Springleaf Prata Place is probably one of the first few names that many Singaporeans would think of when figuring out what to have for supper.
For 18 years, the casual Indian restaurant chain has flipped a variety of pratas, wide enough to feed an entire village.
Heck, writing this article made me order some murtabak and prata myself.
However, we almost wouldn't get to try the unique offerings that Springleaf is known for because once upon a time, the eatery's founder was so sure that he wouldn't venture into the F&B industry.
Meant to be a prata man
SV Gunalan, 47, started Springleaf Prata Place (then known as The Prata Place) in 2003.
Better known as Guna, the founder shared with Mothership that his parents had been running a restaurant "all their lives" and at 10 years old, he was roped in to help in the restaurant.
Back then, however, he expressed little to no interest to be in the very field he grew up in, wanting to avoid the long hours and the heat in the kitchen.
So he furthered his studies and dipped his toes in the corporate world as an auditor.
Unfortunately (for him, not us), it was only a few years before he was itching to return to flipping pratas: "[I] lasted in the corporate world for only four years and then realised that I'm meant to be a prata man, after all."
Expanding and rewarding staff
At 29, he took a loan from his parents to start his own restaurant in the Springleaf area.
Fast forward to today, they have nine outlets across the island — a success he'd never thought he would achieve in his early days.
He said with candour: "In the first few years, I got to a comfortable position and I was kind of lazy. I just had to train the manager and make sure that everything was to the quality we wanted."
It was years later when this question kept ringing in his head: What makes Springleaf any different from the typical prata shop?
Expanding the restaurant would not only put Springleaf's name everywhere on the Singapore map, but it also gave the opportunity for Guna's staff to grow.
He explained that every new outlet will have a junior partner who was a former employee.
Apart from helping to manage the restaurant, these junior partners are also incentivised by receiving a bonus, which includes up to 30 per cent of the restaurant's profits.
"That's my way of rewarding them and I can open more outlets without being there all the time," he shared.
The Ultimate Series
One of the other things that make Springleaf special, of course, is the Ultimate Series.
"It didn't take very long to get it (Springleaf's signature crispy and fluffy prata) right because that's what my father did all along. It is when we started our wacky creations — that's what differentiated us from the rest."
The series first came to life when the restaurant was approached by Singaporean food blogger Leslie Tay to join the Ultimate Hawker Fest charity event in 2012.
That's when the Ultimate Murtabak, which is filled with cheese, mushrooms and tandoori chicken, was born:
Although the last Ultimate Hawker Fest was held in 2014, Springleaf continued to create innovative pratas every year thanks to popular demand.
"We like the concept and customers would ask if there's going to be something new every year. We made it our National Day thing and 2021 was year 10 of the series," he said.
While Springleaf may look like it has always had it going for them, the reality is that they've faced their own sets of peaks and valleys.
Like any successful businesses, there are bound to be positive and negative reviews.
And Springleaf is no stranger to that, as Guna coyly brought up the lime juice saga.
He simply said: "When we get complaints, we'll go through the CCTV footage and we'll try to recover the situation. [After 18 years,] we still make mistakes but we learn from them."
The biggest problem, however, is the manpower crunch that plagues many other industries in Singapore.
While technology advancements have helped, he shared that not everything can be automated.
"I love technology and that's why our central kitchen is tech-driven. But you will still need someone to flip the prata. That kind of manpower is just something that you cannot replace."
Flipping pratas in Vegas
As one of the leading prata places in Singapore, it's no surprise that it is one of the many food stalls in Zouk Group's Famous Food Street Eats Las Vegas.
Opened in June 2021, the Asian-inspired food hall spans 24,000 sq ft in Resorts World Las Vegas, and is home to 16 stalls from all over Asia.
Other Singaporean eateries that can be found there include Boon Tong Kee and Geylang Claypot Rice.
Guna told us that he was approached by a Zouk representative sometime in 2020. Despite initial reservations, he decided to give it a shot.
"On our own, I think it would be 10 to 15 years down the road [before entering the U.S. market]. So when something like that came around, we thought why not?"
So what does he think of his only outlet (so far) in the U.S.?
Unfortunately, he has not been to Famous Food Street Eats yet, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic.
"But I am fully vaccinated and we are planning to go along with two of the chefs from India. Hopefully, by December, we'll be there," he said.
For now, the Vegas outlet only has the basic pratas like plain, egg, cheese and bomb. But the eatery has plans to expand its Vegas menu to "look more like the Singapore menu."
Singaporeans in the U.S. who are longing to have a taste of Springleaf's prata will be glad to know that the one in Vegas is as authentic as it gets.
"It's basically still bread and curry. How much can you change the curry? If you change too much, it's not Indian food. So far, the response has been good," he said.
And Guna doesn't kid around when it comes to quality control, both in Singapore and the U.S.
"We told the CEO [of Famous Food Street Eats] who flies over both places if occasionally, he can just bring in a frozen pack so we can look at the quality. It's not just about money-making, it (quality control) is still very important to us. I think that's what Zouk likes about us because they know that we're fussy."
So where else on the map, after Vegas?
"Prata came from India but I want to bring Singapore prata there. Malaysia is another attractive place. One is where my parents come from, the other is our neighbour, so these are where we're looking."
Almost two decades of memories
Guna has had many pleasant experiences after running the business for almost two decades.
One of his favourite experiences — he tittered as he was telling us — involves his wife.
Back when Springleaf first opened, his wife would occasionally help as the restaurant's cashier. One day, she was faced with a rude customer.
Guna stepped in nicely and soon, the customer accepted his reasoning.
In awe (and perhaps a little upset), she said to him: "You're never this patient with me!"
He also reminisced the good times when Springleaf gained prominence after being featured in newspaper articles back in the early 2010s.
"We had abrasions [from making many pratas] after the newspaper articles because we were so short-handed. So we stopped halfway, grabbed a drink and then continued with our work," he said.
Planned to retire at 45
These moments are probably why he's still working, even though he originally planned to retire at 45.
"Last time, I told myself I wanted to retire at 45. I've already missed that mark so my next target is 50, but maybe that will change to 55. I enjoy what I do, so it's not a drag to get to the job in the morning."
So is that why running a restaurant is worthwhile for him?
Guna goes straight to the point: "If it's successful, it's good money."
But he also added that ultimately, starting Springleaf Prata Place has made him a happy man.
"In any industry, what makes it worthwhile is it must be your calling and you must enjoy what you do. At the end of the day, your happiness is what matters the most above all else."
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Top image from National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board and @doremi.indomie.