Long before American fast food giants KFC and McDonald’s arrived in the city, Bengaluru had tried and tested the concept of Darshini – fast food joints.
It was in 1983 that the city witnessed its first fast food joint, Café Darshini, the name that became synonymous with the concept years later. The idea was to move away from the catering system that existed until then, a food culture where serving and eating food would take no more than 15 minutes. The idea came to R Prabhakar, a businessman from Bavanagudi, following a trip on board.
Prabhakar, who saw fast food chains like McDonald’s in countries he traveled to, thought such an idea could be adapted to serve South Indian dishes and decided to open a new restaurant in his return.
“When I saw the KFC and McDonalds, they were preparing food quickly. I realized that South Indian food can be served just as quickly. So I adopted this model of fast food or self-service at my brother-in-law’s Café Darshini. Initially everyone said it wouldn’t work because Bengaluru people were used to spending long hours in restaurants, but our restaurant was full in no time, ”said Prabhakar, 68, who took his retirement from the hotel industry.
His concept was simple. The food will be billed first, using this token a customer could get the food at the counter. The menu is small and the hot dishes are served to the customer in less than a minute. However, the big change Prabhakar made was to remove the chairs from restaurants and replace them with high tables, where people can stand and eat.
Chandrashekhar Hebbar, president of the Karnataka Pradesh Hotels and Restaurants Association (KPHRA) said the new system allowed more people to eat in the joints. “The menu used to include uppittu (upma), idli, vada or rice baths, which were already prepared. So there was no need to cook them from scratch. Since they were up, people ate the food quickly and moved on. And the quality of the food was so great in the Darshinis that have appeared over the years that every restaurant was full of customers, ”Hebbar said.
According to Hebbar, the Darshini culture that started with a restaurant changing the way it served food, quickly spread. Currently, there are over 1,000 of these Darshinis in Bengaluru, who are thriving. “From the late 1980s to the mid-2000s, the Darshinis were major food chains in Bangalore. They were cost effective for the hotelier, both inexpensive and convenient for the customer. Since the mid-2000s we have had many more fine dining restaurants in the city, but Darshini restaurants remain popular, ”he said.
Since the city’s first Darshini, several other people have adopted this business plan. The city administration even issues licenses for Darshini-style restaurants. The new system made it easy for many entrepreneurs to get started in the business. “Unlike opening a restaurant with seating, the Darshini model doesn’t require a lot of investment,” said Venkatesh Bhat, owner of Udupi Upahar at Basavanagudi. “Since the number of items served is limited, the daily cost is also lower. The fact that more and more restaurants of this type are opening each year shows how popular they are, ”Bhat added.
Over time, the city even saw a hybrid model, where restaurants began to serve themselves and dine under one roof. Hebbar said that in most cases, when the owners wanted to start restaurant-dining, they added the Darshini system because of its popularity among the masses.
Historian Suresh Moona said Prabhakar’s idea of adapting fast food culture with a South Indian twist came at the right time as Bengaluru was witnessing a cultural shift. “More and more businesses were setting up in the city. The pace of the city was increasing and the people were getting busier and busier. At that time, he presented a menu that didn’t take a lot of time to serve and was cheaper than a real restaurant, ”Moona said.
Moona said an entrepreneur’s decision defined the city’s culture. Even today, in every corner of town, from early morning strollers to busy vendors, everyone finds a quick bite at the Darshinis.