Kongu kind of care
Raised on a recipe of traditional tastes and steadfast devotion to service and hospitality, K Murthy and K Arumugam narrate the story behind Junior Kuppanna’s success
“That’s the thing about namma ooru samayal; it fills the stomach and soul of the ones who feed and the ones who relish it. As hoteliers, true happiness and satisfaction for us come from seeing our patrons enjoy a hearty meal,” share K Murthy and K Arumugam, co-founders of Junior Kuppanna, while treating us to an ilai sappadu with Kongu staples at their flagship restaurant in Nungambakkam.
As we devour their signature seeraga samba biryani and Pallipalayam chicken, ample portions of their other underrated specialties such as Madurai mutton kuzhambu, kol a urundai, peri peri chicken, vanjaram fish fry, pichi potta naattu kozhi and prawn egg fry are served. “See, people need variety; so we have to keep reinventing or it’s hard to survive the cut-throat competition.
Our dream is to present and preserve Kongu cuisine in the most authentic way,” assures Murthy. For a brand that has established a strong foothold in Tamil Nadu with over 48 outlets — with the latest one on TTK Road in Chennai — Junior Kuppanna has come a long way since its inception 60 years ago. But, Murthy is not one to let this success go to his head and that reflects in the eatery’s promising backstory, filled with struggles and hope.
Rooting for regional flavours
Tracing its humble beginnings since the 1960s, Murthy recalls, “As a 14-year-old, my father Kuppusamy shifted from Coimbatore to Erode in search of a livelihood. He worked as a table cleaner for 10 years at hotel Selva Vilas near Erode railway station and climbed the ladder to become a manager. After his marriage in 1958, he set up a small eatery with 12 seats. As customers started trickling in and savouring the delicacies, word spread about his simple yet delicious food . Later, Tamil icons like Kamar a j , MGR, Sivaji, Kalaignar and Jayalalithaa, to name a few, became fans of his cooking. By 1977, he moved into his own building.”
By 1983, the first outlet of Junior Kuppanna came into being in Erode and it was run by Murthy and his brother. “Those days, people in the hotel business were looked down upon and were not considered prospective grooms. I began my journey as a parotta master and eventually learned the other aspects of running a restaurant. In 2009, we partnered with Arumugam and opened the first branch in Coimbatore. We developed our business model and expanded. It’s been over a decade since we set foot in Chennai and there has been no looking back,” he beams.
Junior Kuppanna has expanded its presence in foreign countries like Singapore and the Netherlands. Plans are in the pipeline to launch branches in the US, the UK and Dubai as well. Despite the boom in the restaurant industry, we ask what really sets them apart and the owner is quick to say that the secret lies in the consistency in taste and quality. “While the branding and administration have evolved, the recipes are the same old. The homemade and hand-pound masalas are special. Until 1995, we followed amma’s recipes and later standardised the quantity to maintain consistency across outlets. To date, the women of the household run a masala factory and 36 women work there. We don’t have the concept of a chef; everyone knows how to make everything — from the simplest of rasams and poriyals to biryani. Every half an hour, a batch of biryani is prepared.”
Even after massive expansion, the team strongly believes that their loyal clientele have been an integral part of their growth. “The name Kuppanna was suggested by a customer who fondly called appa using the short form. Another customer once had to buy biryani for his neighbour’s son. But by then, the biryani was sold out. So, he just got the box from us and packed it with biryani from another place. The little boy sensed the difference and was really disappointed. Now, you understand what I'm saying? They’re our priority and they can identify our food from the rest by just the aroma,” elaborates Murthy.
A fine balance
Experimenting with regional cuisine comes with its share of challenges. But, throughout their journey, it’s the biryani and Pallipalayam chicken that have stood the test of time. But there’s much more to their dynamic menu, promises Murthy. “We use the same ingredients as people would in any household but it’s the method of making that lends it the traditional touch. For instance, you eat our biryani and it’s easily digestible in an hour or two. Soft and tender pieces of mutton are cooked in rich spices and steeped in seeraga samba rice. The secret to the Pallipalayam chicken is nothing but the preparation with a few shallots, curry leaves, red chillies and masala and a little oil. It’s just permutations and combinations.”
It’s the confidence in their product and service that has helped the Junior Kuppanna team brave through a pandemic and bounce back post the lockdown relaxations. “We did feel the heat and had to shut down five of our outlets. But, we also redesigned our restaurants, reevaluated the menu and adapted to the takeaway model. Now, we are better prepared to handle any pandemic. We saw it as an opportunity to open new restaurants. In a way, it has only helped us.
We have another 15 restaurants signed up,” notes Murthy. Much to the delight of their patrons, the team has introduced a non-veg south Indian breakfast spread. “Non-veg breakfasts are common in rural areas and we wanted to revive that concept in the city. People can enjoy paya, chukka, parotta and a lot more,” he adds. Besides the non-vegetarian menu, Junior Kuppanna recently launched their flagship vegetarian restaurant called Rukmani Ammal at Tirupur, with other outlets in Erode and Namakkal.
“This is dedicated to our amma. In non-vegetarian hotels, not much attention is paid to vegetarian items. And so we wanted to include that and offer some variety. So far, a non-vegetarian restaurant has not succeeded in presenting vegetarian cuisine. We have taken it upon ourselves as a challenge. People should talk proudly of both vegetarian and non-vegetarian restaurants. Vegetarian restaurants will be introduced in the city shortly. Chennaiites can also expect new outlets in Adyar and Anna Nagar,” shares Murthy, offering a peek into their plans for the city. By the end of an hour-long conversation and a heavy meal, our hearts and stomachs are full and filled.
“In the 1980s, my father’s friend used to frequent our house to have a drink. He would complain that the chicken that I prepared as side dish was oily; he wanted something light instead. Those were days when my father used to go to cockfights. After one of those fights, he chopped a chicken, added masala, curry leaves and dried chilli. He prepared a dry fry and it turned out to be great. I replicated it at home, my friends sampled it and we decided to sell it. We named it after our uncle’s (the one who prompted me to try something new) hometown — Pallipalayam. Now, it’s being served everywhere,” shares Murthy.