How the Top Indian Patisseries survived through 2020 - a 'bake'-through conversation
Dais Feature | 28/12/2020 05:00 PM
What a year this has been! And it seems it well will spill over to 2021 with its evil eye. Like it or not, every article, every conversation, every business presentation – starts with the alphanumeric we have all been reeling under throughout this year – Covid-19. And just as hope was beginning to get around the corner, there’s now news that it has become smarter – beating us to the finish.
So, while we remain on the edge on this one, some Santas decided to don a toque and bring us cheer in the form of sweet fluff- yes, our favourite pâtissiers looked 2020 in the eye and brought sweetness to every moment of our lives- pandemic notwithstanding.
As the year draws to a close, and Christmas cheer and festivity begins to roll, bakeries fill the air with the warmth of their ovens and the lush aroma of their fresh bakes, filling our hearts with joy of the year gone by and hope for the year coming through. But this year was different.
As businesses suffered setbacks at the onset of the pandemic with lockdowns marring daily operations and staff rushing back home to safety, the 7 Billion USD Business of Happiness - "Baking" – was not spared either.
The government figuring which way to sit on regulations every day, the prolonged lockdowns that kept outlets shuttered, kitchen staff worried to report back to work, supply chains stuck at city and state borders with no hope of the perishables reaching in time, and of course the sugar-loving consumer now scared to even dream of a food item not made in his own kitchen forget stepping out to eat – 2020 made even the ever-positive baker wonder if this was ever going to end.
And now, when there seems to be a flicker of hope on the horizon and as patrons begin to step out of their fear to taste joy again - We spoke to some of the finest bakers in the country to know what their year has been like and how they have decided to colour the world gelatine sweet in the New Year.
Prachi Goel & Raghav Goel BROWNIE COTTAGE
Our first cover is a tale of love – a match of math with sugar, practicality with mush – a pastry chef with a civil engineer. And what was born out of the wedlock was pure magic – a business of fresh, authentic, rich, gooey brownies reaching delighted dessert lovers in all corners of the country.
Prachi Agarwal Goel and Raghav Goel started Brownie Cottage – India’s only Brownie-brand - more than a decade ago and never looked back ever since. Churning out 10000 brownies every month from a kitchen run by a team that lives and breathes the love for their craft, Brownie Cottage had us amazed at every point.
Be it the humble start of their dream in 2005 from the balcony of their rented apartment in Lokhandwala, Mumbai to the ambitious foray into FMCG by bringing baked goods onto India’s supermarket shelves, the Goels seemed to have seen it all. But 2020 was that one year, which brought all experience and passion to test. We decided to ask Prachi and Raghav a few questions about the love for their craft, their journey to 2020, and what they dream to do ahead...
Did you face resentment on the part of your family or friends to choose this profession - Were the past few months déjà vu of that resentment when you were stopped from doing what you love - this time by a viral disease? Tell us your deepest thoughts
Prachi: Oh, of course, this is such an emotional question! I come from a family that has no connect at all with hotels, restaurants, bakeries, and chefs! So when I announced that I wish to do the craft confectionery & bakery course from Sophia’s and eventually become a chef _ there was absolute mayhem! The traditional, old school family that I came from was comfortably prepared to complete my graduation and happily get married! So this profession was a total no no—but God had prepared me otherwise – I was the chosen one to spread the magic of Brownies in this world –so be it!
When the pandemic hit, and the whole world- the whole city shut down, our factory shut down too in March. Team members, workers, and chefs all were so very scared to come back to work. But then the show had to go on! With over 30 families directly dependent on Brownie Cottage—Raghav, my co-founder in business & partner in life, took the baton on himself and went out and persistently obtained permissions from the BMC & police stations. We got the factory started with 2 chefs,1 housekeeping, and sales with just 1 salesperson—while he drove the vehicle himself to service the market! So ultimately, we were all back to doing—what we loved the most—Brownie Cottage.
Is Baking a more difficult art than cooking? Could you please tell us a few areas you feel this difference gets enhanced?
