Indian coffeehouse brews export business in food

October 20, 1991|By New York Times News Service

BANGALORE, India -- Every month, Sadanand Maiya, a partner in the Mavalli Tiffin Room, perhaps the best-known coffeehouse in southern India, supervises a task that would make most small restaurateurs cringe: He orders the smashing of all chipped or cracked crockery.

The damage adds up to more than 200 cups and saucers every few weeks, said Mr. Maiya, a pudgy man who wears the loose shirt and sarong or lungi that is preferred by many southern Indian men.

But Mr. Maiya is not worried by the cost of the plate-smashing in this coffeehouse, set on a busy road in this green, bustling and swiftly growing high-tech center some 180 miles inland from Madras. He can afford the cost.

He and his relatives have transformed this once-tiny coffeehouse, founded by Mr. Maiya's father in 1924, into the center of a small but thriving food-processing industry that packages local delicacies for sale across India.

It is now venturing into the markets of the United States, the Middle East and Australia, where there are large Indian communities.

The Tiffin Room specializes in fast foods, a concept that developed in southern Indian cooking centuries before McDonald's first raised its arches.

It serves a range of India's best-loved snacks, like crunchy dosas, which are folded Indian pancakes of rice and lentils, or idlis, fresh steaming rice dumplings.

In an interview in the busy kitchen, as the aroma of fresh coffee lingered and waiters scurried about, as cups clattered on saucers and dosas crackled, Mr. Maiya said, "Our menu has been the same for the past 35 years."

The Tiffin Room does not serve either lunch or dinner, only snacks. It opens at 6:30 in the morning and closes at 11 a.m., re-opens at 3:30 in the afternoon and closes at 8 p.m.

"This place has been a restaurant from the beginning and will remain so, but we diversified into food processing in 1977," Mr. Maiya said. His first order was for 60 pounds of packaged semolina, which was steamed to make dumplings.

Last year's annual sales of 50 million rupees, or about $2 million, included exports of $80,000. Mr. Maiya is expecting export sales of $200,000 this year, and $800,000 next year.

Bangaloreans are proud of this landmark, with its cheap, quick, good food. A breakfast of two idlis, a masala dosa (one with curried potato stuffing) and coffee costs a bare dollar.

There are already long lines waiting to get in when the restaurant opens in the morning.

L "MTR is an institution," said A. S. Ravindra Rao, a dentist.

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