The Manna Experience… – II

We had a meeting of all the partners to decide the future course of action. It was only a week since we opened the restaurant, but already we had incurred a loss of more than Rs. 500. We didn’t have enough customers. Our busiest periods were mornings and evenings when people came for a snack, coffee or cigarette and our main customers were students from the hostel. Since the cost of items consumed during mornings and evenings were low, we were not generating enough revenue to at least break-even.

We wanted more people during the lunch and dinnertime and we wanted them to buy high-value items. We also wanted to attract day-scholars who went to the college canteen for food. So we decided on a more elaborate menu, selecting items that were not served in the hostel mess or college canteen. Our new menu boasted masala dosai (MD), ghee dosai (GD), ghee masala dosai (GMD), different types of omelets (plain, cheese, tomato, mutton, etc.), Bombay toast, high quality coffee (Nescafe), tea (Brook Bond Red Label), imported cigarettes, etc. In addition to this, for lunch and dinner we had fried rice (vegetable, egg and chicken), noodles (also vegetable, egg and chicken), regular and Ceylon parathas with egg roast, beef fry and chicken curry as side dishes. Keeping in mind the number of North Indian students we also included chapati and dal. George who was our resident artist designed the menu cards, which came out very well.

We also started canvasing our day-scholar friends and wooed them to Manna with special introductory offers. Slowly the business started picking up. We took turns doing the different chores from dish washing, cooking, serving and so on. I was a good cook and I used to spend my time in the kitchen making dosais, omlets, fried rice and noodles.

The coffee/tea and cigarette business also picked up. George one day had a brainwave and went to “Chala” market—the main wholesale market of Trivandrum—and bought all kinds of imported cigarettes like Benson & Hedges, Camel, Chesterfield, Dunhill, John Player Special, Lucky Strike, Pall Mall, Rothmans, Silk Cut, Malboro, etc. We sold these cigarettes at premium prices ensuring us 150-200% profits. Since only Indian brands were available in the shops in and around the college and hostel (in those days cigarettes were sold even in the college canteen and hostel store), the imported cigarettes were in great demand and our customers didn’t mind paying premium prices.

Some of the Manna Partners

When the exams came, we kept the restaurant open during the nights also. We had invented ‘24×7’ service much before the e-business boom! The normal working hours were from 7AM to 10PM. After 10 when the employees left, we took over and kept the restaurant open till the morning. We used to serve black tea (regular and lemon), black coffee (regular and butter-lemon), biscuits and cigarettes. The butter-lemon coffee (black coffee with a little butter and a lemon slice) and lemon tea (black tea with a lemon slice) became instant hits along with Dunhills, Malboros and Rothmans. Indian brands like Wills and Gold Flake Kings also were equally popular. We used to sell 300 – 400 cups of coffee and tea and more than 1000 cigarettes each night as everybody was staying up late preparing for the exams and wanted as much caffeine and nicotine in their bloodstreams as possible. We took our books to Manna so that we could study while helping others study! Since it was night service, we charged extra, but nobody was complaining.

After the exams the college closed for about 12 days. The hostel mess and college canteen were also closed. We had a sizable population of students from states like Assam, Mizoram, Sikkim, Nagaland, West Bengal and also from countries like Iran, Nigeria, Ethiopia, etc. For the foreign students going home for such a short holiday was impossible. For students from the north-eastern states, it took 4-5 days travel by train to reach home. Thus, nobody from those states went home for short holidays as it was not worth spending 8-10days in the train for 1-2 days stay at home. So we made a killing during the holidays by feeding those fellow countrymen and foreigners. We took turns ensuring that at least one or two of us were available to run the restaurant during the holidays.

One day when the cook came to open the restaurant he found the door open and most of the items including the LPG cylinders and stove stolen. We reported the theft to the police and they came to investigate. Even though nobody was apprehended and nothing was recovered, there still is a case in the Medical College Police Station with Bibin and I as the petitioners. We had to close Manna for a few days, till we got replacements for the stolen items.

With the enterprise making money, we were in really good spirits—both literally and figuratively. But while we were boasting and beating our chests about our management excellence and business intelligence our cashier was taking us for a ride. He was milking a reasonable part of the profits. He was stealing money and covering his tracks well. He was so good at it that even our daily auditing failed to detect the theft as the accounts tallied even to the last decimal.

It was by sheer luck that we stumbled upon this pilferage. One day Regi took some cash from the cash box for his personal use and forgot to put it back. That night also, the accounts tallied perfectly. For the next few days while one of us manned the cash counter we took out cash (amounts ranging from Rs. 100 to Rs. 400). But irrespective of the amount that we took, our employee friend managed to submit the accounts in perfect order. We confronted him and he admitted about his theft and manipulation of the bill book to make the accounts tally. He would not bill a few transactions (for the money he required), but would collect the money. Thus he always had more money than the bill book total. We sacked him then and there and we were back to square one—again we started taking turns to man the serving and cash counters.

When we started Manna, everybody had written our venture off saying that we would definitely end up in loss. We also were not very optimistic. The lease amount of Rs. 3900 was a bit high, thanks to the help from our competing bidders. We also had to pay for the new stove, LPG cylinders and other things bought to replace the stolen items.

But we didn’t really care. We had a great time running the restaurant—our first joint venture. It also brought out a new sense of intimacy and camaraderie among us. We were like the royal guards in the Three Musketeers with “all for one and one for all” as our motto

After three months, once the dues were cleared and the accounts settled, we divided the profits—Rs. 5216. Each one of us got Rs. 326. Our first commercial venture was a success.

When I look back after 18 years, I still feel nostalgic. It seems as if everything happened yesterday. It was fun, it was a learning experience, we became entrepreneurs, we had excellent food and we succeeded.


  1. silverine said,

    August 2, 2005 at 11:57 pm

    This was an absorbing read. Wow, entrepreneurship at work. Great post. I am off to read the next post. btw your comments on my post dont lead to this blog. Pls check your links. Cheerio:)

  2. Alexis Leon said,

    August 3, 2005 at 10:07 am

    Silverine, Thanks. I have updated my profile to include the link to my blog.

  3. Jithu said,

    August 3, 2005 at 1:52 pm

    CET rocksss!!! :-))

  4. Martin said,

    August 10, 2005 at 10:48 pm


    this is really great. i’m looking forward to the next posting

  5. Unnikrishnan G Nair said,

    March 17, 2006 at 11:45 pm

    Your Manna experiences reminds me of a character, Keith Townsend, in Jeffrey Archer’s novel The Fourth Estate. He during his school days, for some extra money, used to buy chocolates and other pastries from a man who sold it in their school every tuesday. The boy stored them till saturday and then sell it at premium prices from saturday. Most students never minded it as they had already run off their rations. I was very much impressed by that snippet telling how U can make money with the available limited resources, that it stays fresh in my memory even after 6 years of reading that novel. You and your friends have impersonated that character in my eyes through your Manna!! Great guys…