M Mahadevan's 23-year-old son Tarun has taken over the reins from his dad to grow their restaurant empire in India
He isn’t on Twitter. He works from 7 am to 11 pm. And at the office, he calls his dad ‘Mr Mahadevan’. Twenty-three-year-old Tarun Mahadevan is possibly the most un-millennial millennial we’ve met — with a focus that is hard to come by in a world where digital distraction is the norm. A little over a year since he moved from working at a private equity bank in London to taking over India business operations for his father’s restaurant empire which includes Sera The Tapas Bar, Copper Chimney, Writer’s Café, Vah Pho and Benjarong — a lot has changed.
Over at the Cool Cream Milano HQ in Nungambakkam, employees now sport uniforms (including Tarun we notice). “I do not like having designations in the organisation. If you do something and you do it well, that is respected,” says the young businessman, apart from telling us, it also makes him a lot more approachable, given that the boss is dressed just the same as an employee. The company also has a new mission statement in line with his vision for the India growth story of the brand: ‘To empower lives through sustainable and innovative culinary concepts’.
At the office, I call my dad ‘Mr Mahadevan’or ‘Mr M’,
to keep it professional. He is dad, when I go back home — Tarun Mahadevan
While super boss and dad, M Mahadevan lends his attention overseas, Tarun tells us that he wants to strategically build more operations in tier 2 and 3 ‘mini-metros’. “You always hear about the well-travelled customer,” but this is relative, he explains. “When I go to New York, I am mind-blown. When someone from Thanjavur comes to Chennai — he is mind-blown,” drawing a smart parallel to elaborate. “I see huge potential in catering to this audience,” he explains.
Harder, better, faster, stronger
However, moving back home as one of the youngest members of staff with fresh ideas on how to do things ‘better’ was not easy. “The first six months were probably the hardest of my life,” he admits. Apart from growing a beard to appear older at business meetings, he also quickly learned that the most effective way to drive change was to make shareholders a part of the change.
For instance, he recalls, “I convinced my dad and other directors that we needed to have more tech in the company — and we invested in a robust inventory management and tracking software tool to put place.” Two weeks later, when he went to check on how this was working, it turned out that all the expensive tagging electronic RFID machines were kept aside. “The guys were still using their Classmate notebooks to note things down, tear a sheet and hand it to the next person,” he says, which led to another realisation — “training has to start at the grassroots level”. He adds, “And I had to make all those stakeholders a part of that change and show them how it was going to make their lives easier.”
This is possibly why, apart from customer satisfaction, employee engagement is at the top of his priority list. Tarun does this by integrating brand goals with team bonding opportunities. Their last team lunch, in line with their new Chettinad concept restaurant Chettiyar Veedu in Egmore, was, he tells us, at Ponnusamy.
“We’ve made it a point not to do team lunches at any of our own establishments, that way we are discovering what other brands do better than us, while simultaneously building relationships,” he shares with us. A more structured version of this is his handpicked ‘innovation team’ which we’re told comprises brand chefs with an eye for detail with their customers, as well as in-house finance experts that come together once a month to discuss strategy.
On a personal note, Tarun tells us that some of his best ideas come to him when he is off the clock. He says, “I once had an idea that I wanted to incorporate, on how we laid out our menus — at 6.30 am, while on the treadmill. So, I asked Siri to dial a member of my team, and we had a 20-minute conversation, panting and all, about how we could get it done.”
Inspiration outside the office, might also be one of the reasons for his ‘zero hour’ policy that is a new introduction in the contracts of their corporate employees. “It basically means you don’t have to punch in at the office, as long as your work gets done.” How does he get the boss to okay these new-age ideas?
“I am very clear that I am not here to reinvent the wheel, whatever is working, I don’t touch,” Tarun states at the outset. That said, he goes on, “My dad (I do call him dad at home) has told me that business operations are entirely my decision, unless I mess up, but touch wood, I haven’t,” he offers with a smile. They have made a promise though, father and son. And, this was before Tarun came on board. He let’s us in on the gist of it, “Whatever happens at work — however long, however urgent — never goes home.”
