Engineers Shubham, Sandeep, and Aman quit their jobs and launched their art cafe 'The Kalari Factory', which aims to popularise Udhampur’s traditional kalari cheese while empowering local artists.
For childhood friends Shubham Sharma, Sandeep Abrol, and Aman Mahajan, who grew up in the beautiful city of Udhampur in Jammu and Kashmir, the last two years have been life-changing and fulfilling.
In early 2020, when the pandemic hit the country, the trio decided to build a business together. Though they weren’t sure about what the business should be about, they were clear about one thing — the unique selling proposition should be something Jammu-centric.
While all three were originally civil engineers and had well-paying jobs, they always yearned for doing something of their own.
“After post-graduation, I worked as a tunnel engineer for around two years. But I left my job in 2019 as I wasn’t enjoying the routine. I wanted to do something different,” says Shubham, adding that around the same time, Sandeep and Aman left their jobs to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams as well.
They sat together to come up with an idea where all three of them could work together. “We brainstormed and finally narrowed it down to building a cafe, but with a unique focus on offering dishes made with the indigenous cheese of Udhampur — Kalari cheese,” says the 28-year-old.
Named The Kalari Factory, the cafe currently offers over 20 dishes using kalari cheese. It turned out to be such a big hit that in 2021, the trio opened their second outlet in Jammu city as well.
From friends to business partners
Opened in September 2020, the cafe experiments with this traditional cheese to make dishes and snacks that everyone loves.
“Kalari is popular in Udhampur as a roadside snack, and everybody here loves it. It’s pretty much part of our culture. We felt the need for popularising it further, beyond Udhampur, especially as nobody has ever attempted it,” says Shubham, who had some experience working at a restaurant in Uttarakhand.
“We had several ideas, but a cafe felt right as it aligned well with our strengths and interests,” he adds.
Meanwhile, Sandeep’s culinary skills came handy while setting up the cafe. “Cooking has been my hobby since childhood. Both of my parents were working, so I used get a lot of time for myself at home, and that’s when I started experimenting with it,” says Sandeep, who took up the responsibility of experimenting and coming up with new dishes using kalari cheese.
“Kalari cheese is usually served with either bread or a kulcha. So we tried to make it more versatile by experimenting in different ways. We didn’t invent any new dishes, but we tried to innovate different dishes by using the traditional cheese,” he explains.
Aman, who took up the responsibility of back-end operations of the cafe, says that for them, kalari was also something with a kind of nostalgia attached to it. “We grew up together and would eat kalari cheese from the roadside eateries. It used to be one of our favourites, but we never imagined that we would end up starting a business around it,” he smiles.
He adds, “We weren’t sure when we started it during the first wave of the pandemic. But to our surprise, we received an overwhelming response from people. Since then, we haven’t had to look back.”
When they launched their cafe in 2020 using their own funds, it was a small setup which had a seating capacity of around 10 people. “Eventually, as business picked up, we moved to a bigger space in Udhampur itself, with a seating capacity of 30 people. As the business turned out to be a success, we felt the need for opening one more outlet but outside Udhampur. So we set up our second outlet in Jammu city with a seating capacity of 40 people,” says Shubham.
The Kalari Factory now has a proper menu listing around 20 dishes. “Though kalari is a cheese, it never had the status of a cheese and was considered just a snack. Through our cafe, we tried to call it a cheese that can be used in any dish to enhance the taste,” he explains.
“We make around ten different types of bread using kalari cheese. Other than that, we have the kalari paratha, kalari veg omelette, kalari lollipop, burger, pizza, momos, sandwiches, wraps and so on,” says Shubham, adding that the best selling item is the kalari momos.
How the unique Kalari cheese is made
Kalari cheese is made usually from cow or buffalo milk, and has a stretchy and dense texture with a mild mozzarella-like flavour. This cheese is also called the milk chapatti or maish krej in Kashmiri.
It is an intrinsic part of Kashmiri cuisine, traditionally made from raw full fat milk. The milk is vigorously churned in an iron pot with a wooden plunger-like tool, and the molten mass of milk solids is then separated by adding sour milk or curd, called mathar.
Blobs of the stretchy cheese are then flattened with hands and cooled on the black iron pot itself. Later, the solidified cheese is sundried on pine leaves. Since the ambient temperature in the mountains remains low despite a strong sun, the Kalari dries from the outside and remains moist inside.
Usually, flattened kalaris are salted and sautéed in their own fat on a hot griddle. While sautéing, they develop a crisp golden layer outside, but retain a soft, creamy, gooey molten inside. Flavoured with spices and topped with chopped vegetables, the kalari is then stuffed between a kulcha and served with garlic and chilli chutney.
Talking about how they source the cheese, Shubham says, “We source authentic kalari cheese from a nearby village called Ladda. We have tied up with several dairy farmers in the village who otherwise don’t have much of a market space for kalari. Now, it’s like an additional income for them.”
“We believe that, as we popularise kalari, the demand for it will increase, thereby providing a stable market for these dairy farmers,” he adds.
A cafe empowering artists
Other than popularising their traditional cheese, the trio also wanted to make a difference by providing a platform for artists.
“We wanted to help at least a few through our business. So we decided to make ours an art cafe where we display the artwork of local artists,” says Shubham, adding that these artists can display their artwork free of cost, and interested customers can buy these pieces directly from the artists.
“We have so far sold paintings worth Rs 15,000 to Rs 25,000,” he adds.
Nikhil Sharma from Udhampur, who is a regular customer at The Kalari Factory, says, “I have been going there with my friends and family ever since they started the cafe. We love all their dishes made of Kalari cheese, and the prices are also nominal. It’s a locally available cheese and they are promoting it in a very attractive way. The cafe is also helping the local artists by giving them a platform to showcase their work. I feel they should be encouraged for their efforts.”
The two outlets of the Kalari Factory also host several art events like live painting workshops, art exhibitions and more.
The trio is now planning to start a production unit in the Ladda village, as they are planning to expand their business in the coming years.
(Edited by Divya Sethu)