to Sacramento.

I received a call while I was driving back. It was Spandan Patel who called me. He wanted to know if I can help him at Bombay Bistro. He wanted to meet me to discuss the terms.

I was ecstatic..

to be continued…