Seventy-seven-year-old Urmila Jamnadas Asher starts her day at 5.30 every morning.
She makes tea and breakfast for her daughter-in-law, Rajashree, and grandson Harsh, and then reads the newspaper as she eats her own meal. After this, she starts preparing snacks to cater to orders placed by residents across Mumbai, who come to eat her delicious food at Gujju Ben Na Nasta.
Assisted by two people, including Rajashree, she begins delivering orders by noon. On the surface, this seems to be the routine of any woman who runs a homemade food business. But Urmila’s story reads differently. The senior citizen started her venture at the age of 77, to bury life full of tragedy, pain, and struggle.
Urmila’s daughter passed away when she was two-and-a-half years old, after she accidentally fell from a building. Years later, her two sons passed away as well — one due to brain tumour, and the other due to heart disease. All she had left was her grandson, Harsh.
Harsh completed his MBA in 2012, and worked with the Oman Ministry to promote tourism in India. In 2014, he quit his job to start a venture of corporate gifts and merchandise by collaborating with the consulates.
However, tragedy struck in 2019, when he met with an accident and lost his upper lip. “The accident left me disfigured, and I had to undergo surgery. It led me to face an identity crisis, and subsequently, I fell into depression. I refrained from stepping out of the house. I had been financially sustaining my family and myself since 2016, but that came to a sudden halt,” he tells The Better India.
A steady hand to hold
This personal crisis was followed by a worldwide one, when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. “I started losing business as the global pandemic situation worsened. By February 2020, I had to shut shop,” he adds.
Harsh’s grandmother was a first-hand witness to his pain and suffering. “I told him that he had only lost his upper lip and business, but I’d lost three children, and was still standing strong. I assured him I’d offer all my support,” Urmila says.
In 2020, Urmila and Harsh started Gujju Ben Na Nasta, to slowly get back on their feet. The business today earns the duo a revenue of Rs 3 lakh a month.
Every day since March, the neighbourhood of Charni Road has found itself drenched in the aroma of fresh and mouth watering Gujarati delicacies. This aroma travels far and wide across different corners of the city through a plethora of orders that it receives on food delivery platforms including Swiggy and Zomato.
Harsh says the idea struck him in March, one day when his grandmother was preparing pickles. “I asked her if she was willing to prepare it in large quantities, and suggested we advertise it on social media platforms to check the response of potential customers.”
The picklers were an instant hit.
“My friends and close acquaintances had always liked the food my grandmother made. But I never realised that so many people would go crazy over it. We sold 500 kilos of pickles and started adding snacks such as thepla, dhokla, puran poli, halwa, sabudana khichdi, farali pattice and other such items to the food list,” Harsh says.
Urmila took charge of the kitchen and rolled out dishes, while Harsh’s mother and other friends helped in packaging and managing orders.
“My grandmother works 14 hours a day, and sometimes even six hours at a stretch. Her stamina and endurance are incredible. We cater to around 30-35 orders a day, each of them prepared and checked for quality by her,” he says.
“As business grew, I partnered with two other friends to invest Rs 10 lakh and opened a brick and mortar shop near the house in October,” Harsh says.
‘Everyone has their own style of cooking’
Harsh says that while the business is stabilising, they need more workforce and infrastructure. “We started small and are planning to scale up. There is a small kitchen space and limited people who can work at a time. There are inquiries for over 70 orders. But we cannot fulfil them,” he adds.
He explains that out of the Rs 3 lakh they earn, a majority goes into rents, salaries and commission to food delivery platforms. “What remains is Rs 90,000, which is spent on buying raw material and sustaining the family. There are no profits. Only increasing orders will boost it,” he says, adding that he aims to open outlets at airports across India for vegetarian travellers.
However, Gujjuben, as Urmila is fondly called these days, has no financial worries. “I have no idea how much the business earns. My job is to cook fresh and quality food for the customers. Cooking is my passion, and I do not feel tired even after spending more than 12 hours in the kitchen. I also love learning how to make delicacies from others, and it never ends. Sometimes, Harsh feels hungry at midnight, and I enter the kitchen and prepare something for him. But I do need my 4.30 pm tea to refresh myself in the afternoons,” she laughs.
Urmila says there is no secret recipe for her dishes. “Everyone has their style of preparing food. I have mine as well. On many occasions, friends invite me to make pickles at their home. I ask them to buy the ingredients and prepare them at their house. My speciality is raw mango pickle and another without the skin, which makes it easier for the elderly to chew,” she adds. Urmila guarantees that her pickles can last for almost three years.
Naville Gotla, a working professional from Tardeo, is a regular customer, and says every item made by Gujjuben is his favourite. “I came across the shop during a visit in the area once, and later saw the listing on Zomato, so I decided to order some food. Since then, I have tried every single item offered on the menu. There are no doubts about their taste or quality,” he adds.
When inquired about the popularity of her food and how much customers love it, Urmila replies, “I want people to eat healthy food. In my generation, we ate food that was much healthier and less adulterated. Many youngsters these days opt for fast food or ordering online from restaurants. I understand that work is stressful and it becomes difficult to cook meals after a tiring day, but there cannot be a compromise on food and personal health,” she emphasises.
She also has another message. “I lost my children when they were young. There is no denying that I miss them every day. But I can’t keep crying. I moved on, and people should learn to do the same. That is why I wanted to help Harsh and give him the right strength when he needs it most. Supporting each other makes life easy,” Urmila says.
To order snacks from Gujju Ben Na Nasta, click here.
Edited by Divya Sethu