Apart from the golden brown crisp dosas and moist idlis, Maiya also learnt the recipes for business success the hard way at MTR. “I cannot forget what I learnt at the onset of my career. The head cook, Narayana, at the MTR kitchen was 20 years my senior and one of the most regarded professional cooks in Bengaluru. He was trained by my father. He always carried a stick with which he used to hit me if I ever got a recipe wrong,” recalls Maiya, who entered the family restaurant business in 1971 immediately after completing his degree in electrical and electronics engineering from the BMS College of Engineering, Bengaluru.
For the next two years, Maiya worked as an assistant cook at the MTR restaurant located at Lalbagh Fort Road, a mecca for discerning Bengalureans who love their idli and sambar. It is here that Maiya perfected the distinctive taste of rasam and sambar as it is made in Udupi, a temple town in Karnataka which is also the Maiya family’s hometown. “I had to be present in the kitchen at 4.30 am. As a tradition, we had to perform a puja before the cooking began. The first dish to be cooked was sambar [a lentil-based stew with vegetables], followed by saagu masala [mixed vegetables] and other regular dishes. Around 6 am, we would start preparing the dosa batter,” says Maiya, who is no longer associated with MTR’s restaurant business after a family split in the mid-’90s. “The teaching helped me understand the basics of what goes into making good food.”
While Maiya was mastering the family’s culinary secrets, the mid-1970s marked a turning point in his career that laid the foundation for the packaged food business of the family-run restaurant. During 1975-77, when Emergency was declared in India by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, a Food Control Act was passed restricting the prices of food items sold at restaurants. The cap made it impossible for MTR to maintain quality standards.
“In 1976, we were selling an idli for 25 paise, but the government told us to sell it at 10 paise. Similarly, dosa had to be sold for 50 paise instead of the prevailing price of Rs 1.25. We ran the restaurant for 19 days and incurred a loss of approximately Rs 1 lakh. Finally, we had to shut shop in May 1976. Incidentally, we were the only restaurant in Karnataka which closed on this count as everyone else compromised on quality and quantity to sustain their business,” recounts Maiya. Even though the restaurant was shut for three months, its staff was paid and given food during that period, he says.
The need of the hour was diversification: MTR started selling packaged mixes, spice powders and chutneys from its restaurant premises on Lalbagh Fort Road. The new entity, MTR Foods, was spearheaded by Maiya. The firm started with rava idli and upma (made of roasted semolina or coarse rice flour) mixes followed by sambar and rasam masala powders; it had only four products till 1982. In the process, Maiya realised the market potential for instant food (mixes and powders) and started focusing on packaging and distribution.
MTR Foods started distribution in 1983 with 10 shops in Bengaluru to sell its mixes, masalas and powders. By 1984, there were about 12 items under the MTR Foods brand. In 1992, the manufacturing unit was shifted from the Lalbagh Fort Road premises to Bommasandra, an industrial suburb of the city.
Source : Forbes, Nov, 2015