Prachi: Both baking & cooking are an art – by the hand, but through the soul. This being my common emotion for both (as when I do either, it always puts a smile on my face!), yet there is a fine line of difference between the two! Which is— cooking being more of an art, baking is fairly more bent towards being a scientific study. Being a baker we not only have to study the name, size, the color of each & every ingredient but also their physical & chemical properties—that is how would two ingredients & more combine together & react- what is the property of egg for example –and how can it be used for slow baking.
Cooking is an art—which can be perfected with practice—it’s happening right in front of your eyes, you see the ingredients dance & melange together—wherein baking is more of an adventure into the forbidden land—a red hot oven!
With health taking center stage more so in 2020, a lot of people find guilt in indulging in a cake because of its sugar, lactose, and gluten content - Have you been able to find a breakthrough for their dilemma?
Prachi: Brownie Cottage brownies have always been healthy!!
All along, Each of our gooey brownies is made with only less than 5% maida –and the promise of only pure dark chocolate & love.
Nevertheless, we are soon getting on the shelves our signature assortment of-gluten free brownies too, and also a range of sugar-free brownies. Vegan will be next which of course will be egg-free too. We have always followed a unified philosophy of “healthy Yumminess.”
Being a cook is like falling in love. You are either all in or not in it at all. Does the foodie in you relish the spoils of someone else’s kitchen? And what are your favourite indulgences?
Prachi: Oh I love pastries and icecreams both equally! I really love to explore new places & creations—though the classic Lindt, Godiva & Baskin Robbins are my favourites. But an all-time homecoming is always felt when I get to visit or browse through any new Oberoi patisserie—it's so nostalgic!
Your team must be coming up with ideas periodically for a new line of products or a revamp of something already on the menu? Which is the weirdest idea you picked up and actually made it work?
Prachi: So this was really really long back –when Nutella wasn’t so hot as it is today. This was a time when Nutella had just entered the Indian market and I loved the creamy texture & taste, So that was the time we came up with the idea of our Fusion Brownies—wherein we infused a jar full of Nutella and baked it along with our brownie batter. This was a real innovation—an unprecedented treat of world-famous Nutella with the world’s best brownies! Today, even years later—Nutella brownie still stands tall as our bestseller!!
Vinusha MK FOUR SEASONS PASTRY
Ever thought of handing over your household to your kid to manage for a day? We are sure you have. How about handing over a business that has a kitchen and a whisk at its core? Doubtful. Well, that’s exactly what 10-year-old Vinusha’s parents did when they encouraged her to follow her dream and start her own bakery – Four Seasons Pastry in 2019!
Little Vinusha M K is a 5-th grader at a Chennai School but when you speak to her alongside the baking industry’s stalwarts, she sounds like a determined businesswoman at the helm of a burgeoning baking business looking 2020 in the eye and never putting her whisk down till she knows she’s beaten in by a mile.
Well, with Vinusha we realized, she has one thing clear as a motto –
"Be equal to your talent, not your age. At times let the gap between them be embarrassing."
Vinusha, at your age – you are already an established baker – We are sure you have learned and professionally trained yourself for a few things specific to your craft.
But we also know that this year, there were some inborn traits even a baker got tested for – what are those, as per you that helped you survive 2020?
Vinusha: Yes, I did start baking and cooking at a very young age. The encouragement I received was surprising and heart-warming at the same time. Any professional is an extension of her personal self. But like you said, I believe even a baker has some inherent qualities that she is born with – Patience, Creativity, and of course, Out of box thinking.
Without these, it would have been difficult to survive the year we did - forget making anything worthwhile for your consumer.
How was this Festive season for you(as an individual) and for the patisserie (as a business)?
Vinusha: This was a silent season for me and the family. Due to Covid, we were confined to our homes and workspaces – but work went on. We received a lot of orders for our in-house baking kit & our cupcakes. I believe we provided people with a substitute for Mithai that they loved ordering in and gifting too – it was something different and special.
Do people pay more importance to look and feel over taste now? what do you personally prefer - a good looking pastry or a great tasting one?
Vinusha: They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but in my field, well the cover is equally, if not more, important. So to answer your question – yes, the look of a pastry is as important as the taste of it. A lot of pastry lovers relate the attractiveness of the dessert to its taste – having said which, the classics like a walnut brownie or a dark chocolate pastry still have a special place in the hearts of sweet lovers.
