Not many know this, but Corner House had actually begun as a fast food joint.

Ice cream business is a happy business says the man who gave Bengaluru the Corner HouseImage source: Corner House/Facebook
Features Saturday, April 25, 2015 - 05:30

If there’s one ice-cream parlour that Bengaluru can truly call its own, it’s got to be Corner House.   

You know you’ve made it when you’re given a standing ovation. But even though Narayan Rao is no performing artiste, he is definitely an artist, one who created the flavours that have delighted generations of Bengalureans.    

In May, 2015, Rao’s calculated risk – Corner House – completed 33 years.    

"Surviving thirty-three years has been an achievement in itself. The past three decades have been eventful," Rao says.  

As an agriculture graduate in his twenties, Rao got a job with the Oberoi hotel in Kolkata. Although it was unconventional and his salary was just Rs 100, Rao says could not see himself as a "pesticide salesman".    

Narayan Rao; Photograph: TNM   

Later, he went on to obtain a diploma from Austria, then worked as a chef in Switzerland, and even went to Canada to pursue an MBA. Back in India and without a godfather, he was told, he was wasting his time and effort. 

After a small stint with Nirulas in Delhi, he returned to Bengaluru to open Corner House on Residency Road with some help from his father and a friend.   But starting an ice-cream parlour was still a big risk.

"I didn’t think we’d be this successful. I didn’t have a vision initially and went with the flow. Growth happened slowly. It took me 17 years to open my first branch," says the 57-year-old.     

Not many know this, but Corner House had actually begun as a fast food joint. Back then, they had just three ice-cream sundaes on the menu- hot butterscotch, chocolate and mint fudge and hot chocolate fudge.   

In the next few years, Rao experienced moderate success to "abject failure" in the restaurant business, until one day he decided to open an exclusive ice-cream parlour.      

Corner House print ad from 1982; Image source: Corner House/Facebook  

"Lake View was the only ice-cream parlour in the city then. People would queue outside their store each day. There was big market for ice-creams and I knew what I had to do," says Rao.   

What follows then, is a story of shrewd marketing combined with great dishes. Rao decided to put on display specimens of ice creams they had on their menu for the customers. "We wanted to show people what exactly they’d be getting when they ordered a particular flavor as opposed to showing them photographs," he says.   

Along with his team, Rao made a visi-fridge out of an old Kelvinator vertical cooler. Since the ice-cream would melt in just two hours, they started using boiled rice and potatoes on the display. "With the toppings on, no one could differentiate them from the original," says Rao.   

The potato scoops made their ice-creams an "instant seller". And since then, there’s been no looking back.     

Today Corner House has 15 stores across Bengaluru, of which six are franchises. A new store is set to come up in Manyata Tech Park and there are talks of two more stores in the city.    

"We also plan to open stores in B-category towns in the state, including Hubli and Mangaluru," Rao says, but is skeptical about opening Corner House stores outside of Karnataka. He does not want to dilute the brand.      

"There is a desire to expand, but it also raises the question of how to monitor all those stores," says Rao. "If the person you franchise it to does not take care of your brand, you will never be able to enter the region again. It can ruin you," says Rao, adding that he has received some 800 applications from those interested in opening a Corner House franchise from across the world.      

"There’s nothing like manning the counter. I did it for 19 years and the adrenaline rush it gave me was like none other," he says. 

Of course there have been stray incidents of complaints, which have been mostly due to service related issues and not due to the quality of the products, he adds.       

He also shared one particular incident that touched him to the core and has since stayed with him. One day, in the parlour’s Residency Road store, a dozen people arrived to gorge on ice-creams. One of them approached Rao and asked him to join the table.     

"When I went there, they all gave me a standing ovation. The people included four generations of a family who had been coming to Corner House," Rao says smiling.