The year was 1978 when an 18-year-old Rambabu Ramraj Sharma, a native of Rajasthan made his way to Belgaum—currently a part of Karnataka and erstwhile Bombay Presidency—to appear for an army recruitment interview. Despite clearing all the requisite stages, he did not get permission from his father to join the services and was asked to look for some other job. This left Rambabu so disillusioned that he decided not to return.
After moving around and working at several odd jobs, he decided to make a thriving business out of one of the most beloved desserts — ice cream.
Thus was the start of Old Mumbai Ice Cream Company, which today is an iconic brand across the three states of Maharashtra, Telangana and Karnataka. With a turnover of over Rs 6 crore year-on-year, this ice cream brand churns out more than 5 tonnes of ice cream every day.
Netrapal Ram Babu Sharma (37), son of Rambabu, who is currently running the business, says, “After having told everyone in the village that he would join the army, he was upset when his father forbade him from doing so. He did not wish to return to his village until he had made something of his life.”
Like many others of his generation, Rambabu headed to Mumbai – the land of dreams. Life was anything but easy and Netrapal says, “He took up various odd jobs to survive in the city. The only thing that kept him going was his desire to make himself a success.”
At 61 years of age, while Rambabu does not manage the day-to-day affairs of the business he continues to be involved in everything work related.
Becoming The Ice Cream Man
In the one year he spent in Mumbai he saw ice cream vendors carry large pots on their heads. This intrigued him and he took up the job of selling ice creams at Gateway of India. Netrapal says, “These were all stick ice creams and even though he did this for more than one year he found that he wasn’t able to make a lot of money. So, in 1980 he moved to Ichalkaranji [Maharashtra] where he started working at a photo studio.”
While the work at the studio kept him busy until evenings, he would work another job thereafter to make more money. “Even with both these jobs he did not find the happiness he was looking for,” says Netrapal.
But the idea of selling ice creams recurred to Rambabu when he was watching the crowds one evening at a junction called Janta chowk. “He would work at the photo studio until 5 pm and then take a small mini-van on rent for Rs 5. Every evening from 6 pm to midnight he set up the vehicle at Janta chowk and sold the kulfi he would have made in the morning. The USP of the kulfi he sold was its quality,” asserts Netrapal.
Even today, at the Old Mumbai Ice Cream headquarters in Ichalkaranji, the kadai (bowl) and karchi (ladle) used by Rambabu have been preserved for posterity.
Reaching Out To The Middle Class
Rambabu’s day would start at 6 am every morning and he would spend two hours making the ice cream, which he would let set and cool while he went to work. Once he would get back from work, he would take it to Janta chowk every evening. “Slowly his kulfi started gaining popularity. Even though it had no formal name, it came to be known as ‘Sharma ji ki Kulfi’. He started by selling 50 kulfis a day and slowly reached more than 300 a day. That was when he decided to quit his job,” says Netrapal.
In 1981, he formalised the entire business and called it Old Mumbai Ice Cream. “Since he learnt how to make these ice creams in the old Bombay region, he stuck to naming it just that,” Netrapal says, adding “It was started with a meagre Rs 2,000 investment, where the biggest expense was of his kadai.”
Having started with just the kulfi on public demand, Rambabu started offering mixed ice cream, which was a mix of gulkand (a sweet preserve of rose petals), pista (pistachio), kaju (cashew) and mawa (khoya). “With this he started selling kulfi and the mixed ice cream, both of which were huge hits,” claims Netrapal.
He adds that the only true legacy his father passed on was “honesty and the principle of maintaining quality”.
“He always insisted on maintaining the best possible quality and has always been honest with his business and customers,” he adds.
Up until then, ice cream was looked at as a treat that would only be served at big weddings and in the homes of very well to do people. With the introduction of Rambabu’s ice creams, there was a slight shift in that dynamic. “Our price point was a huge plus for our ice creams. One could buy kulfi from us for Re 1,” he shares.
After never taking a day off and working relentlessly, he was hit with another setback.
In 1995, there was an unofficial rule in Ichalkaranji that disallowed hawkers to set up shop along the street side. This came as a huge blow to the business given that the minivan that the business used would be parked along the road every evening.
“This forced him to think of new ways of doing business. This new rule put us out of business for almost 20 days and given that it was our only source of income, it came as a huge blow to us,” says Netrapal. It was this move that prompted Rambabu to lease out a small shop in Ichalkaranji in 1997.
Second Generation Business Owner
The first shop, which was taken on lease was all of 150 sq ft and subsequently when they found that the shop was always filled with customers they decided to buy a 100 sq ft shop nearby in 2007.
“My father never wanted me to join the business. He always urged me to complete my education and look for job opportunities outside Ichalkaranji,” he shares. While Netrapal did take up a job outside Ichalkaranji, he returned when his father was not feeling very well in 2010.
“This was also the time when people from nearby towns like Sangli and Kolhapur started making enquiries to start an ice cream shop in their towns as well. In 2011-12, we started a shop in Sangli,” he says.
The growth was small but one that Rambabu was comfortable with. He was not entirely convinced about the franchise model and was most comfortable with retaining control over them. Today, Old Mumbai Ice Cream is spread across Maharashtra, Telangana and Karnataka in over 50 outlets. In 2015, the first shop that they started underwent a complete revamping and with that Netrapal also started franchising.
All the ice creams are made in a centralised kitchen at Ichalkaranji and dispatched from there to the various centres.
This helps in maintaining very strict quality control.
The evergreen flavour continues to be kulfi and with that, they introduced other items like kaju shake and badam shake. Even mixed ice cream, which is an amalgamation of different flavours is a big hit. Netrapal says his favourite flavour has always been kesar kurma, a rather unique flavour that is made with various dry fruits and kesar (saffron) procured from Kashmir. The signature kulfi which was priced at Re 1 when the business started is today sold at Rs 30. “We continue to price our ice creams at a rate that is affordable by all. We do not wish to unnecessarily charge extra for what we make. We use very fresh ingredients, which includes milk, sugar and fresh fruits. There is no addition of any emulsifier in our ice creams,” says Netrapal.
“The vision continues to be to establish ourselves pan-India.
However, it is not like I want to achieve everything in my lifetime, I am happy if my children take over and continue to expand and grow this vision,” says Netrapal.
Today, his sons are already eager to join the business, as they often experiment with new flavours and come up with interesting ideas. “Just the other day we experimented with imli (tamarind) and made a rather delicious ice cream with it,” he adds.
On a parting note, Netrapal says, “Even now when my father speaks to his friends he always says ‘upar wale ne mujhe hasiyat se jyaada hi diya hai’ (the almighty has given me way more than what I deserve). It is this grounding that has helped him grow so much. I hope I am able to be half the man he is.”
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)