Which is your 3 am comfort food picked out from your own collection?
Vinusha: I am a fan of cupcakes. So the winter cupcake and the summer cupcake that I make are something I can't resist myself. Then, of course, the chocolates are my all-time favourite. Whenever I am tired or feeling a bit low, chocolates made in my kitchen cheer me up.
This has been a tough year for businesses and continues to be so – but the Pandemic has come down especially harder on the F&B sector. What are your thoughts and way forward?
Vinusha: It is actually counter-intuitive but this was a great time for home-run businesses and familiarity played a big role. As people sat at home, their consumption went up for non-regular food items and I got a lot of orders. So Covid has been a time of advantage and disadvantage for us. We had to make it – no other option.
The Samandari Family L’Opéra
A decade-old business with the reminiscence of its ageless French roots, L’Opéra was one of those patisseries that was meant to be! How could it not? A Pastry and Bakery House, a Salon de The and Café specializing in bringing the French art of baking to the streets of food-loving Delhi – L’Opéra was the brainchild of Frenchman Laurent Samandari, who knew the idea of an authentic, high-quality French goodie store was a sure-win.
Together with his parents, Kazem Samandari and Christine Samandari, L’Opéra opened its doors for the first time at Khan Market in Delhi in 2011. And that was the beginning of an exponential journey of repute.
From the quaint little macarons to the majestic Galette des Rois and the Mille Feuille, there is nothing you wouldn’t go ga-ga over at L’Opéra.
In 2020, which could officially be called the year of the Survival of the Fittest, it seems L’Opéra’s adherence to the strictest standards of quality balanced well with perfection and elegance helped them come out of it unscathed – We spoke to them about how they got here and what they think 2021 has in store for us..
While traditional bakeries concentrated on basic bread, muffins, blocks of cakes (like plum cakes or rum cakes) - patisseries today have started concentrating on presentation, product lines, aesthetics - is that how the consumer now likes it, in your opinion?
Kazem: When starting a business, you can either decide to compete with existing players in terms of products, quality, presentation, aesthetics, ambience, service, etc. by doing largely the same or marginally better or to totally innovate. L’Opéra chose almost 10 years ago to take the pioneering route and to fundamentally innovate the bakery and pastry space in Delhi NCR, not to say in India by introducing authentic French patisserie and bread served in an absolutely French décor and ambience.
Notwithstanding the fact that every business has to be profitable, the founders of L’Opéra were more concerned about creating a brand and activity which reflected the best of French culinary culture, highest quality standards, and authenticity rather than achieving a quick return on their investments. This automatically resulted in a category of its own which over the years has been emulated by over a dozen other players who are following L’Opéra’s lead.
Any government regulations in the past 10 months that have made business operability difficult? Would you want to voice your opinion on a workaround or an extension considering the pandemic is still a bit short of being over?
Kazem: Difficult is not the right word, different is. We now need to be much more vigilant in terms of necessary measures to face the pandemic.
Reinforced personal hygiene and health check of the staff, additional food safety measures such as individual packaging of every pastry item, home deliveries through company staff and proprietary vehicles, and strict SOPs in all L’Opéra outlets are among the measures which we introduced to face the pandemic. Obviously, this has had an effect on our business as well which we have tried to mitigate by developing our online sales, contactless ordering, and fulfillment, in addition to our sweet and savoury offerings just to name a few of the initiatives we have undertaken over the last 10 months.
How has baking changed over the past 100 years - Baking tools, Baking skills, Baker's techniques, and Food aesthetics wise?
Kazem: There are some good and some less desirable changes which have taken place in baking over the last 100 years. You find plenty of electronics in all modern equipment, they are much more sophisticated and can be programmed. In terms of training, what was happening from one generation to the next within the same families has now become a much more organized and sophisticated process with numerous bakery and pastry schools across the planet.
