It is difficult for us (and others too, we notice) to not go for a second helping from a spread that includes Millionaire and Chocolate Overload Brownies, cream cheese sandwiches and mini squares of red velvet pastry as we wait to interview Kainaz Messman Harchandrai.
As we swirl bits of chocolate from the brownie in our mouths, we recollect memories of past visits to the original Colaba outlet and ruminate about the brand the Messman family has built, Theobroma.
And as we breeze through the pages of Harchandrai and her sister Tina Messman Wykes’ book Baking a Dream: The Theobroma Story, we realise how the patisserie that started out of Colaba Causeway in Mumbai is so much more than a Parsi-family-run company.
Unlike most other Irani and Parsi cafes in Mumbai, the Messman family made one big change in its way of working which helped them move beyond Colaba, and open 50 outlets (and counting) across the country — accept change and outsiders in the business.
Her mother’s recipes for mawa cakes, walnut and chocolate chip brownies, the Parsi chutney in their chutney sandwiches and egg chutney puffs continue to be used though. Harchandrai and co-founder Wykes share these and many other business and personal nuggets in the book.
“Like with so many other Parsi families, we started as a family-owned business. We still are one. What has worked in our favour is that though my parents are as Parsi as one can get, they are very forward-thinking. Many families don’t move with the times and that’s the toughest part of working within a Parsi family,” says Harchandrai.
She refers to the one-year struggle of convincing her father to make an outsider (Wykes’ friend from her training days at KPMG, Cyrus Shroff) the CEO of the company at a time when they were struggling to set down processes and maintain a standard across their five outlets in the city in 2013.
“It’s a coincidence that Cyrus was a Parsi; our current CEO is Rishi Gour.” Shroff continues to be a mentor to the business and is a part of their board.
What I learnt from my mother
“For most people, their knight in shining armour and first heroes are dads. For us, it’s our mum. As kids, I remember seeing my mother stay up till 5 am to complete an order. She would still diligently look after us and even devote her free time to us. As we grew up, we started helping her too,” says Harchandrai.
Back in the day, her mother would supply sandwiches, rolls, puffs, burgers, cakes and pastries across all MAFCO outlets in Mumbai, a business she eventually walked away from as she felt that she was neglecting her daughters. Kamal continued to run a dessert business out of their home, and in her book, Harchandrai says that Theobroma is an extension of her mother’s enterprise.
“Food was the focus in our house. We chose our holiday destinations based on the kind of food we wanted to have. And I have to credit that to my mum, she saw to it that we were exposed to every cuisine when Mumbai hardly had any good international restaurants,” she says.
Her father, Farokh, is equally inspirational for the sisters. Having run several successful businesses, he continues to work today at the age of 76. “They led by example, we saw them both work incredibly hard,” says Harchandrai.
Highs and lows
It’s not easy scaling a business, Harchandrai reveals. “When the business is small, you don’t have the financial muscle to hire the right people. We didn’t know anything about a retail business, that it is so much more than a product. We naively assumed that because we had good business from home, it would be a little more of that in a shop format. We didn’t even know what it would take to fill the shelves.”
The transition to a bigger model was not an overnight miracle, she says, especially finding the right key partners and promoters. “Have clarity about your expectations, what you want your business to grow into and what you want to become. Giving up control is not easy, but before you go out looking, you should know what you want. What made you grow from a small to mid-sized business is what will prevent you from going mid to big. There is a process of unlearning,” she explains.
It’s also important to understand that with a business, everything stops at you, she says. Be it neighbours, staff or Government problems, one has to hands-on to take the big leap.
The book is available on Amazon.in and Kindle through Amazon.