About three hours away from Mumbai, lies a tiny village called Bordi. It is a perfect weekend getaway for city dwellers who hustle throughout the week. Situated by the sea and boasting of verdant downs, Bordi is a respite to eyes so accustomed to high rises and smoke-choked air.
Besides being a feast for the eyes, Bordi is also famous for its chiku farms that span across the entire village. In fact, Bordi’s chikus are so well-known that a Chiku festival is held each year and people from all over flock to the coastal village to attend it! Who wouldn’t?
Growing up in the middle of this chiku paradise, Mahesh Churi, naturally, grew to love these sugary delicacies and developed a lot of respect for the farmers who nurtured the fruit with so much love.
Mahesh was also aware of the fact that since there was an abundance of the sweet fruit in the region, these farmers weren’t really getting a fair price for their efforts and the produce would go to waste.
“Chiku is such a nutritious fruit. It is rich in phosphorus and dietary fibre which helps in digestion. Since it is widely available in Bordi, I started thinking of innovative ways in which I could source these fruits from farmers and start a social enterprise around it,” explains 67-year-old Mahesh.
With this thought in mind, Mahesh embarked on a journey to find solutions, struggling and brainstorming for close to 12 years. He finally founded his startup, ‘Chikoo Parlour’ in December, 2017 which is a single stop for all things chiku.
Chikoo parlour sells sweets, toffees, milkshakes and ice creams made with chiku in their outlets. The startup sources about 250 kgs of chiku from farmers directly.
Around 20 women from the village work in Chikoo Parlour’s Bordi unit which does all the manufacturing.
Finding the way back to one’s roots
Mahesh left Bordi in 1988 to pursue a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Veermata Jijabai Technological Institute in Mumbai. The next two years saw him working as a service engineer with the BPL group in Mumbai.
In 1996, he decided to quit his job and return to Bordi to start his own company.
While still based out of Borivali in Mumbai, he started ‘Sumo Instruments’, an electrical manufacturing company in the same years and setup it’s unit in Bordi.
“After running Sumo Instruments for about 10 years, I wanted to start something that could empower livelihoods in the village and that is when the idea to work around chiku came to me. I asked myself how I could add value to this humble fruit,” says Mahesh.
One thing that Mahesh was sure of was that he wanted to make a product free of preservatives, artificial flavours and colours.
Just like all startups, Mahesh had his hits and miss cases during the initial stages of making the products. Mahesh first experimented with making Chiku powder to add to make milkshakes, sweets and desserts.
“I made a pulp of the fruit and tried to dry it. However, that wasn’t successful as it turned out to be too sticky,” laughs Mahesh.
Undeterred, he then cut the fruit into small thin chips and dried it using a solar tent dryer. To powder the chips, he developed a special machine in-house that could grind the chips roughly and prevent the sticky-ness.
Luckily, this worked well and he started manufacturing this powder in small amounts in 2008 to see if it would be well received.
“I sold these chiku powder packets to local shops in Bordi and to my friends who were living in Mumbai,” says Mahesh.
Unfortunately, the powder, though well-met, did not get many buyers.
Getting Chikoo parlour up and running
Although Mahesh was successful in devising a way to correctly manufacture the powder, the joy was short lived.
“The powder in itself did not do good sales. We also hadn’t marketed the product because not too many people even knew about it. By the end of 2009, we had to throw out about 2000 kg of the powder since it was way past it’s expiry date,” recalls Mahesh.
However, his entrepreneurial soul took away useful lessons from this experiment. He quickly realised that selling the powder in itself is not a viable business idea.
“I thought to myself, why not make chiku based food products that people can consume directly. Additionally, I could sell other packaged chiku products as well,” says Mahesh.
At this time, his brother-in-law, who runs a catering business in Palghar, became a confidant.
“My brother-in-law helped develop different chiku based sweets. We developed pedas, barfi, sweet rolls. I waited, took my time and experimented for about three years before finally founding Chikoo Parlour on 27 December 2017, on my birthday,” smiles Mahesh.
Call it Providence, stars aligning right or the fruit of a man’s labour, Mahesh’s smile was an indication that things became better after that.
The first Chikoo Parlour which was set up on the Bordi Seaside has expanded to three more locations. There’s one located on the Mumbai Ahmedabad highway and two on Mumbai-Nashik highway.
Currently, Chikoo parlour offers 10 types of Indian sweets, three types of ice-cream and a milkshake. Mahesh explains there are three sections under which all chiku products are sold. Under ‘Meetha Chiku’ they sell sweets like barfis, katlis, pedas, halwas among others.
Chiku powder and rawa is sold under the ‘Sookha Chikoo’ section. While under the ‘Cool Chikoo’ section, one can enjoy scrumptious milkshakes and ice-creams.
The influx of returning customers has proved that Mahesh’s hard work, perseverance and belief in his products have paid off well.
We talked to one of those happy customers to find how sweet the chiku experience was for them. Neelima Nagargoje discovered their sweets during Ganapati celebrations about three years back.
“I tried their sweets at a friend’s place. The modak was delicious and since then, I have been buying their toffees ever since. Everytime there is some festival or occasion, I continue to buy sweets from them,” says the 40-year-old therapist based in Mumbai.
She says that she really loves Chikoo Parlour’s products as they are low in sugar content and taste natural.
Patiently and persistently overcoming challenges
Although Mahesh had already faced a bunch of hurdles on his journey to setting up Chikoo parlour, there were still a few more that he had to tackle.
“Keeping up with regulations and certifications has not been easy. I am someone who doesn’t have much experience in the food business and understanding this sector can be a little complicated. Also, sometimes things take time and run really slow from the administration’s end,” he explains.
Despite these roadblocks, Mahesh is really hopeful for the future. He has been taking it a little easy since last year after suffering from a heart attack. Since then, Mahesh’s sons have been more involved in the business operations.
But, his spirit remains hopeful with a bunch of plans to execute in the future.
Mahesh says that they plan on experimenting and launching their range of chiku jams and chiku puree. Currently, Chikoo Parlour’s unit has been set up in a space sectioned off from Sumo Instruments premises. Thus, Mahesh wants to set up the unit in a larger, separate unit so that he can scale operations.
“When I first started this, I did not think it would become a big business. Now, we have a turnover of rupees one crore yearly. In the future, I hope to empower more livelihoods. I want to give my 100 percent to whatever I do, as long as I live,” he says signing off.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)