Dawood is everything his name does not inspire.
Sheik Dawood, Chennai’s Sandwich Don, is a soft-spoken man who embodies humility. He has mild mannerisms and would go unnoticed in a crowd. He does not attract attention, and finds more happiness in putting his head down and toasting a cheesy sandwich than anything else. You can hardly hear his voice when he speaks and he doesn’t speak too much. There is more learning in listening.
And the hard lessons that he has learned in business has made him who he is today.
When he started a small sandwich stall outside a general store on TTK Road in Chennai, Dawood sold just about 5 sandwiches a day. “That’s half a loaf of bread,” he says, laughing off the initial miseries of business, “the financial loss was painful.”
Today, his empire doles out more than 2000 sandwiches a day to customers who are willing to patiently wait for a taste of his mysterious magical chutney between two slices of fresh bread.
In a country with high unemployment and a strong belief that a government job could be the panacea to a poor family’s woes, Dawood’s entrepreneurial journey from being an errand boy at a vegetable market to a fast-food operator with three stores and 20 franchisees is more inspiring than the success story of any fancy startup.
Errand boy at Koyembedu
Dawood was born in 1983 at Vadipatti village, 13 kilometres from Madurai town. His father, Suleiman Seth and mother Barisa Begum, brought the family along to Chennai in 1992, where Seth would later start a juice shop outside the popular Mummy Daddy store in Kilpauk. Apart from a sister, he has two brothers, Shahul and Jinnah, who are also in the sandwich business now.
Soon after Dawood graduated from the Choolaimedu Corporation High School, he went looking for work in the city. His first job, which paid him a paltry Rs.1500 every month in daily wages, was that of a shop boy at an onion wholesaler in Koyembedu Market. “I used to work the 3 am to 12 noon shift, and did that for 4 years,” he recalls. Later, he put in four more years at a tomato wholesaler’s at the Aminjikarai Market.
Dawood cherishes these experiences, because he sees in them what Steve Jobs saw in his own calligraphy lessons. Jobs, an inspirational figure whom Dawood admires immensely, often talked about calligraphy classes which helped him develop an aesthetic sense for Apple’s products. Ditto for Dawood. “The contacts I made during those years helped me procure vegetables for cheap rates, so it helped my margin immensely,” Dawood explains.
In early 2000s, Dawood’s elder brother, Shahul Hameed, was working at the Alsa Mall sandwich shop, another immensely popular joint in Chennai. Shahul had by now understood the business, and saw a great opportunity in it. So, he told his brother to start his own stall. To learn the trade, Dawood worked at a shop in Anna Nagar for three months, and then set out on his own.
“That time, nobody knew sandwiches. People would usually go for idli or dosa, or even chaat, but not so much sandwiches,” Dawood says. For three months, Dawood set up shop in Tambaram, pedalling 36 kilometres every day with his supplies from his home at Maduravayol.
The stall was a failure, and after three months of accumulating losses, he took his brother’s advice and moved to a storefront on TTK Road. Sadiq, the owner of Royal Shoppe on TTK Road, was a kind man who had been in business for more than 4 decades. When Dawood asked him if he could use his storefront to set up a stall, not only did he allow him, he also told him that he could use it for free for a month and then pay him whatever he could afford the rent. He named his stall Royal Sandwich.
For Dawood, this was the turning point.
It started with just 5 sandwiches a day, but the business slowly picked up, and went on to become a rage among students and young professionals. His cheese sandwiches with the special green chutney contributed to the gastronomic satisfaction and fattening of hundreds of Chennaiites, including this writer.
In the beginning, his cheapest sandwich, plain veg, was for just Rs.6. His most expensive one, from the menu of 10 varieties, was Rs.12. After a month, he made enough money to pay a rent of Rs.50 a day to Royal Shoppe.
But these were also days of immense struggle. Dawood says: “For 6 months, I made no real money. I have even been hit by people on the road over accidents. Or locals would threaten me asking for money for some event, it was not easy.”
The rage for his sandwiches grew with the IT boom. “People needed tasty food on the go. They would come here and be done with their meal in a few minutes,” Dawood points out, “It was faster than fast food.”
When he saw that there were a lot of repeat customers, he understood the potential, and started looking at ways to expand. “I searched on the internet for good recipes, and picked up some great ideas. I wanted to have a foreign style with Indian masalas. So I brought in more variants like gobi, sweet corn and paneer,” he says.
His weapon, however, was his green chutney. “The recipe is still a secret, and we don’t tell anyone what it is made of,” he smiles.
A lesson he learned early is that initially, market acquisition was more important than profits: “I made very little money, but I wanted more and more people to come and have the sandwiches first. I wanted to create a culture of local residents eating sandwiches every day.”
In a couple of years, his brother Jinnah set up another stall down the road, and he too moved to his own store on TTK Road. By then, Dawood’s menu had grown to about 110 varieties of sandwiches, he had hired one more person to help him and was clocking 200 sandwiches a day. “Innovation is very important. The taste should always be good, but people always want new stuff,” Dawood observes.
And he took advice from all and sundry. “In fact, it was a customer from Bengaluru, Bhavana, who gave me the idea for the chocolate sandwich, and it has been a roaring success,” he recounts. And therein lies another little talent he has – he does not forget the names of his frequent customers.
Soon, his elder brother Shahul, who introduced him to the business, also started his own store on St Mary’s road.
The Sandwich Brothers had now arrived. Filmstars and celebrities came to meet Dawood, and he got bulk orders for college fests and parties where he would sell hundreds of sandwiches in a day. Students loved him and his food. Soon after, he moved to yet another store on TTK Road to increase capacity. He now has three employees and sells about 400 sandwiches a day at this outlet, including panini and pita sandwiches.
The most popular sandwich? Chicken mayonnaise!
Chicken mayonnaise sandwich
Going global with Sandwich Square
In 2014, his wife’s brother, Nasser, and his friend Tanveer, asked him why he didn’t think even bigger.
Four of them, Dawood, Jinnah, Nasser and Tanveer, met at the Café Coffee Day opposite his store, and discussed the possibilities of a franchisee model.
Sandwich Square was born.
“Nasser wanted to take it to the next level. We could not open more stores, but the franchisee model allowed us to grow,” Dawood says.
And they did it with intelligence. They did not use the “Royal” brand, making sure no harm would come its way if the experiment failed.
Their first franchisee was at Spencer Plaza.
Today, they have 15 franchisee-run Sandwich Squares across Chennai, and one in Vijayawada and Trichy. They have 5 of their own outlets too.
The entire operation is run out of a centralized kitchen in Purasawalkam. From bread and cheese to vegetables and the magic chutney, everything is supplied to the franchisees. In return, they get a royalty fee and a share of the profits. Even the billing is centralized and monitored through a software.
They have had enquiries for opening outlets in Malaysia, Jumeirah in Dubai, and Sharjah. “We will fly out all the supplies,” beams Dawood.
In spite of the dizzying success that he has had, he goes about with the same honesty and involvement in making sandwiches. “A lot of people come to me asking what is the secret to my success. I tell them there is no secret, it’s patience. You have to learn from failures. You have to take the initiative. Success is automatic,” says Dawood.
All images: Nishanth Krish