Darshini – A social ladder

Bangalore Business Capstone City Food

Steam from the kitchen travels towards the no-door entrance carrying aromas from the boiling hot pot of sambaar kept on high flame. The smell fills the ventilated room, hits noses and draws people in. Upon entering, a panoramic view of the kitchen staff working behind a large oven kept to keep the idlis hot and ready to be served, feasts your eyes. From afar, Darshinis seem to be packing a bedlam, from close the same looks like a mechanical clock. Everything and every person are in their right place. They know where they are supposed to be, where the next dosa order has to go and which table is supposed to be cleaned next.  

Bengaluru, like most Indian metropolitans, offers a fast-paced, always on toes lifestyle. To serve this population in hurry, Bengaluru’s favourite breakfast and lunch can be usually found in their neighbourhood.  

Darshinis are see-through kitchen restaurants. They are known for serving cheap and hygienic food, with hygiene being paramount. They ensure its hygiene by keeping utensils in boiling water. These Darshinis are bound by rules.  

Darshinis use this machine to sterilize utensils. The machine is keeps the water boiling and utensils are put in them after they are washed.

Darshinis do not employee trained personnel; rather they hire Kannadigas who come from villages in search of jobs with no restaurant experience. They start as cleaners or waiters and can work their way up to manager posts. The chefs are natives and bring recipes from their homes. Opening a Darshini is not a cost intensive venture, as they don’t need big dining spaces and chairs, they hire untrained employees and serve few items. Small hawkers and vendors can also open their own Darshini and become business owners. 

Among many things unique to Bengaluru city, the concept of Darshini is one. Chains of successful Quick Service Restaurants which are not found anywhere else in the country. A Darshini serves you healthy, hygienic and authentic Kannada delicacies. Darshinis keep their utensils in boiled water to disinfect them. This is not because of the current pandemic but one of the conditions required for a place to be a Darshini.  

Santosh’s life is the quintessential story of a Darshini which helped one of its chefs to make it big in the restaurant business. Hailing from the coastal city of Karnataka, Udupi, Santosh started his career as a chef. He has worked in several outlets owned by Upahara Darshini and in South Kitchen in N.R. Colony.  

“I only knew how to cook my own cuisine, I learned everything else while working,” said Santosh. The chef turned entrepreneurs’ journey wasn’t an overnight success. From starting as a cook, he moved on to become the Chinese cuisine master and later was promoted to the managerial post. After gaining 20 years of hands-on experience, Santosh is now running a restaurant, called Chinese Square in N.R. Colony. 

Bharat Venkata Shetty, manager of  Vijaylakshmi Veg, Jayanagar, said, “People Join us as cleaners. They work for a few years and then if we like their work, we give them other jobs like chopping vegetables. The workers are not trained, we train them. Then we look at them and promote them to a more skillful job. They rise in ranks and most often leave once they are trained. The employees do not work with one darshini for long due to internal conflicts, like competition amongst worker.” 

K. Sridhar is the manager of New Sagar Fast Food Veg in Banashankari. He has been working for 30 years. “I joined in 1997 in the Rajajinagar branch as a cashier. Back then this was owned by a different owner. After working as a cashier for 10 years, I was promoted to the post of manager,” said Sridhar. 

North Indian cuisine being served at a darshini, naan and palak paneer.

From serving only South Indian cuisine, Darshinis have now started catering to the people who crave the North Indian breakfast and delicacies. “We have masters for every cuisine. There are three masters working with us. There is one assistant who works under all three masters. At one time, the assistant learns about all three cuisines. He can get promoted if he learns enough. Same goes for others working, the table cleaners learn from waiters and waiters from the management.” 

The staff is mostly natives of Karnataka who have come to the city looking for employment. Most of the workers of darshinis are from coastal districts of Karnataka, like Udupi. The chefs are mostly vegetarians, hence most darshinis are ‘Pure Veg’. 

They often bring relatives with them to cities to work with them. This turns into chain of migration of people from rural Karnataka to cities in search of a better life. Santosh said, “I have got several of my cousins here to help me. My business is new and I needed workforce. It is easier for me to trust my own and it will also do them some good as they move out of the village.” 

They bring unique recipes from with them their villages. Darshini need not be opened in big market places as it does not compete with the big restaurant chains. A Darshini can be opened in residential areas as it serves people who are looking for a quick, cheap and hot meal.  

Dozen two-wheelers parked in front of Upahara Darshini, a famous name in the business.

Darshini is a concept on which brands are built. There are over 5000 darshinis in Bengaluru. Each hires 10-40 workers, according to their size. Based on estimation, darshinis employee 40,000 to 50,000 people.  

