SINGAPORE: When she was just 19, and fresh out of junior college, Ms Nagajyothi Mahendran suddenly found herself at the helm of her family’s business – and not just any business, but Samy’s Curry, one of Singapore’s oldest South Indian restaurants celebrated for its signature fish head curry.
She had to take over its operations after her father, Mr V Mahendran, had a heart attack in 2007. But within a year of recovery, the strong-willed patriarch was back at the restaurant at Dempsey Hill – not ready yet to fully cede control of his business, much to his daughter’s chagrin.
“My father has very strong opinions. I get frustrated because I’m unable to convince him and make the changes that I want to,” she said.
"He doesn’t want to change. He said, ‘If it’s not broken, why fix it?’ That’s his mentality. It’s still his final say."
Ms Nagajyothi belongs to a generation of young successors in local F&B businesses such as Rumah Makan Minang and kueh business HarriAnns who are facing challenges taking control of the family business, as the programme On The Red Dot discovers. (Watch the series here.)
As the third generation in the family business, Ms Nagajyothi and her younger brother Veerasamy have had to learn how to navigate family politics, and stay relevant in a cut-throat industry while holding onto their food heritage.
HER DASHED DREAMS
The 34-year-old entrepreneur – who serves, takes orders and mans the till at the restaurant – had harboured hopes of landing a mass communications job after school, but her father’s heart attack changed all that.
“It didn’t really occur to me that oh, okay, I’m going to have to give up my dreams,” she said. “But being the eldest, I had no choice but to take over.”
Even though she’d spent much of her childhood at the restaurant (which began life as a roadside stall at Tank Road run by her grandfather in the 1950s), running it and trying to get employees to listen to her proved more challenging than she’d expected.
Especially for a wet-behind-the-ears young female chief who didn’t quite have the commanding air of a boss.
“There was one staff who did not listen to me, maybe because he saw me grow up,” she recounted. “But at the end of the day, I’m the boss, if you don’t listen to me then I have to let you go.”
While she has since earned the respect of her staff, her father’s dominating presence continues to intrude. The siblings take care of day-to-day operations, but the very vocal and strict 60-year-old is never far from sight or earshot.
“Even if I cannot walk as fast these days, I still walk around (my restaurant).
"This is my business, if you asked me to do any other thing apart from this, I don't know how to do,” said Mr Mahendran, who considers himself only “semi-retired” and can be heard berating the staff for mistakes.
He himself took over the restaurant when his father died suddenly in 1979 and left him running “a one-man show” with no time for a social life.
But that experience of ruling the place with an iron hand and stentorian voice for over 20 years, before ailing health forced him to step back in 2003, might explain his reluctance to trust his children with any major changes to the business he’d built.
YOUNG VS OLDER GENERATION
Indeed, little has changed about Samy’s Curry since it opened at Dempsey Hill in the 1980s.
Recently, though, they’ve been losing customers, and most of their patrons are in their 40s and 50s. The siblings want to change that by modernising the restaurant – starting with fully air-conditioning the place, to attract younger patrons and families with children.
“As my customers grow older, for the simple rule of survival, we need to bring in younger customers,” said Ms Nagajyothi.
A lot of times we get requests to sit in our air-conditioned section because it’s too hot outside. When I say that that section is full, some reservations get cancelled.
Her idea to fully equip the restaurant with air-conditioning would cost them some S$200,000, and her father is unconvinced of the pay-off.
He thinks customers prefer the natural setting amidst greenery and nature. “I know it can be stuffy and a bit warm, but a lot of my customers say they enjoy it,” he reasoned.
So to bolster her case, Ms Nagajyothi set about a strategy of canvassing feedback from customers – but her dad did the same too. Unsurprisingly, her younger customers liked the idea of air-conditioning, while Mr Mahendran’s older customers and friends were firmly on his side, declaring that he might even lose customers if they enclosed the whole place.
One urged him: “I feel that you are the person in charge, you decide. Their time will come.”
Ms Nagajyothi felt her father might have misunderstood and thought she wanted to remodel the place to look like a café. But when she tried to reason with him, he brushed her off.
“You all want to do air con, (to be) more posh, then you find another place,” he said. “I want to serve the majority. I don't want to serve the elite group. I still hold the reins.”
And that is how Mr Mahendran still views them: As his children first, business partners second. “With all my experience, I think I’m a bit better than them, smarter than them,” he said.
Usually, my children compromise. I don’t compromise.
Sure enough, the siblings have decided to improve the ventilation for now, and revisit the idea of air-conditioning the whole restaurant a year or two later.
WATCH: When dad is your toughest critic (4:39)
THE SWEET WAY
In the meantime, Ms Nagajyothi worked on gaining her father’s trust in her judgment by introducing changes in another area.
Recent customer feedback gave the siblings the opportunity to expand their desert menu, which had only three items, leaving patrons asking for more.
“Nowadays, youngsters are into social media like Instagram or Facebook. So by introducing a new, innovative dessert, I feel that I can attract them,” she explained.
The siblings enlisted the help of their mother, Madam Veerasakthi, to prepare a selection of halwa – an Indian dessert made from shredded fruit or vegetable mixed with milk, sugar and ghee – that would be served to customers on a platter.
Ms Nagajyothi was apprehensive about how her father would react to the taste-test. “Sometimes when we bring in a new thing, he’s super negative about it,” she confided. “I’m just worried he’s not going to like it and say we cannot include halwa.”
When the five halwa portions were served to him, Mr Mahendran, who is diabetic, was predictably critical.
“The portions are too big. The sweetness is overpowering the taste, that’s why I wash my mouth with water,” he said. “You torture me by asking me to eat five at one go.”
But instead of rejecting the whole idea, to Ms Nagajyothi’s pleasant surprise, he gave them the green light to test out the new menu item, albeit advising them to go easy on the sugar and to cut the five portions down to three.
“I know we have a lot of customers who say that we are lacking (in desserts) but… we are not a bakery, why spend so much time and effort on it?” he argued. “But I’m happy (my children) started with something. So let them go get customers’ feedback.”
Unfortunately, the halwa platter of carrot, beetroot and pumpkin flavours with low sugar and less oil didn’t sit well with customers – so it was back to the drawing board for the siblings.
Their father is happy that at least they tried. “They are making an effort. That means they are putting 100 per cent in the restaurant business,” he said.
“Let them go and do. Even if they make mistakes, even if they lose money, I am ready to help them.”
Watch the series about local F&B businesses on On The Red Dot here.