K S Subramaniam

K. S. Subramanian

It was a sultry torching day of April 2016 when you did not know what the cruelest month would entail besides the rigors of running around in heat.   Neither did Sridhar as he watched the 1000 sq.ft space being pruned, spruced up to appear presentable for the launch of a mouth-watering food joint with a catchy title “The Jaunty Inn.”  He smiled to himself consciously that he was the least jaunty about the plunge down the precipice he was undertaking.  He and his mates – Venky and Arjun,- had the brains to know that one could not accumulate if he didn’t speculate.  That’s only the thin end of the wedge.  It was also a cliché.  “When you get down to the nicer details that you realize trekking is not on with just a safe pair of mountain shoes,” he muttered.  He was watching the carpenter’s team giving finishing touches to the kitchen that needed to be equipped to the standards of a palatable joint.
The health inspectors came to have a look at the space where safety of the culinary team and of the food loving connoisseurs mattered.  The threesome found their mouths dry after lengthy assurances to them.  “God!” said Venky, 28, “they are cut up, yaar, because we greased their palm a little less than they expected.  I almost envy them.  They don’t sweat or bend their back to earn but always find money in their palm as a matter of entitlement.  God!  My bile comes up the moment I see their waspish faces.” Arjun put an arm around his shoulder.  “Come on Venky…let’s not spoil the day by talking about them.  I hate them as much as you do.  But remember, we may have to live with them for a long haul if we succeed in this.”
“And succeed we must “ said Sridhar who was overseeing the work.   “Guys!  Remember we slogged five years in that popular joint for a pay pack of Rs.15000 a month but must also thank them for taking care of our stay, food and siesta time.  Of course they raised it to 20K in three years but doing two shifts a day took its toll on us.”
“Yeah….and we hardly saw each other except in our lousy cubicle of a room where we warned each other before turning over in sleep.”  said Arjun, who is normally hard to restrain or clam up.  “And before you said good morning I would be off for day shift which lasted well till dusk. “ He shook his head.  “God!  The only gloss about it was the glass doors through which you had a good view of the ever busy traffic.  It was a svelte set up, whatever we may say.”
Venky always had a dismissive, desolate air about him which made him look a bit sepulchral to Sridhar.  “All this because we were not good enough to do anything better than catering.  You two were more talented but still got stuck with me in the same rut.  In fact I get a vicarious pleasure when I think of it. “
Yes…boss…” Sridhar reacted after slapping Venky’s back hard.  “Venky…I had a officious grin always on which pleased some customers and made others look more poker faced than they were.  But you took its after effects to our room cribbing why the hell had you to do it.  I  didn’t though the tips weighed more in my pocket than yours.  Still I learnt to make the most of it even if the going was tough.   It was part of the game then having got into it.  Now Venky, I don’t want to get out of it.  Let’s take the plunge and see where it takes us. “         
“That’s right.”  Arjun acquiesced nodding.  “BTW Sri…I told a couple of pals to distribute bills to joggers and oldies in the nearby park to spread the word about Jaunty.  Poor things!  We must thank them .… they spent two hours not only passing the bills but also spoke to a lot about patronage.  They were quite enthused, it seems.  “
Yeah….I admire those pals..” said Sridhar stroking his chin.  “Arjun!  We will employ them.  We will need quite a few reliable hands like them to run the joint.  And we have a lot to do.  Remember we are going to build it brick by brick.”
And they went about it in a professional way, more than what they could have learnt in the catering institute – applying a mix of commonsense, innovation and leaving the rest to luck.  Five years of slogging it out in the previous hotel made them quite frugal about their personal dalliance or idiosyncratic turns and they pooled 40 p.c. of their salary each month in a recurring deposit at a time when the government’s heart was warm enough not to turn its heat on it.   “Yeah!” mused Sridhar “good we started it in 2011 when the returns were fairly good and not a measly 7 plus p.c. now.   You have to make hay even when the sun no longer shines?”  He chuckled to himself.  The pooled money came to nearly Rs. 10 lakhs for the three aspiring entrepreneurs when they had to get down to the nitty-gritty of the marathon! 
