Going gourmet in new territories

As Amma naana, Chennai’s premier gourmet store, opens a new outlet on ECR, CEO Senthil Raj takes a trip down memory lane — their success, challenges and opportunities.
Going gourmet in new territories

CHENNAI: Chamiers Road in 1968 was an underdeveloped part of the city when Senthil Raj’s grandparents started Amma Naana, a milk and groceries store. Now it’s a bustling city centre, surrounded by posh residences and hotels. Opening the store in Chamiers eventually turned out to be a stroke of good fortune, and the new crowd that formed its customer base led to Amma Naana being widely regarded as the place in Chennai for wide-ranging gourmet.

In Neelankarai on East Coast Road (ECR), a swanky new three-storey building has been newly inaugurated — Amma Naana’s first branch outside of Chamier’s Road, the second floor of which houses Senthil’s office.

As he spoke, Senthil went back to the pre-liberalisation era (also called License Raj), with its heavy restrictions on importing foreign goods. “Apart from milk and groceries, we mostly dealt in goodies like Britannia, Cadbury’s, soft drinks like Gold Spot and Campa Cola. Even a product like Dove soap, something you commonly see today, didn’t exist in the Indian market back then,” he recalls. Even before Amma Naana became the byword for high-end food products, the store had built for itself a reputation among its local clientele for the high standards of its customer service.

Turnaround

It was in the 90s when fortunes transformed for Amma Naana. With the market opening up to foreign products, and Chamier’s Road rapidly transforming into an elite settlement with a considerable population of expatriates, there was a lucrative market to tap into. And so the family business was refashioned into a gourmet, and soon enough their inventories were flooded with imported food products, all catering to the expensive lifestyles of the wealthy and the many consul-generals in the city’s many consulate buildings.

“Ask anybody in Chennai what’s the first name that comes to their mind when they say the word ‘gourmet’, and the answer invariably is Amma Naana,” says Senthil, his voice swelling with pride.
Every time a new consul-general moves into the city, staff at Amma Naana are the first to reach out about their specific requirements. “We don’t wait for them to come ask for a particular product. We keep information at hand as to the best brands from a particular country, and make sure they’re in stock. We let them know that every gourmet item they miss back home can be sourced right here in Chennai. Prior to that, expats who landed in the city would bring with them heavy bags with their preferred food, because they couldn’t keep living on Indian food,” he adds.

Senthil Raj got into the business in 2004, after completing his graduation in B.Tech. “I joined college hoping to be a software engineer. But by the time I finished, I joined the family business,” he says. This change in decision was partly spurred by the many evenings he would spend at the store with his uncle and aunt, who had taken over the store in the 70s. “The more I spent time there, the more it occurred to me that I could do a lot of good things here, and so I decided to join the business,” he recalls.

Focus on customer happiness
Amma Naana operates, he says, with the same goal it had when it first opened — to offer a wide range of products, ensure they’re of the highest quality, and make sure the customer leaves the store happy. When it comes to the latter, they’re willing to go the extra mile. “Be it their experience of the store, the way our staff behaves with them and ensuring that they get the product they’re looking for, we leave no stone unturned,” Senthil adds.

The family has never bothered to expand into multiple branches like the other chain stores. “As a family-owned business, we find it imperative to maintain cordial relations with our customers by serving them in the best way possible, and we treat them as family,” adds Senthil. The idea of a franchisee model does not appeal to him either, which is why fifty years after it was founded, the branch at ECR is only the second Amma Naana outlet.

Staying abreast
With the city expanding and traffic snarls becoming increasingly common, Chamiers Road had become a little too inaccessible. The time had arrived, he felt, to start another outlet. A simple walkthrough of the various aisles in each floor of the ECR branch brought home the sheer abundance customers can choose from across various product types.

And they’ve continued to diversify. An in-house pharmacy, laundry unit and specially sealed fresh seafood and meat store have been some of the recent additions.

Even now, when kirana stores and smaller gourmets pop up everywhere in the city, Amma Naana continues to have an edge. “The main thing is our product range. Even for the smallest cooking ingredient, we’re able to offer a wider range of options than other supermarkets or chain stores,” Senthil adds. Besides, he feels the best way to beat one’s competitors is by improving one’s service and ensuring customer happiness rather than seeing other businesses as rivals.

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