“I was never a bright student and barely managed to pass through the classes,” recalls Vikesh Shah from Mumbai. Vikesh remembers living in a 200 square foot room during his early years. “In 1995, at the age of 18, I took up a job in a bakery soon after passing Class 12th to support the family’s financial needs,” he says, speaking with The Better India.
Vikesh says that he had no interest in working at a cake shop and took the job only to fulfil his monetary needs. “My father was a diamond merchant and faced huge losses. We struggled to earn two square meals a day. So my mother started taking tuitions, and I worked at the bakery for Rs 700 a month,” he adds. Along with working at the bakery, Vikesh pursued other odd jobs at a travelling agency, perfumes and pubs.
Today, at the age of 44, Vikesh has established the brand ‘99pancakes’ across cities in India and earns in crores. That’s quite a turnaround!.
Cakeshop to pancakes
Whatever his initial feelings, it would seem baking was in his future after all. The first step came in 1997 when Vikesh launched a catering business. After ten years of running that, he finally launched his brick and mortar cake shop in 2007 – ‘The Happiness Deli’, which continues to run even today.
“I put all my savings, Rs 4 lakh, and borrowed money from friends and relatives to launch the business,” Vikesh says. “No one was ready to collaborate with me. I did not have a formal degree, and my only asset was the confidence earned with experience over the years,” he adds.
“The shop took off, and orders started pouring in. I banked on a corporate clientele for the business. There was no social media to market the business back in those days, and I put my contact details on JustDial,” he adds.
Eventually, he increased his range from cakes to pastries, doughnuts and other bakery products catering directly to consumers. But a sweet twist in his entrepreneurial journey came a few years ago when Vikesh launched 99pancakes.
“I visited European countries around 2014 and got exposed to pancakes and waffles sold on the streets and mainstream restaurants. The concept of pancakes was fairly new in India, and not many customers had accepted the food. I realised the concept was interesting and could attract a wider range of customers,” he says.
Intrigued by the concept, Vikesh asked the locals about the recipes. “The owners were kind enough to share the recipes and the ingredients that went into making soft and fluffy pancakes. After returning to India, I reached out to chefs in the network who came up with high quality pancakes,” he says.
“I experimented by selling pancakes and waffles with my repeat customers. One foreign lady, who appreciated the pancakes, suggested that I launch a retail brand with the same,” he says. That put the germ of the idea in his head.
Vikesh was sceptical, given the fact that very few knew about the concept. “But if you think about it, presenting an idea to customers before the competition helps to establish a monopoly,” he says, adding, “On many occasions, the products you trust better fail and vice-versa. So I decided to take the risk.”
That Horrible First Week
In 2017, he launched an outlet at Kala Ghoda in Mumbai and in the first week itself, his fears turned into reality.
“The shop recorded a sale of just Rs 500 in the first week. Moreover, the civic body began digging the road in front of the shop affecting the visibility and accessibility. As a result, the shop made minimum or zero sales between April and June,” he explains.
Soon after the road work was completed, Vikesh started inviting his friends and family members to the shop. “I requested them to spend some hours in the evening at the shop to make passers-by feel that the outlet is popular and serves good food. I offered my guests a variety of desserts, and they spread the word among their friends and close acquaintances,” he says.
He admits that he was still not comfortable using social media and stuck to traditional marketing means.
“In the next 15 days, the number of customers started increasing. The desserts became popular instantly, and since, there has been no looking back,” he says.
Vikesh says preparing the dishes in front of the customers, tempting them with the aroma of freshly made pancakes, really helped with the sales. “Our Holland pancake, crepes, waffles and pizza are popular. In addition, we have introduced birthday cakes as a part of our new extension – as it is our forte,” he says.
Ronit Jadhav, a Mumbai based art director, says, “My friend suggested this place once after our classes. I loved their variety and presentation. It was the perfect decadent treat after long hours of classes.”
From that dismal opening, today 99pancakes is sold in 43 outlets in 14 cities of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Telangana. All of this generates a revenue of Rs 7 crore each year.
Interestingly, Vikesh shares how the pancakes became so popular that many YouTube channels and competitors started addressing all pancakes as 99pancakes. “I am glad they decided to use the brand name as a springboard, so I do not feel threatened as I am confident about the quality of our products. We are always ahead of the competition,” he says.
Like all businesses, COVID-19 posed another challenge in his entrepreneurial journey. “All of our reserves dried up, and hence we decided to revamp the store format. We have refreshed our image and plan to launch merchandise to widen revenue sources,” he says.
Patience is a Virtue
Sharing his experiences, Vikesh urges budding entrepreneurs to practice patience. “I have observed that young entrepreneurs often aim to grow fast and earn quick money. But success can come only with knowledge and patience. Today, infrastructure and technology have made many aspects of the business convenient. But only patience can help a business grow,” he says.
Vikesh adds, “One should not chase the money. The numbers and figures do not matter as much as the happiness and satisfaction of operating a business.”
Edited by Vinayak Hegde