‘Where every waiter knows your name:’ Tarun
You’re a numbers guy, with a background in private equity. What made you change your mind, and move back to India for the family business?
My parents did offer me a choice. ‘If you want to come back, you can. If you don’t want to, you don’t have to.’ That’s when I seriously thought about it. At the end of the day, my job in London was fantastic. I was working with some very smart people, doing really cool things. But at the same time, I didn’t want my parents with a business hanging around their shoulders, like a weight. So I decided, let me come back and give the business a shot.
I have actually signed a contract with both my parents — I work with them for three years — at the end of which I make a decision, whether I continue with the business or do something else. And, if I don’t like it, I’m still going to be young enough to do something else.
What is your idea of a great restaurant, and have you achieved it yet?
Not yet. My idea of a great restaurant is one where each customer is recognised by every waiter. My favourite restaurant is this small family-run joint in the city of Bath (England). Believe it or not, every time I went there, the waiters knew every customer’s name, including mine.
In a world where you actively have to pay for customer loyalty (like Zomato Gold) — those guys just focus on great food and great service. And, just those two things, keep people coming back.
What does a family dinner table conversation look like?
It’s usually about when each of us has last spoken to my sister, who is working at Apple in Singapore. Or what my grandmother last asked Alexa!
My dad used to do night rounds when I was little. He would come home at say 8 pm, eat dinner, and then at 9.30 pm he would start. And, if all my homework was complete, we would go to the restaurants and inspect kitchens together. At Zara (now Sera), I couldn’t walk around because I was only 11 — so I would stand in the kitchen and watch what was going on through a small opening in the door. It was always fun, which is why from a young age, I was inclined toward to the industry to see what it was like running it.
Does your family, like most Indian families, keep asking when you’re getting married?
My parents don’t, but my grandmother does — that’s why I bought her Alexa! On a serious note, I don’t have much time for a love life, so I am single, but not really mingling. (Laughs.)
You taste food through the day at each of your different restaurants. What is comfort food for you, today?
Fried rice and Dragon Chicken. Not authentic Chinese, but the Indo-Chinese version that I had
when I was seven, and inspecting kitchens with my dad on his night rounds.
We have a difference in opinion, sometimes, like every father and son. And I do consult, and tell him what I think, yes. But once you hand over the reins, there is no in-between. There is only one captain of a ship, and the final call is his
— M Mahadevan
Boss, dad, superman
What has it been like bringing Tarun on board and watching him grow?
A relief! That’s the best way I can sum it up. Running food units is no joke. You might have given a customer 10 good meals, and in one meal, he had a cold soup. That’s the one meal he will remember and tell all his friends about. So you have to be very careful when you handle a customer. But you are also dealing with people on the other side — staff, waiters, chefs — so they need to be dealt with empathy. Banks make loans difficult because 70 per cent of restaurants go down in the first year.
It is a highly volatile industry.
Has it been a learning process to keep switching between father and boss?
Yes! But Tarun is a well-groomed boy, and he knows his responsibilities. He knows that he is an employee when he comes into my company, and when he comes into my house, he is my son.
You started out 37 years ago. The challenges then were likely very different than those you anticipate Tarun will face in the years to come.
I started with a little Chinese take out, back in 1982, opposite the St Teresa’s Church in Nungambakkam. Then, everyone wanted a decent job — opportunities were fewer because there were much fewer restaurants in town. So if you squeezed, people still put in the long hours and didn’t complain or jump ship. Even a home delivery was uncommon back then. Today, every day there is a new restaurant opening. And today, it is the age of the app. You could speak to Alexa and get a job at McDonald’s. Today, it’s about keeping pace with the times and being the fittest out there.
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