Coming from a poor background, in Tamil Nadu’s Tuticorin district, Prem Ganapathy had no choice but to abandon his dreams for higher studies, in order to support his family and siblings.
After Ganapathy completed his tenth standard, he did not want to study further. “My teacher told me that I should continue studying but I told her frankly that I do not want to study. We had lot of financial problems so I wanted to work and earn money, help my family. Even getting water and firewood was an arduous task. We had to walk miles to get water and firewood,” says Ganapathy.
His father had a tobacco business which ended in a loss. He also incurred huge losses in the farm. With seven children, his parents struggled to make ends meet.
The Mumbai saga
He first started out doing odd jobs in Chennai, which fetched Rs 250 a month. He met a young boy who promised him a good job in Mumbai.
“He said if I pay him Rs 200, I would get job with a salary of Rs 1,200. I wanted to leave but knew my parents would not let me go. I was only 17 years old then. So I left Chennai without informing my parents,” says Ganapathy.
They got down at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, a place where thousands of migrants land every day in search of a better livelihood.
“I was scared but I was willing to take the risk. We took a local train to Bandra and I was eagerly waiting to see where I would begin my new career. He took me to a tea shop and vanished. My worst fears came true. He had just dumped me there,” Ganapathy reminisces.
There was no job as the man promised. Instead he was abandoned in Bandra, a Mumbai suburb. Hunger was his only companion when he roamed the streets of Mumbai in search of a job. But this boy did not lose hope, he decided to stay back and fight for survival.
“My father instilled in me a lot of positive energy. This is what kept me going strong. I have tried to see an opportunity in every loss.”.
The first job
It was the most unforgettable day in his life. He could not speak Hindi, he did not know anyone in the city nor did he have any money. Finally, he met a friendly taxi driver and told him his story.
“He took pity on me and said they can collect some money and send him home. The train fare was Rs 121 then. But I said I will not go back home. I will do some work and live here. I slept in the temple compound till I found a job in a bakery in Mahim to clean pizza-baking vessels. I used to sleep in the shop itself,” he says.
After working there for six months, he found another job, to deliver pizza bread to a hotel in Chembur. Later, he moved to Navi Mumbai where he started working as a dishwasher in a restaurant called Gurudev.
“As a Tamilian, I faced discrimination in the beginning. We were given only kitchen work to do. After a while, I started to move out of the hotel, to give tea/coffee to shopkeepers around that area. I used to earn Rs 1,000, three times more than the other boys as this service was based on a commission basis,” he says.
A sincere worker
Ganapathy was meticulous and sincere in his work. Unlike others, he never got into squabbles with anyone.
“I used to keep a note of every person’s requirement, some wanted strong tea, some wanted it without sugar. So I established a good rapport with the outside world. One person who had a small business saw that I was enterprising and hard working so he suggested that we open a food stall on the street on a joint partnership. He invested the money and told me to do the work and he promised me half of the profit,” he says.
The stall near the market area did good business. But the person duped him. He refused to give Ganapathy any share of the profit as promised and said he would give only Rs 1,200 as salary. So he called off the partnership and decided that it is best to do something on his own.
The food stall business
Ganapathy realised that starting a food stall would be the best way to earn good money. Two years after he landed in Mumbai, in 1992, he went back home, got his brothers to help him. “I borrowed some money from friends and rented a handcart for Rs 150. It was really difficult in the initial days. Many times, the municipality vans used to come and pick our handcart. But I was very positive and determined. I never gave up hope,” says Ganapathy.
“I scored on account of cleanliness and the variety of food I offered. I got the recipes from my mother and brought the masala from my village. . . so the food I offered had a distinct flavour, which made it an instant hit.”
A turning point
Finally, in 1998, Ganapathy decided to take a kiosk outside the Vashi railway station in Navi Mumbai to open the first outlet called Prem Sagar Dosa Plaza. Fortunately he got good response from the first day itself. “I added more variety to the menu. Along with his dosa outlet, I also tried my luck by investing in a Chinese restaurant, but it flopped. However, I tried to add the Chinese flavour in the dosas, which worked very well,” he says.
His experiments with dosas resulted in exotic varieties like American Chopsuey, Schezwan Dosa, Paneer chilly, Spring roll dosa to name a few. Within a year, Dosa Plaza had created 25 original varieties of dosas.
“In 2003, a new mall called Centre One opened in Vashi. The people from mall management team who knew me suggested that I open an outlet in the mall.”
So Prem Sagar Dosa Plaza joined the big league of restaurants to open a swanky outlet in the mall which attracted a lot of attention. Dosa Plaza has indeed become a runaway success.
Today, Dosa Plaza has 35 outlets across 10 states in India with a turnover of over Rs 5 crore (Rs 50 million).
His biggest recognition came when his story was published in Rashmi Bansal’s book ‘Connect the Dots’ as one of 20 best enterprising individuals without an MBA.
Any regrets on not studying? “Well, not at all. But speaking in English becomes difficult when I go abroad. Other than that I don’t think I would have learned so much in any school. My experience has been my biggest teacher,” he says.
He has risen from humble dishwasher to owner of the fast food chain ‘Dosa Plaza’.
Does he ever think about the man who abandoned him? “In a way, I reached here and achieved so much because of him. I wonder where he is now…”