The restaurant located at Cheranalloor village in Ernakulam is a retreat of traditional seafood. One could not easily spot the place as it is situated few metres down the road and the way to the restaurant is a little too steep from the Edappally-Panvel National Highway. The cool breeze from the riverside and the shady calm of the trees in the restaurant gives an emblazoning mood of peace to every foodie.
Tehelka visited the place on a mid-June lazy afternoon when monsoon was at its best. Everyone was soaked wet in the sudden downpour, but the ever-smiling lady-staff of the restaurant looked enthusiastic and greeted us with a traditional ‘namaskaram’. It looked more like a roadside shack we usually encounter during our journeys, and when the first platter of steaming rice along with curries was brought to our front, we were doubtful about the specialty that makes this a popular lunching place of the Kochites.
Quite a few minutes after we settled down, one of the woman staffers brought a neatly arranged platter with a wide variety of fish dishes that is available in the hotel for the particular day. The very spectacle of the fish varieties from karimeen (pearl sport), shrimps, anchovy, squid, tilapia and to duck curry put us in a little confusion. Finally, we settled for pearl sport, shrimps and anchovy fry. The restaurant serves to 8-11 fish varieties every day.
At the end of a delicious homely- meal, what surprised us was that the entire meal had cost only Rs 150. Compared to other hotels, the dishes here served are easy on the pocket and served in a clean, healthy ambience.
Master Brain behind ‘Periyar’
Baiju Lawrence, a 38-year-old former chef, has started ‘Periyar Restaurant’ on a humble note. An air-conditioning mechanic, Baiju’s love for food saw him a promotion from a room boy to cook some ten years ago. He had worked with many known hotels in Ernakulam including the Taj.
He quit the job as chef from a three-star hotel in Ernakulam after he found that the hotel had continuously fleeced the customers by serving poor-quality food by charging exorbitant rates. He stepped down, and started a restaurant, which would serve good food at menial cost six years ago.
“I started this restaurant not as a money making business. I want people to have good food with minimum spending. What happiness can replace serving good food to people with an honest heart?” asks Baiju, sitting under a shady tree at the restaurant premises.
He started the restaurant in a makeshift tent carved out from a minimal space available at his house. During its beginning, he employed five staffers and seating capacity of 30 people. But it soon become popular among the city folks for its varied variety of sea food dishes and the cool, calm and clean background. As the business grew, he leased a small portion of a property next to his house and built a hall-like space to serve food. Now around 600 people come to cherish the taste of homely food here every day. Baiju now employs 35 people, majority of them are women.
“I never expected such a grand welcome from our customers. It is not any magic, if you serve food with good quality people will come and eat it,” says him. With a large volume of these customers visiting the place every day, one would easily believe that Baiju is taking huge profit from the business. “It is no true; I have started the restaurant not as a business. My aim is to give jobs to the people depending on this restaurant and serve good food to the customers. I spent 75% percent of the profit here itself. I have been finding it hard to run the restaurant without any loss,” says Baiju.
Sinju Thaddeus, one of the women working in the restaurant, is highly thankful for the job at the ‘Periyar Restaurant’. A women who had lost her husband six years ago, looked clueless about the future with her three children. It was after joining with ‘Periyar’ that she slowly started to re-shape her life. Now she earns around Rs 15,000 per month. “Apart from a job this is a service to me. We have got 35 women working here and we take it as our obligation to look after every customer and serve them the food with the same care and affection that they receive back at home,” says Sinju in an exalted tone.
When asked about what worked behind the popularity of the restaurant she said, with a smile, that well-mannered dealings, and no greed for profit makes ‘Periyar’ a favorite afternoon hangout for the city dwellers as well as those travelling.
Challenges of a small-time entrepreneur
Meanwhile, like every other small-scale entrepreneur in the state, Baiju too is facing a multitude of problems to run the restaurant. “Kerala has become a dreadful place to run such initiatives. It is quite hard and risky to run even a small business here without incurring loss,” says Baiju.
When asked more about the hardships faced by such a small-scale restaurant, Baiju said that there are multitude of problems from ‘red tapism’, delay in providing sanctions and licenses from local self-government to continuous pestering from government officials. Every year, Baiju has to stand for long hours in the offices of sales tax, water authority, panchayat and many such departments to renew licenses to run the restaurant.
“This apathy of the government officials is quiet discouraging. The people who are supposedly to help us are tormenting me for certain gains. Every year, they would put one or other hurdle before me in giving licenses like food safety, health department, sales tax registration and many others. Though I am little worried about their attitude, I want to run this restaurant at any cost because more people are depended on this”, says Baiju.
He also says that during the beginning of the hotel, many had approached him with the advice that opening such a restaurant here in a slope without the reach of people’s attention would bring huge loss. “I did not pay heed to them, as I believed that people will come if foods are served with proper care, hygiene and quality.”
Baiju is frustrated with the government officials for making delays in giving licenses to the restaurant. ‘Red Tapism’ is a form of menace that we Keralite face even after 60 and more years of Independence. The government that spends crores of rupees on tourism is least concerned about the travails and pain of a small-scale entrepreneurs like me. They never care for us as they do for some other ‘big’ people”, says the man. Baiju is also thankful for the help he had received from DCC general secretary Babu Puthanangadi, an avid fan of ‘Periyar’, to tide over many obstacles in keeping the restaurant running.
Last year, the health department gave notice to stop the running of the restaurant citing the reason that he is dumping wastes from the restaurant to the river. He ran pillar to post to convince these people that the wastes from the hotel are taken to pig farms in the nearby place.
The application he had given to Kerala Water Authority seeking a water connection met with repeated denials for the last couple of years. Whenever he approaches them with the application, they erected many a hurdle to stop him from getting the permission. He now buys 200 litres of water from outside to meet the daily needs of the restaurant.
On being asked “why these officials are continuously pestering you?” Baiju said that they think that he makes a high profit from the venture and they might have wanted a portion of it. He, however, is reluctant reveal that many officials demand bribe for clearing various licenses. Moreover, the restaurants that have propped up after the success of ‘Periyar’ are also putting up many obstacles to dent the image of the restaurant.
Baiju is concerned about the future of the restaurant. If such pestering from the part of officials continues, he would have no other choice other than bringing the shutters down. But he is determined to fight the menace as his customers, many of them aware of the reality, have vowed to stand by him to fight the attitude of the authorities.