“He probably didn’t have enough time for his family because he was so devoted to the businesses,” said a family friend, Balu, who does public relations work for Saravana Bhavan. (Like many in South India, Balu has one name.)
The restaurant focused on South Indian cuisine, serving freshly cooked dosas, a type of crispy golden rice and lentil crepe. As his chain expanded, the dish would earn him the nickname the “dosa king” in the media. He also sold snacks like idlis, soft round steamed rice cakes, and vadas, a kind of lentil doughnut, serving them with freshly cooked chutneys.
As his tasty, inexpensive food gained a following, his restaurant eventually turned a profit, enabling him to open branches. In 2000, with about 20 locations in India, Saravana Bhavan ventured overseas, opening in neighborhoods where the Indian diaspora had a strong presence. The chain expanded first into Dubai, then to cities like New York, London and Sydney, Australia. Thought it operates under a franchise model, its chefs continue to come from Chennai.
With his growing success, Mr. Rajagopal increased benefits for workers, giving them housing assistance and medical care and their relatives employment. He would bestow books on their children and provide marriage allowances for their daughters. Employees repaid him with their loyalty, referring to him as “annachi,” a Tamil term for elder brother.
Like an elder brother, though, Mr. Rajagopal was known to be strict. Employees who broke rules, like drinking or using their phones while on the job, would be summoned to his office and have to wait in line to be disciplined.
“When he wants things done a certain way, he’s quite intimidating,” his son Saravanan told The New York Times in 2014.
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