Indian restaurant Saravanaa Bhavan struggles to open in Switzerland

Image: aargauerzeitung/Severin Bigler

Anitha Sivakumar and Sarankan Ravendran are set to open the first Saravanaa Bhavan, a famous Indian restaurant brand, in Switzerland, in Zurich. But they underestimated a major issue in their plans: visas for chefs.

05/14/2024, 11:5805/14/2024, 12:02

Benjamin Weinmann / ch media

All that’s missing is the finishing touches. At number 50 Limmatstrasse, a good five-minute walk from Zurich Central Station, people have been screwing, plastering and polishing since the beginning of the year. Above the entrance, the sign has already been installed: Saravanaa Bhavan. This is the name of the largest Indian (self-proclaimed) chain of vegetarian restaurants in the world.. It has around a hundred addresses in more than 25 countries, from New York to Stockholm via Sydney, Bangkok and Frankfurt.

Anitha Sivakumar and her partner Sarankan Ravendra show us around the premises which previously housed a kebab shop. They have acquired the franchise rights of Saravanaa Bhavan for Switzerland.

“The buffet will be particularly useful at lunchtime”

Sivakumar

There will also be a la carte orders, he adds. This lists no less than 300 dishes.

“Actually, everything is ready”

But all is not so simple. While the opening was planned for the beginning of May, the brand’s social networks are still broadcasting the same message: “Coming soon”. The inauguration will be delayed. “In fact, everything is ready,” assures Anitha Sivakumar. This thirty-year-old works full-time in a cantonal bank. Gastronomy is another world for her and her partner, who have three young children. Both arrived in Switzerland from Sri Lanka when they were children.

Anitha Sivakumar (right) and her partner Sarankan Ravendran on the construction site of their restaurant on Limmatstrasse in Zurich.Image: aargauerzeitung/severin bigler

Because if the launch is delayed, it is because of a visa problem:

“For all branches, the cooks at Saravanaa Bhavan come from India”

Anitha Sivakumar

They would be the only ones to know the secret recipes. “We even had to build a separate, enclosed room to mix the spices using a giant mortar that comes from there too. We don’t even have access to this area,” confides Ravendran, 34, who previously worked in the IT sector. This is where the dough for dossas is also prepared – a kind of very large, very light pancake.

The menu at Saravanaa Bhavan offers around 300 dishes, from thalis to biryani to dosas.

The menu at Saravanaa Bhavan offers around 300 dishes, from thalis to biryani to dosas.Image: dr

But the Zurich Office for Economic Affairs and Labor refused visa applications for the five hired chefs, originally from India, a third country. He argues his decision in particular by the absence of global economic interest and the priority of indigenous workers.

In appeal filed

Asked about this, the spokesperson for the office, Fabian Boller replied that he does not provide information on individual cases. Generally speaking, he explains that the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) has issued specific guidelines for the admission of specialist cooks, which are applied when evaluating applications. In addition, authorization from the Secretary of State is also necessary for such admission.

The couple of restaurateurs filed an appeal against the refusal. “Our cooks have expertise that simply does not exist in Switzerland; it is a very different cuisine, based on old recipes from South India,” explains Anitha Sivakumar.

“We are not just another Indian restaurant, the flavors of Saravanaa Bhavan are totally unique”

“The authorities should not put obstacles in the way”

So why not hire people already established in Switzerland? “Saravanaa Bhavan insists on internal training in Asia, particularly for fear that foreign chefs will come and take over the secret recipes,” explains the manager. She would like this work to be more recognized. “Why should only pharmaceutical engineers and scientists receive visas?”

She is counting on Zurich State Councilor Carmen Walker-Späh, who heads the Office for Economic Affairs and Labor, to unblock the situation. The future manager wrote him an email asking for support.

“I am an ambitious young woman who wants to create her own business and jobs. The authorities should not put obstacles in my way.”

She emphasizes that cooks who work for at least five years in Switzerland would receive a salary above the average, or 5400 francs per month.

“There is therefore no question of outsourcing or salary dumping”

The rest of the staff, from management to service, would come from Switzerland. In total, this will generate a dozen positions.

No plan B

What if the Economic Office persists in its decision and the five work permits are not issued? “We don’t have a plan B”replies Baloise.

“We have already invested a large amount, six figures, in this matter, from the rents to the lawyer’s fees for this dispute, including the transformation work”

They also allegedly pawned their own house. Just the special kitchen utensils for the dossas or the Tandoori oven would have cost more than 30,000 francs, as some had to be imported from England. “We earned all this money with the sweat of our brow,” continues the husband.

The couple tries to stay optimistic – and continues to make plans despite everything. “The idea is to establish other franchises in Geneva, Lausanne, Bern, Lucerne and Basel in the medium or long term,” says Anitha Sivakumar.

Because since the first posts on Instagram for the opening in Zurich, they have received messages from all over Switzerland, from immigrant Indians, but also from Swiss people who know the concept having tested it abroad. Some messages even came from across borders.

“We hope to be able to welcome all these people to our home soon”

(Translated and adapted by Valentine Zenker)

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