The Internet and videos have made the acquisition of knowledge and skills much easier and accessible to broader segments of society. Raw materials and ingredients undergo now much stricter controls and are definitely of a higher quality and consistency than they were 100 years ago. And finally, there are many more sales and distribution channels such as supermarkets and online commerce available compared to even a few decades ago.
As to the less desirable developments, unfortunately, independent and artisanal bakery and pastry operations are being increasingly replaced by large chains who mass produce, distribute and sell their products which are produced in large volumes. The surviving independent operations on the other hand are often forced to use frozen semi-finished products which they purchase from very large suppliers and bake locally for cost reasons and considerations.
Prior to 2020, a lot of people have started running baking shops from home. How does that affect you, if at all?
Kazem: Well, there is so much you can bake and do at home. We welcome this development since it keeps the baking tradition and skills alive. From a business point of view, however, this really does not affect us.
Getting the Opéra, the Mille Feuille, the Macarons, the Galette des Rois, the Viennese, and the Eclairs, just to name a few products, right is not the same as home baking a tea cake, a decorated sponge cake, a brownie or a fudge cake. There is much more science, experience, and skills to it than visible at first sight.
What is the origin of baking in India? How did bakeries traverse through the centuries to stay loved by Indians all through?
Kazem: Traditionally both breads and sweets were and continue to be baked at home in India; the first, often fresh with each meal. Modern bakeries are the legacy of the British presence in the sub-continent.
We owe the current surge of demand and interest in modern bakery and pastry products to global Indians, traveling Indians, to the rising purchasing power of the middle classes who are looking for new experiences and discoveries, and finally to modern communication means which are contributing to creating a global culture. Think of Emily in Paris having her croissant…
How did L’OPÉRA plan to end the dreaded 2020 – did you do something different this Festive Season to make the world feel like a warmer place, again?
Kazem: This year, L’Opéra has gone out of its way to please its customers and patrons.
L’Opéra has brought back its classic selection of products encompassing Bûches (Yule log), Chocolates, Panettone, Christmas Pudding, Biscuits, Plum Cake, Alpine Nut Cake, Galette des Rois as well as a signature Toffee Sauce to relish with the Christmas Pudding and other festive specialties. L’Opéra has also prepared a special Festive Menu which is being served on December 24, 25, 31, and on January 1 in selected outlets (Civil Lines, Basant Lok, GK2, and Green Park).
This year to express our solidarity to the less fortunate, L’Opéra has decided to dedicate 5% of the revenue generated from its hamper sales to Main Tendue (www.maintenduedelhi.org), the charity which supports 10 Indian NGOs.
Aditi Handa & Sneh Jain THE BAKER’S DOZEN
Be undeniably good. No marketing effort or social media buzzword can ever be a substitute for that!
Words of Anthony Volodkin : The founder of Hype Machine
And that’s what Aditi Handa and Sneh Jain concentrated on when they began to build one of the strongest baking goods brands of the F&B industry – The Baker’s Dozen was always conceptualized and designed to be a hand-crafted artisan bakery and every action, small or big, from choosing the most authentic ingredients to picking out processes to run the business – was done with passion, love, and attention. The idea was to make the consumer feel every cake, every bread was coming out of their own oven.
Did they succeed? Hell yeah. With most restaurants looking to pause or rethink operations in pandemic-stricken 2020, Baker’s Dozen is looking to make the most of these testing times and expanding their footprint further by launching 38 stores in 15 cities by the end of 2021!! Phew!!
Now isn’t that something that speaks of their belief in their own product? We spoke to them to understand what makes them so good and what they think could be the environmental support they would need to keep them going stronger!
Over the past 10 months, when did you finally feel that enough is enough and you had to restart the kitchen now, no matter what?
Aditi: Being an essential service provider, we never stopped the production at our factory. We have been very active throughout the pandemic and have already moulded ourselves into the perfect working environment which is suitable and safe for all our employees.
It was our moral responsibility to keep the production ongoing and to supply goods to our customers on time. Hence, we never stopped production at our factory to meet our customers' needs.
Being an essential service provider, we never stopped the production at our factory. We have been very active throughout the pandemic and have already moulded ourselves into the perfect working environment which is suitable and safe for all our employees.
