Food might be bad but if served with a smile, a customer might not react with fury, and chances of them returning to a restaurant are high than if they were not handled well.

Sarath Chandran believes that customer care is paramount, one reason that has aided the growth in the food business from a single branch of Ponnus Restaurant, along Kampala Road, in 2008, to another in Muyenga, then Old Kampala, Bunga and Munyonyo.

Off the blocks
It is a 10-year journey, with its share of challenges, lessons learnt and resilience that has enabled Chandran stay the course in business. Chandran is an accountant by profession and at the time he decided to start Ponnus, he was still employed. There was a cost to pay for absenteeism from business.

The workers did not pay attention to growing the business and as such, he registered some losses. The rent was high. At the time, he paid $17, 000. By 2013, his rent shot up by $32, 000, almost double the rent fees. He weighed his options, of whether to stay employed or quit and concentrate his energies and accounting knowledge on his enterprise.

“I had not found a manager that would sit in for me and deliver results. I decided to quit the job so that I would be at my business,” the 44-year-old businessman recounts. He introduced the stock system which he taught employees. They registered opening stock every morning when they were preparing to start business then take stock of the sales through the business hours.

From the difference of opening stock and sales of the day, they would realise the closing sales. And beyond imparting accounting knowledge, Chandran was keen to cultivate trust and passion among his employees.
His employee retention is evident. There are employees he has worked with for close to a decade.

Choice of employees
When looking out for an employee, he says that education level does not count.

To him, personality is key. He would rather have a trustworthy and passionate chef than a qualified one who will mechanically put meals together. He also promotes teamwork by trying to pair workers to share roles so that they can also learn from each other.

“If I employ someone, I also go on to know their family. I would not like to employ someone who I am not acquainted to. We are family. If one of us falls sick, I move in to monitor their treatment. If we have a happy time, we celebrate,” he explains.

What’s in a name?
Ponnus is a nickname of his eldest son and as such, the business has drawn children to occasionally visit the restaurants to mingle and learn from workers.

Ponnus’ specialties are Indian tandoori, Arabic and continental food. Consistence, quality of food and standards are three key elements upon which the business has been sustained.

Muyenga as the oldest branch stands between big competitors. It is within a vicinity of Mama Mia, Pizza Hut, Fuego Bar & Restaurant, Kahwa Coffee Shop, among other eateries. “It is competitive and we have chosen to stick to serving good food, being clean and maintaining good customer service standards. The service girls control the business so they need to be polite,” he further explains.

Standing out
He adds that before a customer parts with their money for a meal, they need to be satisfied with the service and meal itself. He cites incidents when customers have registered complaints of the food not being up to their expectations and he has asked them not to pay.

To Chandran, business is not making money alone but satisfying a customer so that they are able to trust a restaurant to serve them. He crafted many of the recipes served at the restaurants.

To this day, he shops for the items needed to run all four branches of the restaurant. Over the years, he has established a good working relationship with suppliers.

He uses gas for cooking and has studied the periodical usage of the gas. In a month, he will use an average of a 45-kilogramme cylinder which goes for about Shs220, 000. He buys chicken from Kuku and deals with grocery traders in Nakasero.

His contact person there is Ismail Serunjogi. He says he does not rely on one person though for fear of being stranded as well as trying out different people to taste different varieties and grocery qualities. Chandran has created a system where his chain of restaurants are self-sustaining. Each employee knows their roles and can adequately deliver.

Balancing act
He splits his time between Uganda and India, where his family is based. He lives two months here and one month in India. He has a cousin who sits in for him to supervise.

“I do not believe in supervising people but letting them realise their potential once they are trained. You will never find me shouting at my employees because they know what is expected of them and deliver,” he explains.

His marketing is unconventional. He banks on satisfied customers to refer friends or relatives to the restaurants.
He also relies on friends to spread the word about the offerings at the restaurants. In his review on TripAdvisor, Husein Esmailji commends Ponnus for wide range menu, adding that the prices are pocket friendly.
“The food was made fresh and very tasty. Not a very wow ambience but decent. Good place for an informal lunch,” he adds.

“We came to the restaurant with a group of 13 without reservation. We were happily invited. The menu has an incredible amount of choices (pizza, pasta, curries). The food is good, but nothing too special,” writes Jorrit B, on the same platform.