Entapillaar K. Ramaswamy Naidu of Annapoorna group of hotels was quite open and frank while talking about his younger days. He was born in 1936 as the third son of Krishnammal and Kondaswamy Naidu. Jaganathan and myself were ushered into his well-kept cabin at the Annapoorna Central Office on Mettupalayam road, Coimbatore. The same campus is home to the neat and clean centralized kitchen of the historic Annapoorna group of hotels.
Sree Annapoorna is a household name in western Tamil Nadu. They have been famous for filter coffee, masala dosa, idly, vada, sambar, cashew pakoda, etc. The family roast of Annapoorna is globally popular and the hotel is part of the regional food pilgrimage circuit. The founders, K. Damodaraswamy Naidu and his brothers, Rangaswamy, Ramaswamy, and Lakshmanan are well-known public figures in this part of the country. Their white and white clothes, thin Vaishnavite naamam on the forehead and the smiling face have become part of the Coimbatorean memory. The cashew pakoda of Sree Annapoorna has traveled to almost every country on earth. It could perhaps be made a global snack and served at the United Nations.
K. Ramaswamy Naidu is fondly known as Periamani Anna and this octogenarian spoke about his younger days with zest. “Kennady Theater on D. B. Road was known as Ashoka at one time. The Vincent family had named it a 'Light House' those days. My twin brother, Lakshmanan and myself used to manage a petty shop opposite to the theater. One had to toil in order to succeed and our teenage years taught us the value of hard work. We used to distribute newspapers and Snuff (Pattanam podi) for quite a few years. I still remember the nearby Rama Bhavan Hotel, we had one room there. We lived there all the time. I used to get-up early each morning and go to the market for purchasing our merchandise for the petty shop.
The cycle seat used to be high for me and I would use a stone to get on to it. I would return with the whole lot of goodies and this included four bunches of bananas. The entry point into D. B. Road was tricky at Moonu Kambam. It used to be steep and I would get down to push it into D. B. Road. Business was brisk those days and it was possible to clock a turnover of four hundred rupees on important days. Lakshmanan and myself would stock the caravan brand playing cards. It was possible to push it well. Several club-goers (R. S. Puram Club) became our clients. Our breakfast was not anything much and the lunch consisted of 12 bhaji-s which was shared between my brother, Chinnamani (Lakshmanan), and myself.
It would cost a princely two anas those days. About seven to eight years of our lives went on like this. Our elder brothers, K. Damodaraswamy Naidu and Rangaswamy Naidu, were working in a textile mill that time. Mother Krishnammal came over for the purpose of helping us. She used to make excellent Sarbath (Healthy Indian soft-drink) and this was a hit. I would personally go to Aalaandurai and get the vettiver required for the same. The sarbath was quite addictive and our petty shop became even more famous,” stated K. Ramaswamy while recalling his foundational days."
He spoke about the dramas that were conducted by Nawab Raja Manickkam in the spot where central theater stands today. “These dramas used to last three hours each and Nawab Rajamanickkam used to have two shows per day. He was an efficient and entertaining person. Nawab Rajamanickkam ensured that the scenes did not have breaks in between them. There was a three-level partition in the stage and once the scene got over the first level, the actors in the second level would begin to perform. Once this scene got over, the third level would be opened up and the audience would continue to watch. It was simply fabulous. I miss those days. We ran a canteen there for some time and it was possible to gather a large number of loyal customers. Nawab Rajamanickkam left the campus and the central theater came up there. We managed to run the theater canteen. This canteen was a bit different, for outsiders could also come and eat in the theater canteen.”
“Finally, the outside customers became more in number and business was brisk from afternoon to night. The theater had belonged to Kadhri Mills Ramaswamy Naidu and was quite famous. Our keeravadai and kai murukku were quite famous. Both of them were our best-sellers. Our mother, Krishnammal, would help in making of the dough and batter. Eventually, the keeravadai became our signature dish. The students of TNAU would come along with their teachers for the purpose of savoring our tea and coffee,” added Periamani Anna.
