Selling mithai to burgers

A customer came in to the store the other day and asked for ‘milk dumplings’ [rass malai] and ‘white fudge’...


Sonia Malik July 04, 2011
Selling mithai to burgers

LAHORE:


The Nirala Sweets outlet in Y Block in DHA is about as far as you can get from the Fleming Road shop where the company made its humble start selling halwa puri and mithai circa 1950. “A customer came in to the store the other day and asked for ‘milk dumplings’ [rass malai] and ‘white fudge’ [barfi],” says Ahmer Farooq, who is second in command at Nirala.


Modernising the business to keep pace with evolving tastes, and trends, has been one of the main concerns of the company in recent years. “We had a survey done and found that people aged 15 to 30 like traditional sweets, but don’t always admit to liking them,” says Ahmer.

Under his older brother Faisal, CEO since 1997, Nirala has tried to tackle this “un-cool” image. “We’ve introduced fancy packaging and a marketing strategy which made the mithai look cooler,” Ahmer says. “Each generation of the family has modernised and contributed to the company.”

The business was founded by Ahmer’s grandfather Taj Din, who used to bind copies of the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs, at a publishing house in Amritsar before moving to Lahore in 1947. He found work as a binder at Taj Book Publisher and saved up some money to open a small shop selling breakfast and sweets on Fleming Road a few years later. “Back in the day, it was traditional to sell breakfast in the mornings and mithai in the evenings,” Ahmer says. Over the next ten years, the shop expanded its range of sweets to include gulab jamun, chum chum, amratiya, pateesa and rubri.

The sweets were a roaring success and in the early 1960s, Taj Din and his son Farooq Ahmed, who had started working at the shop after sitting his 12th grade exams, decided to expands this side of the business. “The mithai sales were far higher than breakfast,” says Ahmer.

Farooq also pushed to give the business a more distinct identity. A bigger shop was bought opposite the old shop on Fleming Road. Glass shelves were installed to give the sweets a better display. The store was named Nirala (‘different’) Sweets Mart.

Taj Din retired in 1975 and died in 1984. “He did not know how to read or write but from what I hear he had a special relationship with his customers that me and my brother will never have. I frequently come across customers who remembered my grandfather adding a few extra pieces of mithai to their box,” says Ahmer. “He knew that giving incentives, to clients or to employees, is good for business.”

Also in the late 1980s, the shop on Fleming Road was shut down as sales run low. “Most affluent people had shifted to Gulberg, Cantt and Garden Town. So my father did the same,” says Ahmer. New outlets were set up on Jail Road and then Moon Market, Hafeez Centre and The Mall. The mithai workstation was shifted to a 15-kanal space on Waris Road from the Walled City.

Since Ahmer’s brother took charge in 1997, Nirala has added another nine shops in Lahore, five elsewhere in Pakistan, and one each in Sharjah and Abu Dhabi. It has introduced a new range of customised mithai, special packages for weddings and birth celebrations, and canned mithai with a longer shelf-life for export purposes. Recipes have been computerised to make production more efficient. “Educated staff have replaced the old moonshis,” adds Ahmer.

More than 250 employees now work for the company, but it isn’t always easy getting people with strong qualifications. Ahmer remembers two graduates that were hired to run production. Both left within a month. “Their families thought their jobs would affect their chances of getting a wife from an affluent and respected family since they worked for a halwai,” he says.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 5th, 2011.

COMMENTS (27)

ss | 12 years ago | Reply There is better mithai than nirala. If you really need good mithai, just go to any shop in and around the walled Lahore city. Most of them are better than Nirala. So, please all DHA mummy papa burger families, get out of the well and explore the city of Lahore.
MAS | 12 years ago | Reply

Tribune is promoting yellow journalism through such one-sided stories. we have no interest in nirala's rise which resulted in child's murder by its CEO.

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