Small Giants-The story of Veena Stores
This is the story of a small giant from Bangalore. One that has been around for over 4 decades. It seems to be a brand that has been built by circumstances, by constraints, and by the simple routine acts of people who ran it. It has also been built by strong personal values and not any grand strategic design. It is a superpower small giant. It feels like a relief that comes from exhaling, after being endlessly smothered by ‘typical’ branding frameworks, strategy, advertising ‘creativity’, management thinking, customer insights blah blah.
Suryanarayana Rao was born in Sirsi town in Karwar district in north Karnataka. His parents passed away when he was still very young, in fact so young that he does not recall their faces. Out of the compulsions created by this contingency maybe Suryanarayana Rao started working in a hotel, run by his extended family at a very young age. Or it was the search for a new life or the discomfort in working with some of his relatives, or it was just plain impulse — he ran away from home and came to Bangalore.
He started out as a cook in the house of Dr. Shivaram, the founder of Koravanji — the iconic Kannada humour monthly. It was 1952 then. With the help of Dr. Shivaram, as well as some money that he had saved, he started a hotel near Malleswaram market on Sampige Road called Gajendra Vilas around 1959. It was a large hotel serving ‘the full deal’. In 1977, after running it for nearly 18 years, he had to sell the hotel. It is said that he was cheated by a close friend, for whom he stood surety for a large loan.
The birth of Veena Stores
It was under these circumstances that Veena Hotel was born in 1977. Named after his daughter, it was born out of the compulsions of earning to keep his family going. Its location was determined not by retail science but by what he could afford. ‘ A losing location’ is what his friends and some relatives called it. Set in a residential locality called Margosa Road and away from the shopping-commercial center that Sampige Road was. A small shop even by the yardstick of that time, for that was what he could afford to. His son, Pradeep who now runs the shop was 9 years old then.
But what took the cake was not that the shop was being set up in a residential area away from the market, or that it was too small, or that it was born out of survival compulsions… it was a shop where one had to stand and eat. That was ridiculous as the idea of eating while standing was completely alien at that time. Why would anyone come to a small unknown shop far away from the market, stand and eat. It seemed like a recipe for failure. Or so it seemed. “There was really no other go, let’s see… God will be with us,” in Suryanarayana Rao’s words. It was an option that was born out of ‘no option’. And surely not a strategy to differentiate.
When necessity turned into a choice. And then a brand.
The famous idli and vada was not the ‘core product’ either. What was sold in this cubbyhole was coffee, tea, badaam milk, and condiments. And idli. Maybe because a customer would still be comfortable drinking tea and having condiments while standing. Maybe because there was no money to buy the grinder required to grind large amounts of idli batter for many customers. Whatever little idli was sold was made from the batter ground at home by Suryanarayana’s wife. He eventually bought a grinder a few years down the line, but the ‘DNA’ of home-preparation stuck with the brand. Even to this day, customers mention that the idli-vada at Veena Stores feels like it has been cooked at home.
From the time Suryanarayana Rao started Veena Stores to the time he retired in 2006, he used to personally cook at the store. If he was at the shop, he would not be at the cash register, but always near the cooking range. Right up to the day he retired, he would be the one who would put the vada batter into the hot oil for deep frying. It was his faith. He felt that the kitchen was at the heart of the business and not the cash-register. Anything outside the kitchen was peripheral to the business and to its success. The ‘magic of his hands’ would be mentioned by customers over and over again. One that was believed to be a gift and not something that could be acquired
Unwavering standards, values, and beliefs
Suryanarayana was also a no-compromise person. He wanted things done in his way and in no other. He used to listen only to himself and none other. He was known to be harsh on anyone who did not behave in line with his standards of quality. Quality was in the kind of ingredients used, the proportion, and the management of heat so the food was neither too oily nor overcooked. Adding soda to the batter to increase the size of the idli was anathema. This was a place that served food like it was served at home and customers should never feel a sense of bloating in their stomach after eating at Veena Stores.
He kept a close watch on the people who worked with him in the store and the kitchen. He was also strongly against expansion as he felt that it would come at the cost of quality and reputation. He noticed that even during peak hours, out of the pressure of serving customer’s demands, the coconut could be grated less than desired, or the idli is steamed a little lesser than required, and so on. This was one of the reasons, Veena stores stayed away from advertising itself. To avoid massive crowds and the resultant drop in quality.
Over a period of time as the business grew, the sale of condiments — chips, cakes, ice-creams, bread, mixtures, etc., were reduced. Meanwhile, Pradeep who used to assist his father at the shop even when he was in school started to take over the reins of the shop in 1987 after finishing his diploma in electrical engineering. Within a few years of Pradeep running the business, idli-vada and chow-chow baath became the big draws for customers.
In any case, selling condiments made the place congested and uncomfortable both for customers and those managing the shop. Today Veena stores sells idli, vada, chow-chow baath, pongal, shavige, puliyogere, bisi bele bath, and coffee-tea and a few more items. The major draw continues to be idli and vada. Pradeep while focusing on quality also understands the importance of personal attention that has to be given to customers.
Every morning Veena Stores opens its doors at 7 am and closes by 1130 am. The workers and the owners go home together as they have been doing for many years and come back at 4 pm and work till 8 pm. It is open on Saturday and Sunday as well. Suryanarayana always believed that it was important to take rest and be healthy and therefore used to run it for a limited time every day. “Everything is not about business, health has to be taken care of and one needs to rest,” he used to say. The practice continues to this day.
We ask Pradeep on what Veena Stores’ lessons to the world are and he says, “Work hard, do it with interest and not casually or frivolously. Take personal care in things that matter and not be greedy for growth.” A world view that made them shut down the store for a considerable period of time as people standing in a line on a narrow footpath would not be safe from the point of social distancing in COVID times.
Today, Veena Store’s patrons include people from all walks of life from the lower middle class to the super-rich, from kids to the aged, from the regular families to celebrities like Deepika Padukone. You hear of a software engineer sitting in a hotel somewhere in the US talking about Veena Stores being the best and being surprised by a happy shout of assent from an adjacent table. Or a customer who goes on FM and tells the RJ that the one thing she would miss about Bengaluru as she moves cities would be the idli-vada of Veena Stores. They all swear by the food here, from the time idli was sold at 15 paise to now when it is sold at 10 or 20 bucks. All except Pradeep’s daughter who does not eat idli from Veena Stores. The only customer who still seems hard to please.
Veena Stores is truly a small giant.