It is believed that the Bombay Bakery got its name from the Bombay Presidency. Hyderabad, where the bakery is located, was in the presidency till 1935. The bakery itself was founded by Pahlaj Rai, grandfather of Kumar Thandani in the early twentieth century. It was Rai’s Swiss wife who began producing bakery items from their bungalow.
Imagine the surprise of Sonu Kumar Thandani, the present owner of the bakery, when he discovered that some cakes on the market were remarkably similar to the ones he produced. That was when, in the words of our Hyderabad correspondent, the “cat was out of the bag.”
The secret recipe had been stolen by an ex-employee. The police came into the picture and arrested the culprit. While the incident has not dented the reputation of Bombay Bakery, it begs many questions.
To start off is the issue of copyright. Secret recipes need to be given legal protection. The most famous formula is that of Coca Cola. Indira Gandhi kicked Coke out of India’s lucrative market because the company would not share ‘formula X’. The company did not budge.
The second issue is of goodwill. Bombay Bakery enjoys a reputation unparalleled amongst bakeries in Pakistan. It is seen by many as an institution. In many households, the mere mention of this bakery gets people of a certain generation to go off on a tangent about how the products from this institution remain unmatched.
To be fair to other bakeries around the country, many make equally good if not better products. But the mystery that surrounds the Bombay Bakery gives it the devotional following that no other such venture enjoys.
The belief that the bakery does not compromise on quality has held it in good stead all these years. In most small businesses in Pakistan, the compromise on quality is the first step that many take in order to be competitive. And that is when they enter the vicious circle of cost versus quality.
The fact that Bombay Bakery’s products run out by noon gives some idea of the demand its products enjoy in the market. But how long will this last. The old generation is giving way to the new. How is Bombay Bakery re-inventing itself?
This comes to the third issue. Growth and development. Also, value addition. How many Pakistani businesses are ready to innovate and experiment? Bombay Bakery cannot live on the hard work of ancestors alone. Gultex makes the same bed sheets and bedcovers that we have been seeing for the past 10 or 20 years. Quality may be excellent but people need new designs.
In the mithai business, in the mid-80s, S Abdul Khaliq set new trends. Their boutique shop in Bahadurabad, Karachi, was a trend changer. But family setbacks resulted in the business not following on its earlier innovations. In many ways, Lahore-based Nirala took over from where Abdul Khaliq left off. But that too has petered off.
Despite having world-class products in our markets, Pakistani businessmen are shy of taking risks and re-inventing. Clothes and textile brand Khaadi is an exception. Shamoon Sultan of Khaadi has not only managed to put into place a range of quality products and has grown internationally.
Another example is BarBQ Tonite, which has expanded all over the world. Good food and innovate recipes along with the will to expand, invest and innovate. But there was one lesson that the Sardar brothers did not learn: never mix business with politics. This is why their business has been targeted.
Then there is Shan Masala that has made inroads into different markets worldwide with their award winning products. But that edge is being blunted by others. Our exports are restricted to commodities and produce. We need to work on value addition.
Our small businessmen did not suffer the trauma of nationalisation. But they continue to suffer at the hands of a government. Aside from a plethora of taxes, there are the bribes they have to pay to survive. They have to work in an environment where most of the levies they pay end up in the pockets of corrupt officials.
It is time to take cognisance of the potential small and medium business potential in Pakistan. Let us make something out of it. It will bring both employment and prosperity to thousands.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 11th, 2014.
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