Arjun was categorical.  “Let’s rent out a place, man, preferably in a residential area near the heart of the city but ensure that the kitchen norms are clean and unquestionable.    That’s the first step.  The rest will follow….”
“The rest will start from then on, not follow.  You talk as if it is all an ice cream we have to just dig in. “ said Venky who fancied he had a better probing head than the other two.  “Now the question of a chef,  a team of four or more,  an accountant who can sit through the day and also a couple of cashiers at the counter.  And their pay.  We have to keep it open right through the week and they will be looking for theirs offs. “
Sridhar laughed good humouredly pressing Venky’s shoulder.  “And of course a chartered accountant who can take care of our returns.  But guys…the nitty gritty involves the ability to restrict our recurring expenditure to about 40 p.c. of the revenue earned or less.  At a generous estimate, that is.  Initially it will be in a flux, could be more or plummet to some extent.   We must set ourselves a financial target as we are going in for a loan Rs.10 lakhs repayable over 15 years.  Being a start up we will get a tax holiday for five years as we are going to give jobs. “   He paused lighting a cigarette and watching the blue smoke dissolve slowly and languidly in the hot, airless noon.  “If we aim at a revenue model that gets 50 p.c. return on an average a year we can run the show barring coughs.”
“Venky…we may have to forget our own offs for a while.” said Arjun.  “We must make maximum use of the physical space to host 20 customers at a time besides keeping two counters for a cashier and an accountant.  Our shack must be open for 15 hours a day, close sharp at 10 p.m.  We must operate two seven hour shifts for our staff of four waiters……”  Arjun paused stroking his chin.  “We three must alternate for the accountant as and when we can. “
“Boy!” mused Venky.  “For us it is the shack and nothing else.  It will be our life until we look up financially and then start breathing easy….
Sridhar took a deep drag, held his thumb up to Venky.  “We will Venky.  Between the three of us we will work it out this way – a five hour shift so that we can alternate with the rest on the work schedule.  One of us will have to audit income and expense daily after we return home.  I have software ready at home linked to the office.  But the most important thing of all is pricing and menu.  We must keep it at 10 p.c. less than that of the known middle class hotels in the vicinity. “  He flung the cigarette before it was about to burn his finger.   “Two chefs we knew earlier are happy to join us.  They were quite cut up with their pay in the earlier joint ….are keen to have a stake here.  If they are willing to stay on we can coax them to invest a bit too.”
“Oh! That’s quite a la la land man”, grinned Arjun.  “Why not boss?” argued Venky.  “I think he talks sense.  It’s a question of making them believe in themselves, in us.”
“Oh…that’s in the future, guys.  Let us get the gaadi on right now.  Let us work out a financial chart for the first two years and stick to it to the letter T.  That’s how the saying goes, right?”  grinned Sridhar.
April 2018 was as much the cruelest month as was its wont but when Sridhar was watching the beads of bulbs coruscating around the hotel’s insignia “Jaunty Inn” he wasn’t feeling the blistering fallout of heat at dusk.  Rather he felt a swell of pride as if the glittering bulbs winked at him saying “boy…..you haven’t done all that badly so far.”  He took a deep drag on his fag and blew the smoke curls into the coastal wind blowing in.  Venky was busy inside looking at the accounts while Arjun gave him company knowing two of his staff were on duty inside.  Of the twenty chairs inside at least 16 were occupied with the chef on second shift directing his minimal but talented staff about meeting the variegated orders of culinary delights from the clients.
Two waiters, also in their mid twenties, were in their distinctive uniform of black and white and on their toes as well.  It was routine work, albeit gruelingly so, at times but their smiling, serene expressions betrayed no sign of discomfiture.  “Boys!  Keep smiling all the time but if it gets too tough at least keep a blank face.”  That was Sridhar’s first injunction when he gave a pep talk on the first day.
