Oith about 1.5 tons of rice and 1 ton of urad dal used every month, Iyer Idly in Vignan Nagar, Bengaluru operates on a 200 square foot space to produce thousands of idlis every day.
Since 2001 when Iyer Idly was established, the growth so far has been close to 100 times, says Krishnan Mahadevan, owner of Iyer Idly, while speaking to The best India. What’s interesting is how this outlet managed to survive for 19 years selling only two items: idli and chutney.
“Iyer Idly was born out of a need to stay afloat,” says Krishnan.
It was never about breaking into the food industry or becoming an entrepreneur. Krishnan’s father, Mahadevan, lost his job in 2000 and that’s when he started selling idli dough to shops in the neighborhood.
“I was 10 at the time, but remember getting up early to help supply the nearby shops with dough. It was tough. There were five of us at home, including my sister and my grandma. sick mother, who depended on the money that the sale of the paste brought to the house,” he says.Krishnan describes his childhood as a childhood with many responsibilities.
Soon people started suggesting that the Iyers should start selling idlis rather than just the dough. This may be how on September 27, 2001, Krishnan’s father opened the outlet in Bangalore.
While Uma Devan, Krishnan’s mother, made the dough and the idlis, Mahadevan ran the outlet.
It wasn’t all easy – it took them several months to get established and Krishnan recalls the business earning no more than Rs 40 a day after deducting all expenses. “It would roughly amount to Rs 1,200 per month. It was crazy and now, looking back, I wonder how we managed in the middle of it all,” he says.
“I remember working as soon as I was in school and it has continued to this day,” he adds. Watch movies, go out with friends, etc. did not figure in Krishnan’s childhood. Instead, he hung out at the store, attended college, returned to the store every night, and called it a night after. “My goal was very different and through it all I managed to complete my undergraduate and post-graduation,” he says.
Krishnan began his career as a professor at St Joseph’s College of Commerce, where he joined Goldman Sachs in the investment banking team and spent four years there. Until March 2009, when Krishnan’s father died, the business was run by his father. “After he disappeared, I started to juggle working at Goldman Sachs and the business. I did it so I could help my mother who worked at the store,” he says.
“But my mother didn’t want me to join the company.”
“One of her biggest concerns was how she would justify my work at the boutique to a bride-to-be,” Krishnan says. According to her, justifying a career in business after having studied so much was important. He adds: “However, it left me no time for anything other than work and the store.”
While Krishnan broached the subject of joining the business full-time and quitting his job in the business, his mother was unconvinced. “It took me almost a year to make him understand my point of view. I was patient with her and never tried to oversell my case. What helped was the lockdown – that’s when my mum saw how busy I was all day. I was constantly getting calls and even walking away for lunch was difficult,” he says.
“Seeing the kind of work I was doing, she thought I’d better run my own business and also have some free time,” he adds. The decision was not easy and Krishnan says it involved tears, a bit of grief and a lot of communication. “I was sure that I only wanted to sell idlis. It just took time to do it full time,” says Krishnan.
Subsequently, Krishnan filed his papers and since December 2020 he has been part of Iyer Idly full time.
“Making idli is an art”
“There is a technique for making fluffy idlis,” says idli expert Uma. “We make sure we follow the same process every day – whether it’s soaking the rice and urad dal for the dough or how long we let the dough ferment. We developed this process after much trial and error,” she adds.
The idli dough is prepared the day before to keep it fresh. The batter is poured into the idli trays, which are lined with a muslin cloth. This is then placed inside a steamer for no more than 12 minutes.
If someone were to come in and ask for the recipe, Uma would not hesitate to divulge it. She says, “What’s the big secret in that?” Her pro tip for those looking to make fluffy idlis at home is to use a (stone) grinder to make the dough rather than a mixie.
The Iyers were so confident in the idlis being made and sold that for almost 19 years they focused solely on selling this dish. “We never added anything else to the menu. You could only get idli and chutney at the store. Only two years ago we added vada, kara bhat and kesari bhat to our menu by popular demand,” says Krishnan.
While the outlet is open every morning at 6:30 a.m., work starts at 4:00 a.m. The morning slot is open until 11:30am and they are ready for the evening slot at 6pm. Even today, one can get a meal of three idlis and unlimited chutney for Rs 30. Krishnan adds that the idea is to keep it as affordable as possible. “For almost seven and a half years there has been no price increase.”
“We are making sure to keep the idli price at Rs 10 despite the increase in rents, fuel and salary cost,” he says.
Shweta, a resident of Electronic City, which is about a 45-minute drive from Vignan Nagar, says, “I come all the way just to get these idlis. I come here at least once every 15 days. I also tried to make these idlis at home, but it’s almost impossible to get the same taste in homemade idlis.
Another customer, Vikas, a resident of Bengaluru, says, “When my mother came from Kolkata, I brought her here and she loved the idlis. Now when I visit her in Kolkata she asked me to bring her some of these idlis.
While Iyer lazily continues to operate the 200 square foot store in Benagluru, the only thing Krishnan says is that no matter when you enter the store, the taste of idli will never disappoint you. “We haven’t invested in sprucing up the facade of the store, but we continue to focus on making food hygienic and fresh every day. That’s why our customers come back,” he concludes.
(Editing by Yoshita Rao)