SEBERANG PERAI, Oct 20 — It’s hard to believe that today’s laid-back town of Butterworth used to be a busy trading hub.
Littered with a mix of pre-war shophouses, commercial complexes, godowns, flats, modern shoplots and all types of residential housing, this slow-paced town has the potential to become an economic, arts and business hub for Seberang Perai, especially with the ongoing construction of the Penang Sentral transport hub.
To spur urban regeneration in this area, Think City and Majlis Perbandaran Seberang Perai jointly kickstarted a Butterworth revitalisation project last year by introducing various programmes including the Butterworth Fringe Festival held in conjunction with the annual George Town Festival. The fringe festival was well-received and already made people rethink Butterworth as a place to visit.
What many people are not aware of (or may have forgotten) is that Butterworth is the birthplace of several prominent Malaysian businesses as well, like the famous banana leaf rice restaurant Sri Ananda Bahwan.
In fact, the once-modest restaurant has become a diversified group of companies today, while still headquartered in Butterworth.
The family business
Always packed and busy — with the tantalising aroma of curries and spices lingering in the air — Sri Ananda Bahwan may look like any other Indian restaurant. The modern-looking environment of the restaurant today belies its humble beginnings as a small family-run restaurant.
It all started when a single mother and her eight children moved to old town Butterworth and lived above a restaurant in a pre-war shophouse back in 1980.
Radhabay Iyasamy Naidoo, who is from Taiping, rented the shophouse and sublet the ground-floor shop to a restaurant where she often helped out.
“We all grew up with the scent of spices and curries,” said her son Harikrishnan N. Veerasamy.
In 1990, Radhabay decided to take over the restaurant with the help of her children, all of whom had by then grown up and were already working.
Harikrishnan, who is the youngest of the eight, had just turned 22.
“We named it Sri Ananda Bahwan because Ananda means happiness and we wanted people to be happy when they came to our restaurant,” he said.
In the beginning, everyone would chip in to help with the running of the restaurant. Radhabay and another son, Selvaraj N. Veerasamy, were in charge of the cooking while Harikrishnan was in charge of operations.
“All my brothers and sisters who were working would help out after work… serving customers, clean up… it was a family business,” he said.
The first few years were tough and Harikrishnan said they were exhausted from the long hours, at times even regretting going into the restaurant business.
“It was exhausting, I used to wonder why we got into this, it was not an easy business to do,” he said.
However, the restaurant’s reputation for delicious South Indian food started to spread, particularly its banana leaf rice and fragrant flavourful curries.
“Business was booming by 1994 but we had an issue with workers shortage and when the government reviewed the foreign workers policy in 1996, it was a godsend… we were finally able to get more workers from India and Indonesia,” he said.
By then, Harikrishnan and his brother Selvaraj were running the business together with the occasional help (and recipes) from their mother.
Growing beyond Butterworth
Due to the open foreign workers policy, Harikrishnan said they were able to expand their business and that’s when he decided to open a branch elsewhere.
“By then, we were getting a lot of customers from Kedah and many of them kept asking us to open a branch in Sungai Petani so we decided to open our first branch there in 1997,” he said.
The opening of a branch was also a way for them to maintain customers’ loyalty in preparation for any competition from other newer restaurants.
“Our restaurant was doing very well at that time and I was thinking, if a new restaurant was to open next door, our business may drop by 50 per cent, so I better open a branch to capture more of the market first,” he said.
From that first Sungai Petani branch, they branched out to Kulim, then Bangsar in Kuala Lumpur before finally opening branches on Penang island in 2001.
Today, Sri Ananda Bahwan has outlets in Penang, Kedah, Perak and Kuala Lumpur, including its main restaurant in Butterworth that has expanded from a single shophouse to three shophouses.
The restaurant started out with South Indian fare, but now also has North Indian food along with Malaysian staples like nasi lemak and mee goreng.
Two years ago, they ventured into a multi-cuisine concept with the opening of its Macalister Road branch on the island.
This branch offers an extensive menu that ranges from Indian to Western food and even Chinese-style cuisine to cater to a wider range of customers.
In between, they also started a catering section which is halal-certified.
“We cater for events and weddings and for one of our packages, we give free wedding sarees to customers who book our catering service for their weddings,” Harikrishnan said.
That saw the company diversify into textiles with the opening of Ananda Sakthi Silk which sells imported sarees along with offering tailoring services.
“The textile business is my wife’s passion so she’s the one who sources for merchandise from all over India,” he said.
There are now two Ananda Sakthi Silk outlets in Penang, the main one in Butterworth and another in Little India on the island.
It all started with a banana leaf rice restaurant based in Butterworth
The Sri Ananda Bahwan group of companies, with Selvaraj, Harikrishnan and their wives, Kerisnabini Seeramalu and Puvaneswary Kanna respectively as directors, continues to diversify into other fields.
It started a wholesale grocery store across from its main restaurant in 2012 and it also opened a hotel in Chennai, India in 2014.
“We are now looking at opening a hotel in Malaysia in future… it’s definitely in the plans,” he said.
That’s not all; there are also plans to go into construction and property development.
“We may soon set up a property development company,” Harikrishnan said.
The 48-year-old said he may not be highly educated but he always had a nose for business and will continue to grow the company.
“I always look at new ways to improve my restaurants and businesses, we must always go with the times to stay on top,” he said.
From a small family-run restaurant, the Sri Ananda Bahwan Group of Companies has over 430 employees in its 12 restaurant branches all over Malaysia, two textile boutiques, one grocery wholesale store, one catering company and a hotel in India.
“To be honest, we never expected to be where we are today when we first started the restaurant but looking back, I’m glad that we persevered through the tough first years,” Harikrishnan said.
Sri Ananda Bahwan restaurants are open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Find outlet nearest to you at srianandabahwan.com.my
* Think City is a subsidiary of Khazanah Nasional Berhad currently undertaking urban regeneration programmes in George Town, Butterworth, Kuala Lumpur and Johor Baru.