Venky was updating the returns on the computer for the day and also the money spent on groceries over a week and stashed safely in the refrigerated container inside the kitchen.  “Well…” he mused.  “The money spent over water tankers every day has gone up this month possibly because of petrol/diesel induced price rise the tankers charged on their trips down here.  And of course, milk sachets and groceries ..in all adds up to 70 p.c. which is not good news. “   He sat back thinking.   “ It’s high time I tell Sri to raise the menu rates a little more.  No go anyway. …Why should we stick to two year old rates when the clientele is as good now as it was from the start. “ 
It was Sridhar’s plan to start at low rates with a composite menu that would entrap the lower middle and poor earners besides a sprinkling of the neo middle class.  They turned up slowly, in mean numbers for a start before it became a kind of droves over two years.  Yeah….but the take home returns hardly amounted to 30 p.c. on the chart though he told his waiter friends to start a fund of their own pooling their tips.
“Sri….” Arjun spoke in hushed tones “the way Venky is staring at you he has something up his sleeve…Man, he is coming with a fresh litany of suggestions or complaints.”
Sridhar stamped his fag and grinned.  “No Arjun, from the looks of it he is cut up that the returns are still hovering at 30 p.c.   I bet he is going to ask me to jack up the rates from next month.”
“Sri…”  came up Venky almost breathless.  “You have enough cause to light up another fag.  There is no visible improvement on the returns.  We have to raise the menu rates except on beverages…..at least by Rs.15 to 20 at the minimum.  Let us level it up yaar with the joints in the area.  What difference will it make?  After all ours is well known now with a session of four hours from morning at least having nearly 50 people.   We expected around 80 to 100 a day which took more than a month to happen.”
“Venky…..now it is around 150 ” said Arjun.  “ We have a meal session for two hours which is packed as always.  We wanted a lull between 2 p.m and 4 p.m when the evening session starts, a kind of lean period.  Let us stick to it. “
Venky was upset at having been crossed.  “You would’nt take a suggestion from me.  You want to go at snail’s pace as if it is the hallmark of business sense.  I would call it nonsense.”
Sridhar put an arm around his shoulder.  “Venky…do you look back on the first day when we all were tensed up, running around like squeaking chicken not knowing how will it turn out?  Those four young guys, who are equally qualified, offered to work as waiters for us out of personal regard, nothing else.  Why man….because they believed that it was a youthful, innovative exercise and they wanted to be a part of it. “   He paused, collecting his thoughts and weighing his words like pearls.   “Profit is the one off in any business venture, Venky,   and we all know it.  But look at the clientele who have been extremely chatty, friendly and eager to come here.  Some of them even wanted us to succeed when we told them about Jaunty…..Let us not lose even one of them as they have all become part of the Jaunty Inn community.  So cool it man….wait for another two years when the turnaround will knock at the door.”
“I agree Sri…..My mind echoes what you say.” Arjun said listening to him patiently.  “Venky….just think of the days when you cribbed about the perceived or imagined insults of the client.  There was a time when we all wanted was to be our own boss, have our own lives and walk around with a bit of pride and happiness.  Now we have it, man…..don’t you see?  Thankfully our families are small too……You and me have younger sisters while Sri is the only son.  Thank God!  Our parents are not even dependent on us financially and have even left it to our choice……that’s very rare boss!”
Just then the water tanker came with a fresh round of supply.  One of the waiters and another from the chef team came out to monitor the supply to the overhead tank.
Venky watched it quietly.  “Sri…..give me a fag yeah…”  Sridhar struck the match to light his cigarette. Venky took a deep pull and smiled. “I get it Arjun…..to have a team of staff like that who have never pulled a long face at doing anything.  This is the stuff life is made of,  Sri,  and all these pain and anxiety we went through is worth it.  I got my usual bouts of dyspepsia. ”   He grinned.
Just then a call from one of the waiters came out for Venky.  “Boss!  A couple of bills to be cleared in the system….”
Sridhar punched Venky’s stomach playfully.  “You relax and enjoy your fag…Let me go back to Jaunty….Guys….time to have our coffee together.”

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