It was our moral responsibility to keep the production ongoing and to supply goods to our customers on time. Hence, we never stopped production at our factory to meet our customers' needs.
There was panic at first and caution about eating anything made outside the confines of one’s own home. It is only recently that people have started ordering in and eating out again. Did you face the initial concerns of safety on your consumer’s mind and did you have to make specific changes to make them more comfortable to eat with you again?
Aditi: Safety was one of the main concerns for everyone during the entire phase. Luckily, we had changed our packaging a year back which made our products very safe from the outside environment. We use a very unique TBD Fresh Seal packaging which is adapted from a German technology that prevents oxygen transfer from the environment into the product.
The packaging helps to prevent the outer atmosphere and air from entering into the product making it safe and secure for the customers to consume. Hence we never received such questions or rather very few questions with regards to the safety of the products.
Do you use any of the food delivery aggregators? Do they make your business ecosystem simpler and larger?
Aditi: Aggregators will always have a good impact on the brands producing daily necessities. Keeping the hygiene factor into consideration, having the products delivered safely to customers was very important. Hence the aggregators have been a boon to the brand.
However, we have observed a lot of traffic on our own website for the orders and have initiated expanding our brand into a D2C model.
As an established business, you must be attracting students and interns eager to learn from you - what are the first few things you tell them to unlearn from their MasterChef and Hell's Kitchen binges?
Aditi: Interns are so young and raw and have this amazing ability to absorb as much is given to them. A lot of them come for an internship to learn a specific skill, we ask them to leave this idea at the doorstep. We expose them to all verticals: production, marketing, sales.
They learn how to develop a new product, launch it, and then analyze its impact on the business. After a 4-6 month internship, they come out much richer and have a better idea of their next step.
Apart from the sweets, what are the savouries and health-conscious items on your menu for the patrons watching their calories?
Aditi: We have savouries like crackers, lavash, grissini which prove to be a perfect tea time snack, and also have 5 different varieties of cookies that are unique in their own flavours and are as fresh as the rest of our products.
Our new FitKneads range includes Gluten-free and High Protein products that meet the different diet profiles of our customers.
Could the government have done anything better to help the F&B industry - particularly the Bakeries?
Aditi: Pandemic has been a very stressful phase and everyone is trying to do the best they can. The approach we have taken is everyone is responsible for themselves and we should give our 100% to stand strong in such difficult times.
For us, the main aim was to do our best and to keep the production running in a smooth format, as it was our responsibility to serve the daily bread to everyone. Anything the government could do or has done would be an added bonus.
Akshina Mehta & Raina Mehta THE MOONLIGHT BAKERS
All good things come in pairs – like ears, socks, panda bears, and Pastry chefs!!!!
The Moonlight bakers is a passion project, a journey that twin sisters Raina Mehta and Akshina Mehta embarked upon in August 2018. Having grown up cooking and helping out in their home kitchens, the sisters found a common bond and sense of nostalgia in working together in a kitchen. Although their careers led them in different directions, their love for baking and a strong sense of nostalgia always brought them back together.
Raina became a Business Grad, worked as a Research Associate at a stock broking company, and became the ‘didi’ of 53 bright young minds at Teach for India. Akshina is a scientist with a Masters Degree in Immunology from the University of Oxford. With full-fledged jobs, the ‘con-fectionate’ twins started moonlighting as bakers, and hence, The Moonlight Bakers was born.
Their global flavor profile with menu items like Mulled wine Chocolate and Mix Berry Cake, French Silk Pie, Dulce de Leche Cake melded with a quirky take on Indian festive specials like Malted Mysore Pak tart, Sev Barfi cheesecake tarts, and Rasgulla Kahlua tiramisu makes TMB a patron’s delight.
They bake for love and not for business- so every time you want to bask in the redolence of freshly baked goodies, give them a call and they’ll make it to order for you.
While family-run kitchens saw 2020 giving their business models a shake-up, Akshina and Raina’s strategy of never mixing business with the love for baking – saw them floating through these times like a flaky puff pastry!
The last few months have been tough on everyone – especially business owners. How did you think ahead and keep your passion afloat when something as unprecedented hit the world and all of us? Did friends and family nudge you to a rethink?
