KARACHI: For the generation of Karachi’ites who grew up in the 1980s, only a few iconic stores from their childhood remain. One, however, is still open and doing brisk business: the uniquely named Disco Bakers and Sweets, located in Gulshan-e-Iqbal’s Block 3.
Since 1978, Disco Bakers and Sweets have served the residents of Gulshan-e-Iqbal with fresh bread, eggs and their famous Black Forest and dry-fruit cakes. The serving tables at birthdays, Eid holidays and family teas tend to feature a Disco Bakers and Sweets product, even though more upscale bakeries have opened up in the area.
Disco is a landmark of sorts: mentioned in everything from crime reports ‘two people were shot dead in the vicinity of Disco bakery’ to how Karachi’ites give directions, ‘Turn left after Disco bakery’. It is also part of schoolboy lore: a White House Grammar School alumnus recalls that in 2000, he had bunked class with 15 friends but they had no money. They jumped off a bus near the bakery without paying but the conductor. He threw at them the wooden leg of a charpoy that he had hidden in the bus as a weapon. The stick missed the freeloaders and crashed right through the windows of Disco bakery.
In 1976, Haji Mohammad Abdullah’s family, who had migrated to Karachi from Ambala, opened up a bakery in Kamran Market in Gulshan-e-Iqbal’s Block 2. The family, Abdullah says, had always been in the business and for them it was natural to establish the same thing post-Partition. But after a couple of years, they decided that if they were serious about it and wanted to set up a bakery and workshops of their own, they should move.
They set up store in Block 3, which Abdullah describes as being fairly uninhabited, with acres of wild overgrowth and shrubbery. There were few commercial establishments in the area and Disco Bakers and Sweets was off and running.
Initially, the bakery only offered the essentials: bread, eggs and biscuits. Over time, they introduced cakes and mithai. Burgers and other snacks were the last to be introduced.
The name itself is a source of much curiosity: Why Disco?
Abdullah smiles when asked about the name. “When we set up this bakery, we asked all of our friends for their advice on a name. Some suggested Al Mashriq, others said Ambala,” he recalled. “One friend – who lived nearby – came over and said ‘I will name this bakery.’ He suggested ‘disco’, because he had recently been to Lahore’s Anarkali bazaar and seen a ‘Disco Tailors’ there. I thought it wasn’t that nice a name – to me discos were clubs in the US and Europe. But our friend went and had the signboard made and so the name was decided.”
The unusual name helped bolster the bakery’s popularity, as did its commitment to quality. The bakery thrives on loyal customers: they are the ones who give them feedback or suggest new items to be introduced.
“For a businessman, experience is gained through the customer,” Abdullah said. “The customer has his own judgment and ideas.” There is a culture of discrete service as well for local celebrities – including actors Shabbir Jan and Huma Mir. Inside the bakery, which opens at 7 am and closes around midnight, there is a steady stream of buyers picking up cream puffs, rusks, coconut squares and soft drinks. “These are lemon rolls, not Swiss rolls,” a salesperson painstakingly explains to a customer, while another man walks out with boxes of cakes.
Abdullah can’t hazard a guess on the daily number of customers. Over the years though, he has seen the impact of inflation. “Purchasing power has gone down by 70%. Someone who earns Rs600 a day cannot afford to buy a kilo or two of mithai for Rs300, he’ll end up buying a pound of it instead.”
Surprisingly enough, Disco Bakers and Sweets hasn’t expanded. But Abdullah strongly believes that it is more important to “maintain quality and a standard” than open new branches. Also, he notes that in the current business environment, expansion requires a great deal of investment and is a risk. Abdullah now just supervises the bakery and purchasing and provides guidance. His nephews and their children run the day-to-day business. “They do want to open up more branches,” he says of the younger generation, “but we have asked them to ensure this one runs to standard.”
The name has been replicated by others – ‘they’ve called themselves New Disco Bakers’ – but the original owners didn’t go after them. “An honest living is something God gives; a name has nothing to do with that. We are not confrontational people, why should we fight with someone?”
MQM legislator Faisal Subzwari, who has lived in Gulshan-e-Iqbal for almost 17 years, says that while he isn’t a frequent visitor to the bakery, he did run into an old friend there once. “I met the friend after 10 or 12 years. Disco Bakery is where you will find Gulshan-e-Iqbal’s lost and found!”
Samina Waheed, a former resident of Gulshan-e-Iqbal, recalls that there were no bakeries in the area and so residents would throng Disco. “It used to have good rusks and pastries and had good customer service, they were very popular.” She recalled that when she once returned from a trip to the US, the salesperson at the bakery told her: “Oh you were in the US? Even we have doughnuts now!”
Published in The Express Tribune, June 4th, 2012.
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