That Nano Bakery

Business Standard, 11 October, 2014

Once a successful investment banker, Neha Arya Sethi found monotony leading her to baking. Now, her Mumbai bakery offers the best cookies in town.

It is hard to imagine residents from some of the fanciest parts of Mumbai gathering around a humble Tata Nano but this has happened almost routinely over the last year and a half. Since April of 2013, a stubby blue car has been ferrying limited numbers of homemade cookies to areas like Cuffe Parade, Bandra and Lower Parel at time slots disclosed just hours before on social media. The baker, identified only as Sweetish House Mafia (SHM), depended on the driver to distribute the greasy treats. The blend of exclusivity, mystery and taste led to colossal fame and when the vehicle drove off, it often left behind a trail of cookie monsters. Sad messages would pour in every week after the biscuits sold out, compelling former investment banker Neha Arya Sethi to shed secrecy and launch a store.

 

The new space in Raghuvanshi Mills compound wears a fresh coat of blue paint. Everything except the cookies seems miniature – the shop itself, the motifs on the walls and the cutout of the Nano hanging outside as a mascot. In the two weeks since opening, a variety of guests have been dropping by including SHM patrons, curious office-goers, children and even one canine. Inside, 28-year-old Sethi engages in a happy banter with the customers. The biscuits, roughly as big as a beverage coaster, sit in wicker baskets behind a gleaming glass counter. Three men in sky-blue t-shirts that say ‘bite off more than you can chew’ take turns at brewing coffee and bagging cookies.

 

Although not formally trained, Sethi has been picking up culinary skills since age 12 when she helped her mother in the kitchen. The Wharton School graduate held finance jobs in New York and Mumbai but the monotony drove her to eventually quit. With a lot of free time suddenly available, she brought out the old oven mitts. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. So I said let’s bake a bit.” She experimented with familiar and new flavours. When her brother-in-law, Aakash Sethi, suggested she go professional, Sethi laughed it off. But friends soon coaxed the part-time baker into spreading the love.

 

To keep stress at bay, the home baker dictated terms such as staying anonymous, selling small quantities and making trips only once a week. The family’s spare car was picked for the job and dressed in a blue and white skin bearing the venture’s name. The title was given in jest by Aakash, who is now a partner in the store, but Sethi took an immediate liking to it. The biscuits sold for Rs 70 a pop, prices that have continued at the store. The store menu is enhanced with cold milk, milkshakes, coffee and green tea. The current offering has only five cookie types but there is range. Their textures span from crumbly to chunky, gooey and cakey. The bestseller is a cookie bursting with saccharine Nutella offset by a sprinkling of piquant sea salt. Also recommended are the mildly sweet snickerdoodles, infused with cinammon and enough butter to stain paper within seconds. For cocoa fans, there are cookies studded with big chocolate chips and M&Ms. Sethi is picky about the ingredients, using Belgian chocolate, Italian hazelnut chocolate spread and Skippy’s peanut butter. She is accepting suggestions for new cookies from fans but has one thumb rule: “I won’t make anything that I would not like to eat.” The batches are baked freshly as sales progress.

 

In cookies, Sethi has also identified a white space. The last few years have seen a baking revolution of sorts, with more people making, selling and eating baked products. It has even spawned jabs like this one from Twitter: “If you’ve come to Bandra and not Instagrammed a cupcake, have you really come to Bandra?” Cupcakes and macaroons abound but there are no stores specialising in cookies. At the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied, Sethi recalls devouring Insomnia cookies which were baked in a dorm room and delivered late at night. That service transformed into a successful brand. Cookie-lovers have so far relied mainly on Indigo Deli. So Sethi is confident SHM has room to thrive.

 

There are stories from the venture’s early days which pointed to sure-shot success. A school friend of Sethi’s, for instance, had queued up by the Nano. When she inadvertently dropped a cookie, others in the small crowd stepped back and gasped in horror. “She told me you don’t know what you have started.” Another rainy evening, her driver called up almost in tears as some of the 200 hopeful shoppers had started knocking on the windshield. One man, claiming to be an actor’s bodyguard, grabbed four cookies and left.

 

Aakash reckons theirs is the first food truck of sorts in the city. Sethi, he adds, is a reluctant yet astute businesswoman. She maintained detailed records of demand, sales and feedback from each Nano trip. The inputs gathered later helped shape a business plan.

 

The car, where it all began, will continue to tour parts of the city like Juhu and Bandra to spread the word. Cookie cakes, cookie sandwiches and dough will be added to the selection. Perhaps in the near future, cookies will become the next cupcakes.

 

Writer
Ranjita Ganesan

Business Standard

 

 

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