The man behind Bengaluru’s Darshinis is R. Prabhakar. In 1983, Prabhakar decided to replicate the McDonald’s QSR format in India. His idea was to replicate the western fast-food model in India and hence he opened his first restaurant Café Darshini. The restaurant business, across the country is dominated by big fast-food chains. In the same competitive space darshinis stand out as they strive to provide the same comfort at considerably lower price. After closing his outlet, Prabhakar helped 1000 entrepreneurs in setting up their own Darshini. Prabhakar now works as a consultant and helps others set-up their own Darshini. 

A typical darshini in the middle of the city will have a small juice shop and a cigarette shop attached to them. These cigarette shops operate seperately but share the same roof, whereas the juice shop is often run by the darshini owner himself. The cigarette shops are right outside the darshinis and will always be the first thing you notice when entering the joint. Some darshinis who have now made a good name for themselves in the market, like Vijaylakshmi Veg, also have marriage and party halls in them on different floors. 

South Kitchen is a Darshini in N.R. Colony run by Sanjay Prabhakar, son of R. Prabhakar. The joint is flooded by people during the afternoon. People, after stepping and getting stepped on several feet get to the cash counter.  

“My father is called Darshini Brahmin, the creator of darshinis,” said Sanjay. “He opened his first restaurant in Jayanagar in 1983. He went to Singapore and was fascinated by the fast-food chains. Upon coming he thought of replicating this quick-service-restaurant model but make it South Indian.” 

The guidelines, what qualifies as a darshini, were set by R. Prabhakar, the Darshini Brahmin.

Low-cost model kept them afloat

According to a report published by Statista, the German consumer data portal, “…India’s economy was hit hard by the measures with some industries such as tourism, hospitality, and aviation nearly coming to a standstill. Consumer sentiment dipped from 106 in February to 44 in May 2020 in rural areas. In urban areas, this dropped from 104 to 37 during the same time period.”  

Due to this the confidence in the financial situation of the restaurant business was decreasing. 

The report further added, “A survey by Rakuten in June 2020 showed that many Indians ordered less food and, instead, worked on their home cooking skills. Newspapers reported that the two major players on the delivery market, Swiggy and Zomato, had to dismiss some of their drivers or reduced the salary.”  

Hot breakfast thaali, served.

Videos of beaches and clubs filled with youngsters and families flooded social media last year as the restrictions were relaxed. To see the extent of the damage the pandemic has done to the hospitality industry, one can compare the business restaurants and hotels were doing in tourist heavy places like, Goa and Himachal, with the performance of these darshinis after the lockdown. Most of these small darshinis claim to have got 70 percent of their business back. Whereas, restaurants and hotels of Goa and Manali claimed to have only got 50 percent of its business back during the peak.  

Gopal Kaushik, who runs resorts and restaurants in Manali and Goa, has said that even though people are coming, the operational costs are just too high to stay afloat. “Like every industry, hospitality sector was also hit. But nobody knew that it would have to suffer the longest and hardest. Even when the people were coming, we were not able to make much money because of our operational costs. Our business runs on high footfall and economy of scale. My businesses in both the states, at its peak, were able to only get 50 percent of the business back.” 

The agility of the concept came to light when the pandemic had adversely hit economies of the world. The emphasis on keeping the operational costs low has really worked out for the joints across the city, when the hospitality sector as a whole is struggling to make ends meet. Darshinis have started functioning again as the lockdown has been lifted. The office-goers and the locals have started pouring in. A few of the Darshinis have shut shop, but a considerable number of them are back on their feet and their employees have returned.  

Customers can sit outside or sit/stand inside the joint.

“My 70 percent business is back. We started slow and, in the beginning, things were a little tough, hence we only started with two table boys who had stayed back. Out of 25 our employees most of them came back. Rest have started their own businesses in their native places,” said Sridhar. 

During Covid, like most of the country Darshinis were also closed. Bengaluru had come to a stop. Ever since the series of lockdowns have ended, most businesses are struggling to get back their feet. Darshinis, unlike any other hospitality business, have almost got their 70 percent business back.  

The concept failed miserably in North India with only one restaurant, Fresh Food Factory selling costly food, has opened. But it sets a great example of small restaurants chain which hire natives to operate and provide as a stepping stone for people who are willing to move upwards in life. The model can be replicated in a similar fashion in cities as well providing employment and helping people, while providing affordable food quickly to office-goers and others who are looking for options for unhealthy fast-food.  

Darshinis provide an escape, pressing pause on the busy lives of Bengalureans for a stint. Filled tummies and smiling faces leave darshini and get back to their work, only to come back the next day. In all of this, the brief pause for many has proven to be an effective social ladder for darshini employees and those who have become their own employers.  

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