An idli by any other name ….

13 Apr


I direct your attention to Shaziya Khan’s wonderful post, featured in Campaign India. I know Shaziya from many years, from way back at HTA. To turn a phrase she is the quintessential idli: pure, white, pristine and flawless. Now that I am old and Shaziya is wiser, I am free to admit that I have always had a soft spot for Shaziya, but then I am South Indian and am defenceless against all idlis, so you are justified in saying that this is a moot point.

But this is not about Shaziya, it is about Madras Cafe.

I am a South Indian from Matunga, and very territorial about Madras Cafe. Being a student of Don Bosco, a mere 10 minute walk from Madras Cafe, I have been a Madras Cafe connoisseur for the last 45 years, so in sheer agreement with Shazia’s blog about brands being bought, not sold, here are two personal stories to tell.

1. But a couple of months ago, I picked up a good friend, Samta Lalan, as she flew in from Shanghai. And what does the very idli grade Samta want to do, and immediately? She wants to go straight to Madras Cafe and eat idlis. So we drive to Matunga from Sahar, where Samta’s mum is waiting for us at the door of Madras Cafe. (Samta lives in the lane opposite to Madras Cafe). We get a seat immediately, we order the idlis, the waiter, a senior gentleman, is unimpressed with the fact that I order in Tulu. But he has a broad smile for Samta’s mum. He knows her. When the bill arrives, I reach for it. He withdraws the bill, and shoots a glance at Samta’s mum. Samta’s mum says no, she plans to treat us. I take matters into my hands and yank the bill from the waiter’s hand. The waiter has an expression so severe and disapproving, you’d think I yanked the bill from Samta’s mum’s hand. All going to prove that Madras Cafe is a brand in the classic sense of the word: down to the minutest personal interaction, it is a relationship.

2. On the way back from the BMW X Series launch, ensconced in Parvez Damania’s S Class Mercedes, Pervez has a bright idea. Now I love Parvez’s bright ideas: the man is a incorrigible connoisseur of the finest things in life. And what is Pervez’s bright idea? “Lets have filter coffee at Madras Cafe”. So we glide over, and the coffee is served to us in little plastic cups, and I sip at perfect South Indian coffee, telling myself that sipping Madras Cafe filter coffee from a little plastic cup in the back seat of a top-of-the-line Mercedes is a experience that is difficult to describe adequately. “I got myself a filter coffee maker from Madras Cafe”, Pervez tells me, with all the pride with which he usually tells me about some fabulous new thing he has acquired. And there we are, a Dadar Parsi Colony boy and a Don Bosco Matunga boy …. and the coffee that is a world of meaning beyond its immaculate taste.

The point I want to make is, at no time have I ever experienced the smothering, saccharine service that one expects from a ‘great restaurant brand’. The waiters at Madras Cafe are borderline surly, never one for conversation, don’t give a damn about who you are, but will bring the food on time, and the bills with even more punctuality. Madras Cafe is for connoisseurs who want Madras Cafe, not service. The service is there to give you want you want and leave you alone. If I ever hear a Madras cafe waiter shimmy up to me and ask that horrible question: “Is everything to your satisfaction, Sir?” I’d complain.

Shaziya describes it all, and I could never do better. Here is a direct quote: “

Stoic, simple, no fuss, down-to-earth. In a word – authentic to the last. And people queue up early, even on Sunday mornings for this . The waiting is on the road, no special treatment, no sweet nothings exchanged to make the wait pleasant. A brusque nod, a quick note of the numbers. They call you in when they can and do not entertain any urgings.

The whole take-it-or-leave-it attitude underscores their unique promise. Cafe Madras GETS its own brand. It does not dilute its Café-Madras-ness. And it’s bought. With joy.  Discomforts of heat, crowds, hard seats, brusque and brisk service are not only overlooked, they are elevated as a unique experience!

That sense of identity determines whether a brand is bought or sold.

The question to ask is are we creating an idli brand that goes about being true to itself in an in-your- face, undeniable way? Or are we building an idle brand that needs to be hard sold? That universal and unisex directive of standing tall and strong for your values – C’mon, be a man – has a branding equivalent, C’mon be an idli!”

Salaam, Shaziya. I’ll buy you a kapi at Madras Cafe anytime.

2 Responses to “An idli by any other name ….”

  1. Alok April 13, 2011 at 1:03 PM #

    Sheer awesomeness! Just love the way you write, sir. Huge fan.

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