Kainaz Messman Harchandrai remembers waking up with tears in her eyes in the 80s because of the number of onions being chopped in her home. “Our whole house had sacks of onions that would be chopped for the Kheema or the burgers for my mother’s catering business. Then, after school, my older sister (Tina Messman Wykes) and I would come home to countertops full of handmade chocolates, which we would help her wrap,” recalls Kainaz.
Today, Kainaz is the owner of Theobroma, whose brownies, red velvet cakes, and other delectables are famous all over the country. And even after 17 years of starting the brand, her focus on quality hasn’t shifted.
Growing up in a foodie Parsi family, she always had an affinity for treating people to good food. Kainaz’s banker mother, Kamal Messman, quit her job to look after her two kids. Her father, Farokh, was a pharmaceutical businessman who started as a milk delivery man.
When the kids started school, her entrepreneurial mother decided to start a fast-food business in Mumbai.
“It was at a cricket match one day that the chairman of the Government-owned MAFCO (Maharashtra Agro and Fruit Processing Corporation) stalls tried my mother’s sandwich. After that, he arranged a business meeting with my mother, after which her business took off,” says Kainaz.
“We then started selling sandwiches, burgers, chicken rolls to all the MAFCO stalls in Mumbai,” she adds.
While pastry shops and dessert cafés weren’t popular in the 80s, Kamal started selling cakes and pastries. “My mother would wake up at 5 am to prepare the food and would still find time to surprise us with delicacies for lunch and dinner,” says Kainaz.
She adds, “She was probably one of the first to discover an eggless brownie recipe. She went on to supply her ‘vegetarian’ brownies for the Sizzling Brownie dish at a big restaurant chain, Blue Foods.”
“Standing out from egg-free cakes which were rather hard and dry, it was through so many experiments that we got the consistency of the eggless brownies right,” she says.
Very soon, they started sending their brownies via bus to different cities like Jaipur and even the South.
Despite shadowing her mother in the kitchen and using a tweaked version of her eggless brownie recipes to date, the 42-year-old says she never planned on becoming a chef. “I didn’t plan to follow in her footsteps. Instead, I wanted to become a lawyer. But when I was 16, I went to France as a Rotary Youth Exchange student. That trip catalysed my inner chef tendencies. The trip inspired me to ditch law and take up the food business.”
All her memories from her mother’s kitchen came rushing back to her when she was in France. “I didn’t even think about how there were very few women in the field, and I’d be an oddball,” she says.
Though, it would be another seven years before she would start Theobroma in 2004 at the age of 24.
She went on to study at the Oberoi School of Hotel Management. But working as a chef at the Oberoi Udaivilas in Udaipur wasn’t exactly a cakewalk. “I didn’t take care of my back as a chef. Finally, my back gave way, and I had a bulging disc in 2003. The doctors told me I couldn’t be a chef anymore, and I’d have to find an alternate career,” shares Kainaz.
“I went through a bit of depression. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else because cooking was my passion. I focussed on healing my back. I took a whole year off, and I was bedridden for three months. On my doctor’s advice, I started swimming to strengthen my back. I swam every day — through the rain and the winter,” she says.
While resting her back, her family encouraged her to open a small neighbourhood café.
So at a time when Café Coffee Day was thriving and cake shops stuck to the customary Black Forest and sugary-icing cakes, the Messman family were trying to start a neighbourhood café with a French twist.
“We wanted to bring items available in 5-star hotels like croissants and Christmas cakes to the streets,” she says.
Dawn of Theobroma
When ideas for café names were thrown around, Kainaz’s sister Tina, a chartered accountant, was working with a commodities broker in London. It was he who suggested the name ‘Theobroma’.
“We looked up the name to find that it is the botanical name of the cocoa tree — Theobroma cacao,” says Kainaz.
“But everyone we spoke to had very strong opinions — ‘What name is this? No one will remember it’,” she laughs, adding, “Years later, we still get called ‘De Obama’ and ‘Theo Brahma’, after the Indian deity.”
Their first outlet was at Colaba, Mumbai. The seed money to the tune of Rs 1.5 crore came from her father, and with that, they bought the property and baking equipment.
“The goods were baked in my grandmother’s kitchen across the street. We couldn’t air-condition the place as we were trying to save money. The only place we could afford to air-condition was the corridor. That became my ‘chocolate room’, where all the pastry and chocolates were made. The rest of the house was used for storage, and we used the hall for baking,” she recalls.
Kainaz says that they started as a patissier, but their menu evolved to accommodate breakfast and lunch options along with Danishes, quiches, cream cheese sandwiches and other delicious savoury options.
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However, they were operational only in Mumbai for more than a decade before branching out to other states. And for six of those years, they only had one store.
“I was the biggest obstacle to my business,” says Kainaz, who had only one assistant at the time. “I was happy with my one neighbourhood store. We were spreading ourselves thin even then. We were working all day, every day, seven days a week. The learning curve was very steep.”
People made a beeline for the store right from when they opened their doors till they pulled down the shutters.
Today, they have around 85 outlets across the country.
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“In Mumbai, our kitchen is 25000 sq ft. I am very happy and proud to be in this space. It is an amazing place to work. We have similar beautiful spaces in Delhi, Bengaluru and Hyderabad,” she says.
Theobroma hired Cyrus Shroff as CEO in 2013, who helped standardise production and grow the business. “This helped us grow outside Mumbai. Our first operation outside Maharashtra was in Delhi in 2017,” says Kainaz. She adds that Rishi Gour, the brand’s current CEO who joined the company in February 2020, has grown the business from 45 outlets to 85 in less than two years.
For the financial year 2021-22, Theobroma is looking to make Rs 230 crore and their profitability is in double digits, Kainaz claims.
Speaking of challenges, she adds, “A lot of women face scepticism from colleagues and attempts to physically violate them or not take them seriously. So you have to prove yourself at every step. I became the boss at a very young age at 24, and I had a lot of growing up to do.”
“Globally, in the F&B industry, there are very few women in leadership positions. That has always been an issue. That’s why we, at Theobroma, will always endeavour to create a safe working space for women. Women need to feel safe and comfortable in the workplace,” she says.
“I just want to create an environment where there’s no distinction between the work of men and women. Women should have an equal opportunity to climb the corporate ladder and maximise their potential,” she asserts.
Over the years, a lot of Theobroma dishes have been received ‘unexpectedly well’, says Kainaz explaining, “For example, our red velvet cake — we didn’t even know what it was. It was being revived in the US, and we heard about it from people who travelled. I tasted the red velvet cake for the first time in Theobroma when we made it.”
“Our rainbow cake became popular during Pride week. I was so happy that we were able to be a part of this without attempting,” she says, adding that she aims to “grow Theobroma in a sustained manner to do justice to the product”. “I have to ensure that our products will always be true to our essence — high on taste, classic and simple.”
In their recently published book — Baking a Dream: The Theobroma Story, Kainaz’s mother Kamal writes, “No bond is as primal and pristine than between a mother and a daughter. My daughter Kainaz and I share that unique tie, and no relationship has been as fulfilling as the one I have with her…While both of us as individuals march on to our own drumbeat, together we make great music, whether it is in being entrepreneurs, planners and thinkers or simply as mother and daughter.”
On continuing her mother’s legacy, Kainaz says, “We used my mother’s recipe for eggless brownies until about two years ago. While the basic ingredients remain the same, but my mother’s recipe was a bit too sweet for the modern palate. However, the soul of our brownies is still from my mother’s kitchen.”
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)