Who doesn’t like a good snack? Even better if the snack is made with oodles of love, isn’t it? The snacks by Gulab Bhandari (70), a homepreneur who started her business of making khakhra, thepla, pickles, sherbets, and chooran, almost three decades ago, are certainly full of them.
From supplying about 100 orders a month from her home’s kitchen, Gulabs today operates from a factory, where almost thirty employees fulfil around 2000 orders each month across the country.
For Naveen Bhandari, nephew of Gulab and promoter of the brand – Gulabs, taking it to the next level, seemed like the right thing to do.
“I have grown up always seeing chachi (Gulab) make these delicious snack food items, and also seen the customer loyalty she commands. For me, having seen the potential of her craft, helping her reach more people and streamline her business seemed like the logical thing to do. With her passion for food and my business acumen – I think we make a good team.”
The brand Gulabs was officially launched in October 2015, and has become well-known, over and beyond the initial set of customers for its variety of khakhra, sherbets, pickles, and recently added ready-to-eat food products, which includes upma.
“It’s all about supply and demand after all.”
Speaking to The Better India, Naveen says, “A few years ago, on Diwali, I was at chachi’s home when I noticed that many people were in and out, collecting packets, and having animated conversations with chachi. Once they left and we were back to just the family members, I asked what the crowd was all about.”
Naveen learnt that those people were Gulab’s customers who regularly purchased food items from her. A number of students who studied abroad were regular customers who bought her dry food and snack items, which they could store for a long time. Most of these Indian students were in the US, UK and Canada.
“It was all about supply and demand after all and the entrepreneur in me saw a great opportunity there,” he says.
With Naveen’s inputs the company was formally registered, the required FSSAI food license was applied for and procured and also two nutritionists were hired to look into every product that the brand put out.
Originally from Rajasthan, Gulab was brought up in Chennai in a large joint family. “All my education and growing up was in Chennai and from as early as I can remember, I have always had an interest in cooking. Initially however, it wasn’t a passion – my mother cooked and therefore I did. That is all there was to it.” The food that was cooked at Gulab’s home was slightly different since they did not use garlic and onions.
“With the passage of time and the next generation growing up, the demands for a variety of food increased and that pushed me to experiment with new dishes. It was at this time that I discovered my passion for cooking and innovation. We started making a lot more gravy dishes, just the way the younger ones in the family enjoyed,” she says. For the longest time, the entire joint family, consisting of all the siblings, and their families, lived together (almost 60 of them) and her cooking was restricted to feeding the family.
It was only after Gulab’s nuclear family (her husband, children, and in-laws) moved into their own independent home did she start her home venture.
Khakhra, Sherbet, and Chooran
Gulab says, “I was in my 40s when I started making these products, way back in 1994. They were just for our own consumption at home. It all started with friends and family members placing their orders. Slowly, by word-of-mouth, it spread.”
While one of the bestsellers today is the khakhra, Gulab tells me that when she started out, the demand for chooran (digestive tablets) and sherbets was also high.
It was the support that she got from her mother-in-law that helped her move ahead, and she speaks very fondly of her. “Her input and support helped me tremendously. From being my first port of call when I needed to check on something to telling me how much masala went into what, she was very meticulous and that is something that I learnt from her.”
Until 2015, the small business that Gulab started out of her home remained just that and it was Naveen who saw the potential to grow it into something bigger. He says, “I took a long while to understand from chachi the modalities she was using to go about her business. I saw a huge potential in this and decided to try and scale things up.” He adds, “The Diwali of 2015 almost changed the course of our lives,”
“It was also an opportune time for me, personally, because I had just closed a deal with Eros, to sell my tech start-up called TechZone, and the money I had made from that sale was something I was looking to invest,” says Naveen.
From a homepreneur to an entrepreneur
While Gulab was a home-chef, she never bothered about the earnings. She says, “Whatever I made through the sales were used up for something or the other in the house. At that time I never thought of growth or expansion or anything. I didn’t keep any accounts at all. I did not even look at it as a source of income – it gave me happiness and that is why I did it.”
There were no accounts per say of the investment made and the money that the business was making. Whatever money was made by selling the food products was used to procure the raw material needed and in that way the business went on.
With Naveen entering the business, he wanted to bring out a change in the way business was done. He had brought with him an investment of about Rs 1 Crore for machinery, and to hire more employees to run the business with proper accounts.
“Most of the investment was needed for the machinery, a dedicated place to function, and the packaging we wanted to use”, he says.
It took Naveen almost a year and a half to launch the revamped business. “We flew the machines from Gujarat to Chennai and got in touch with vendors to better the packaging of the products. In doing all this the cost of the products also saw an increase,” says Naveen.
While a pack of 10 khakharas was sold at about Rs 70 when the business was started, today for 12 khakhras one would have to shell out Rs 135.
All the change was external – from the packaging, to vacuum sealed wraps to ensure better shelf-life, and also the addition of a pickle with every packet of khakhra.
While Gulabs now works out of a larger premise, and has more people working with them, what remains the same, says Naveen, is the taste and quality of everything that is made.
“For someone who has been ordering from chachi for all these years, the taste will not differ. From the dough to the masala that is used, they are all the same.” One of the biggest focus areas for Gulabs is the quality of ingredients they use – everything is 100 per cent natural, with absolutely no additives, colouring agents, or artificial sweeteners.
Rewarding customer loyalty
Given that many of Gulabs clients have been buying the products for many years now, Naveen lets me into a little secret and says, “When the newly packaged products were launched, we had some of the older clients see red at the pricing, and in order to tell them how much they mean to us, we decided to continue serving them at a cost that they felt comfortable paying.”
The entire business, as he says, came into being and thrived only because of the early years customers and therefore, Naveen wanted to ensure that they continued to serve them. When Gulab was asked about how she takes feedback, she says, “It is very important for me – I wait for that phone call or message to hear the feedback. When someone is not so happy with what they got, I ensure that we send them a replacement to win them back.”
The silent worker behind Gulabs
Naveen’s earliest and fondest memories of his chachi revolve around food, and he says, “We were all in a joint family, and were about 60 of us, imagine the household. Each person in the house had been assigned one duty and chachi’s job was to ensure that all the kids in the house were fed.”
After a seconds pause, he tells me that while there is no doubt that she was an exceptional cook, he did not enjoy drinking milk. “Chachi would stand on our heads and ensure that we finished that milk,” he says.
From that to working alongside her and building a brand – Naveen looks back at the years with a lot of admiration for her. “The brand’s biggest selling point is that it is made by hand and that there has been no compromise to the quality or taste of the products.”
Emphasising on the point of quality control, Naveen says, “I remember going to chachi to ask if we could consider including garlic khakaras to our product list – the answer was a categoric NO, and it was after a lot discussions and deliberations by the entire team, she agreed to this addition.
They make a good team – a blend of the old and the new, with mutual respect and trust for each other and their ideas and values. This is what makes the partnership click.
Some of the bestsellers at Gulabs include the moongodi khakhra, methi khakhra, the lime-ginger and rose sherbet and even some of their pickles. As of now, they have almost 30 products and intend to add another 50 during the course of the next few months.
You can click here to have a look at their product list and also place an order for something that you like.
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)