“The Moonu Kambam Shop had become famous and the Royal Coffee Bar began to happen at Crosscut Road. The tiffin room came up there. Ramaswamy Naidu turned nostalgic while talking about the story behind the name Annapoorna. “I had only studied up to sixth standard. The school fees used to be six and quarter rupees at that time. My brothers and myself worked hard and our mother was God for us. All the early recipes were from her. The taste offered by her was loved by the people. It was decided to start a restaurant under the banner of Royal Caterers. Pooja had been done and suddenly a seven-feet tall swamiji came to the spot. He gave us a big white conch and suggested that we keep the name as Annapoorna. “Food was annam and therefore Annapoorna said he.” The pooja was done with this name and we looked out for him to pay our respects but he had disappeared.”
“We searched for him all around but could not find him. Finally, we decided to enquire with some of the senior Iyers (Brahmins) from Telugu Brahmin Street. It could be none other than Kasi Vishwanathan. A small idol of Annapoorna made at Perur continues to adorn our shops. An artist from Gobichettipalayam was the first to create the black-and-white portrait of Goddess Annapoorna. The name, Annapoorna, was known but not popular until we were made to keep this as the brand name of our venture. I must say that we were very fortunate.”
“My elder brother, Rangaswamy, was extremely good with the formulation required for making filter coffee and big companies were ever keen to seek his expertise and were ready to pay a royalty even. Annapoorna was the first hotel to serve hot idly and sambar with ghee in this region. Our eldest brother and founder, Chairman K. Damodaraswamy Naidu, ensured that the best people were in place. Innovative cooks like Achyuthan Nair were brought in by him and eventually the Annapoorna Sambar became world famous,” turned the nostalgic K. Ramaswamy.
Periamani Anna (Ramaswamy Naidu) would be up early and would go to the Thyaagikumaran Market by 5 am. He would pay the best price for everything, from bananas to greens. The stuff had to be of good quality and he would never compromise on the quality. Selection was a must. He would at times ensure that every lemon and coconut would be of the same size. "I used to pay 2 anas as Koodaikaaran Kooli (Charges for the basket carriers) during our petty shop days. We used to get cigarettes from Kurangusetu Kadai (T. V. Brothers) those days. The boss, Abhaichand Venderivan, was the biggest distributors of ITC products in this part of the country. His son, Kanaklal Abhaichand, would ensure a continuous supply of Cigarettes.”
“The annual budget would be a time when prices would increase. But Kanaklal ensured that we got our stocks. I remember supplying Berley Cigarettes to Paul Vincent, the owner of Light House theater. He would come in a car and pick it up. Our prompt service earned us a name in his heart. He offered us the opportunity to manage the Ashoka Theater Canteen. Our quality made sure that people found it agreeable to eat in a theater canteen. P. Kamalanaadhan Chettiar was the stockiest for Pyorea Tooth Powder (1431 trademark) when we used to visit his store. I remember the old jewelry shop founded by P. A. Raju Chettiar. There used to be Panka (Handfan) puller then. The jewelers of the town area were our regular clients and they used to insist on some butter to be dropped on the hot idly vadai combination. Prices would raise and fall but our family ensured that the same quantity of onions and drumsticks were found in the sambar,” added the traditional hotelier.
Annapoorna hotel had begun to function from the backside of A. Rangaswamy Chettiar’s shop on D. B. Road from the year 1968. Ramaswamy Naidu recalled those pioneering days. All the four brothers had looked into the business. “We used to cook, serve, and also keep the place clean. It was the real hard work. However, the joy and satisfaction that we could see on the faces our customers kept us not only energetic but prodded us to work even further.”
The crisp clothes, the glint in the eyes, and charming narration which accompanied the aroma of the filter coffee kept us enchanted during the entire conversation. The enchanting smile of Goddess Annapoorna on the portrait found in the office of K. Ramaswamy Naidu appeared to shower her blessings on the Annapoorna family.
Mr. Rajesh Govindarajulu is one of the founding members of the Verandah Club Pvt. Ltd. He is a leading columnist, historian, jeweler, entrepreneur, and a heritage enthusiast who is earnestly working to revive the past in the light of the present. Experiential learning about the history of Coimbatore is his main course of interest and he is also a panel member of many colleges in the city.
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