Millennium Post

Coffee to catering queen!

It’s a Monday morning, and Patricia, bright and fresh, is busy monitoring her catering business at her 12 food outlets across Chennai. Thanks to CCTVs, Patricia, 55, supervises the work from her home in Velachery, south Chennai.

As she looks at the CCTV images of a work going with almost mechanised efficiency, Patricia seems the embodiment of a self-made entrepreneur. And that she is, having received the FICCI Best Woman Entrepreneur Award for 2010-2011. Yet, life has been anything but easy. Beginning her career at 20, she sold eatables from a kiosk on the city’s Marina beach against all odds – battling a failed marriage, coping with her multiple-addict husband, raising two children and losing her daughter and son-in-law in an accident, becoming an entrepreneur and then nearly losing it all. Before fighting back to reclaim lost territory – Patricia has seen it all.

Looking back over the last three decades, Patricia’s life looks like a takeoff of a typical rags-to-riches film script – black and white turning sepia into a blooming, almost raging, burst of colour; starting off with day’s sale of 50 paise and now lording over four brands – Sandeepha, San’s Kitchen, Quencher’s and Golden Wok – with daily sales of over Rs 2 lakh.

Getting the FICCI award back in April 2010, she says, was the moment when the realisation hit home: ‘I grasped the full worth of what I have achieved; that someone somewhere has taken note of all my hard work.’

Patricia was born into a conservative, middle-class Christian family from Kanyakumari on 7 July 1958. At 18 when she dropped out of second-year graduation and got married, she, however, had no inkling of all that hard work. The wedding, and the breezy romance leading up to it, also had a filmi touch to it: as a college-goer in 1977-1978 (she was a social science student, before dropping out), Patricia used to visit a food outlet on Marina beach, which was close to her college, Queen’s Mary, and given her passion for cooking, often wandered into the kitchen to unearth more. In the kitchen she met the owner’s son, Narayan, fell in love and ended up marrying him in 1977. Narayan, a diploma holder in catering, helped his father in the business. With her marriage to a Brahmin opposed vehemently by her parents – both senior central government employees – Patricia left home.

But the marriage fell apart soon. ‘My husband was into a lot of vices (drugs and alcohol) that I did not know (before wedding),’ she says. ‘I made several efforts to bring him out of it but could not – it was a tough time for me.’ He also used to assault her.

It wasn’t long before she decided she could not take it any longer and moved back to her parents’ home in Chennai with her son in 1980.

Her kiosk, she says today, was her learning ground: ‘Though I do not hold any professional degree in business, I have learned from my experiences – today I am as good as any MBA professional. I take criticism the right way and I am learning till this day. For me, that should be the attitude of an entrepreneur.’

Three or four months after she had opened the beach kiosk, seeing her work, the Slum Clearance Board made her an offer to run the canteen at its office. ‘It was a 9-5 job and I served breakfast, lunch and evening snacks. On average working days, we catered to the regular staff of 200-250, but on Wednesdays and Fridays, which were public grievance days, there used to be more than 1,000 people!’
With the canteen turning out to be a huge success within three or four years, she got another offer to run the Bank of Madurai canteen and chose to quit work at the Slum Clearance Board’s canteen.

At the bank canteen, she served food to around 300 people every day and simultaneously ran her beach kiosk, which was operational till 2003. Fate was to change soon, and for the better.

But Patricia’s luck changed soon. ‘I got a call from NIPM after three or four months and was asked to join the following week. It was a 24x7 job and I literally didn’t sleep for two weeks. Besides students, professionals too used to study there. So I had to be very professional, and had to keep myself updated. I could not have survived at NIPM with basic cooking.’

Though the work was back-breaking, NIPM, she says, is the place that ‘groomed’ her. ‘It was also where I took a contract in my own name for the first time – earlier I used to take contracts in my husband’s name.’

While working there, Patricia got an offer for catering at a dental college just across the road and began work there, too. She took care of both canteens till 1998 – the year she met people from one of Chennai’s most famous chains of restaurants (she is reluctant to name the chain, or the people). Made a managing partner in one of its units, Patricia had entered the restaurant format!

By then, she could also afford bigger risks – both her children were well educated, and son Praveen had entered merchant navy. ‘Having been associated with the merchant navy college, I liked the way they worked and wanted Praveen to join that field. Since I was working 24x7, I had almost no time for family – that’s one reason I did not want Praveen to get into the catering field, though both my children were very interested in cooking.’

After Praveen started sailing, Patricia’s daughter graduated in visual communication. ‘I had her wedding fixed almost immediately. But destiny had written something else…’

Patricia’s daughter, Pratheepha Sandra, and son-in-law died in an road accident barely a month after their wedding in 2004. ‘It shattered me. I withdrew from all that I was doing. I still cannot get over my daughter’s death. I have done all this only for my children…to give them a good life,’ she says in short, staccato sentences.

By arrangement with Governance Now
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