Foodie families: Indian restaurant Samy's Curry is an institution in Singapore

Mr V Maheyndran (centre) with his daughter Nagajyothi Mahendran and son M Veerasamy, who both run Samy's Curry.
Mr V Maheyndran (centre) with his daughter Nagajyothi Mahendran and son M Veerasamy, who both run Samy's Curry.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

This story first appeared in the November 2014 issue of The Life e-magazine in The Straits Times Star E-books app, in package titled "Food families".

This Indian restaurant, one of Singapore’s most famous, is an institution. It draws diners from here and abroad, and the 300 seats are packed every day with fans of its fishhead curry, masala chicken and fish cutlets.

Samy’s Curry was started by current owner V Maheyndran’s father, Mr M Veerasamy, as a roadside stall in Tank Road. The restaurant moved to various locations, but has established itself firmly in Dempsey over the years.

Mr Maheyndran, 56, who, like his father, was born in Tamil Nadu, has two children, both of whom run the restaurant. Daughter Nagajyothi Mahendran, 30, and son M Veerasamy, 26, are directors of the company.

His wife, Madam Veerasakthi Mahendran, 51, also works in the restaurant, as does his son-in-law, Mr M Pandiyan, 33. The restaurant has 15 staff in the kitchen and another 10 for front of the house.

At meal times, family members walk around the restaurant, talking to customers regular or new, and make a point to ask for feedback.

Samy’s Curry has been in various locations but it is now firmly established in Dempsey.
Samy’s Curry has been in various locations but it is now firmly established in Dempsey. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Samy’s Curry is famous for its  masala chicken (left) and fish head curry (right).
Samy’s Curry is famous for its  masala chicken (left) and fish head curry (right). ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Mr Maheyndran had opened three restaurants in Indonesia but these have since closed after he parted ways with his business partner there. He is scouting other opportunities to expand regionally.

Both his children have hung out at the restaurant and helped out there since they were young. Mr Maheyndran was grooming his son to take over the business but gave his daughter the choice to opt out if she wanted.

However, like him, she found herself stepping up to the plate when the family business needed help.

Mr Maheyndran, was it a given that you would take over Samy’s Curry from your father?

V Maheyndran (VM): When I was young, no father wanted his children to become hawkers. My father was half-hearted about me joining the business. He wanted me to be a lawyer. 

When I was 21 years old, just out of National Service and one week before I was supposed to get married, he died suddenly at age 50 of a heart attack. Bo pian (Hokkien for no choice), I was forced to take over.

I almost wanted to give up. My money management skill was zero and at one stage, I thought, ‘There must be an easier way to make a living’.

But I hung on and learnt the business the hard way. It was the 1980s at the time and I had no family here. There was nobody to guide me.

You also had to step up to the plate rather suddenly didn’t you, Ms Nagajyothi?

Nagajyothi Mahendran (NM): In 2007, my father had a heart attack and it was very scary. I didn’t know anything about the business. 

My brother was really young and I couldn’t rely on him totally.

I used to go to the restaurant on and off but after that, I had to be here every day, all day. Yes, it was tough, I was very shy, very scared.

I didn’t have the courage to gather my 20 staff and give them pep talks. But I had no choice. My survival instinct kicked in and, somehow, I found the courage to do it.

My father didn’t have the opportunity to learn from his father but we have the luxury of learning from him.

Chettinad chicken from Samy’s Curry.
Chettinad chicken from Samy’s Curry. PHOTO: SAMY'S CURRY

Framed photos of deities are hung behind the cashier counter at Samy's Curry.
Framed photos of deities are hung behind the cashier counter at Samy's Curry. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

How has the business changed over the years?

VM: In my father’s time, there was no emphasis on cleanliness or service. Overheads were low. Rent was $300 a month. Now, it’s $50,000 a month. There was not much competition either. Aside from us, there was Muthu’s (Curry) and (The Banana Leaf) Apolo. The restaurant  did not open for lunch.

Now, we open for lunch and dinner, and are closed only on Tuesdays. People also look at the ambience, besides the food.

We have a good base of customers. 

NM: High rentals and manpower are our worries for the next 10 to 15 years.

What has your father taught you?

M Veerasamy (MV): He taught me that each and every piece of feedback is important to the growth of the business. When we introduce new dishes, we get regulars to try them and ask for feedback. And I also know that if we have made a mistake, we need to rectify it on the spot.

NM: He told us about the long hours, taught us about staff management and the importance of having quality control over the food daily. We must check on the taste every day.

What has the third generation brought to the business?

NM: Our restaurant is not air-conditioned and we had some younger customers remarking on it. So we air-conditioned a section of the dining room, with 50 seats. We also went into online marketing, and had a massive response to our Groupon offer.

VM: We used to have canteen-style tables but they have changed the tables and chairs, and started a catering business a couple of years ago.

MV: We created a Facebook page and have monthly promotions. On Mother’s Day, we offered a 10 per cent discount for customers who brought their mothers in for a meal. And we are planning a month-long celebration for SG50.

Some ideas were shot down though, weren’t they?

Samy’s Curry is known for serving food on banana leaves.
Samy’s Curry is known for serving food on banana leaves. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

VM: A couple of years ago, they wanted to do away with banana leaves, which we serve food on. I told them that this would backfire and that as long as I was here, they better not try this trick. I didn’t want to take the risk. I asked a few customers and they all said no.

NM: We realised that our unique selling point was that we served food on banana leaves.

What’s next for Samy’s Curry?

NM: We have had calls asking for home delivery of our food. Our catering arm is for parties but we are looking for a good way to do home delivery. Do we partner with a delivery company to do it or do it on our own, where we would need drivers and order takers?

VM: We have to try it out. If we don’t, we won’t know if it’s good or bad. Virtually all the Indian restaurants have it.

Are your children doing a good job running the business?

VM: They have improved but I want to see more improvement and more fire in them. 

What I’ve built for the last 30 years, I hope they will carry on. I hope that in 20 or so years, Samy’s Curry will still be recognised and people must continue to say good things about it.

hsueh@sph.com.sg

This story first appeared in the November 2014 issue of The Life e-magazine in The Straits Times Star E-books app, in package titled "Food families".