Akshina: Being a relatively new business and due to the nature of slim profit margins in the service industry, staying operational is very imperative for survival. Even now, when we have been in operation for about 6 months since May, we are looking to operate in a survival mode. We have a strong support system in our family and friends. Of course, there were several moments of doubts and crises. Especially since we had to shut operations at the advent of cases in the city and due to the lockdown.
We knew creativity cannot stem in the midst of fear. We took pay cuts and waived off income for a few months so as to retain our clientele and to expand our reach.
Although we as individuals have questioned our decisions about starting this venture, we are so rooted to the kitchen and this job brings us so much joy, that we cannot regret going down this path. Being away from the kitchen during the lockdown months has reconfirmed to us the importance of our business and the fulfillment it brings to us. There is no place in the world we’d rather be.
Your products are made-to-order and delicate. Do you depend on any of the delivery services to reach your clients or have you included that within your fold providing your clients an end-to-end in-house experience?
Akshina: When we started out, we did carry out our delivery via third-party delivery apps. However, for longer distances (> 5km) we generally were very dissatisfied with the quality of the delivery personnel as well as the delivery method. Our cakes got destroyed a couple of times during transport and no accountability was taken by the delivery person or the company.
At the moment we liaise with private individuals who deliver for us on an order basis. Overall working with private individuals vs. delivery apps has increased our reach within the city however it definitely comes at a much higher price, a price we are willing to pay for consumer satisfaction.
What is YOUR favourite pastry shop where you love to eat when you travel?
Akshina: For me, some of my favourite pastry shops have a strong sense of nostalgia to them. They are places that represent my journey while studying and working in the UK. They are cornerstones of my coming of age.
Oxford – The Fudge Kitchen, Ben’s Cookies
London – Crumbs & Doilies
Raina and our mom share a love of hot chocolate. This love started when our parents worked and lived in Switzerland when we were little girls. When in Paris, Raina and mom religiously travel to Café Angelina and share some hot chocolate. The hot chocolate there sings to Raina! We have gone on to create our version of the hot chocolate in our bakery in Mumbai.
Baking needs mathematical skills - How true is this? Is Baking truly an art of precision?
Akshina: Baking is definitely much less forgiving than any other form of cooking. The beautiful desserts are built on a meticulous foundation of ratios and formulae as well as standard and consistent measuring practices and oven temperatures.
Since very few ingredients get used in almost all dessert concoctions, it comes down to their relative ratios, methods of preparation, and heating/cooling practices. It is a science and an art that comes with practice. Using a weighing scale and an oven thermometer can increase the chances of success.
How open are patrons to ordering food cooked by someone else again? What are the kinds of questions you and your team are facing every day when people come to order with regards to the safety of their food?
Akshina: Our clients have been very trusting and forthcoming in resuming orders with us. The most common request we receive is to double seal the cake boxes with plastic so that as soon as the clients collect the delivery, they can discard the outer plastic layer.
We always ask our clients to sanitize the box and the carry bag as soon as they receive it and to wash their hands immediately. If the goods are being consumed immediately, we ask them to throw out the carry bag and the packaging material.
They didn’t say and we couldn’t ask – but we did get a sense of cautious hope and gratitude in these ever-smiling bakers when they spoke.
No, they weren’t Covid Warriors but what they put up was nothing less than a fight - Their material was not reaching them in time, their patrons were asking questions about the safety of their food, their staff was reluctant to return from their hometowns, costs were piling up, festive bulk orders were almost non-existent as corporates tightened purse strings and gifters avoided sending anything for the fear of infecting their recipients.
There was mayhem for all businesses as it was for them. But here they were, these earthly Santas, who kept on churning out delightful goodness despite their own apprehensions.
They didn’t stop – they marched on and here they are – doling out fluffy pieces of heaven at the fag end of a year that wasn’t able to defeat their indomitable spirit and passion for their craft.
At Dais World, we wish these masters a Happy Close to 2020 and we hope they have a sweeter year of 2021 so they can continue their extremely ‘essential service’ of spreading happiness and cheer to us as they have always done!
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