Sometimes, it pays to remain the same, sit back and not try anything seasonal with an iconic brand
When Pepsico showed the temerity of floating its masala-flavoured Lehar brand of bhujia into the dry snack market in India in 1996, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, the then chief minister of Rajasthan ran to New Delhi to wail to the Congress-led government, “Hai re Pepsi gaye gayo hamar bhujia.”
Years later, he can peacefully rest in his grave as the euphoria over Lehar bhujia has died, while the taste of finger-licking Bikaneri bhujia audaciously lives on in our mind space!
Bikaner, a small hamlet, tucked away in the heart of Rajasthan’s Thar desert can be a tourist’s haven with its rolling acres of golden sand, turbaned camel riders and moustachioed maharajas. But it does not count as an industrial town, except for the presence of one particular brand. Today, this dusty outpost’s claim to fame is a spicy and crunchy snack – the Bikaneri bhujia, owned by the Haldiram family, who have turned this humble snack into a master brand that made PepsiCo a run for its money.
Pray, how did this happen?
What’s the story behind this Rs 5,000 crore business?
We haven’t been there, but we are told that the original Haldiram Bhujiawala’s establishment still stands intact in the serpentine lanes of Bikaner’s Bhujia Bazaar. The shutters got pulled down years ago, when the family shifted to a new manufacturing facility on the outskirts of the town, but it’s been preserved as a relic from the town’s past. Dozens of smaller players now operate around it and fry nearly 25,000 kg of the delicious snack, every day, not taking into account the 15,000 kg output at the Haldiram plant.
Surprising what makes Bikaneri bhujia different is not its main ingredient, besan (a flour pounded from a variety of pulse that is used in making a variety of savoury items in Indian kitchens and is a stable in this part of the country) but, as Shekhawat would have said – the slightly saline desert water. The true blue Rajput even tried to secure GI protection for Bikaner bhujia but couldn’t.
Made in the open air kitchens, Bikaner’s arid weather conditions help to preserve the earthy crispness of the snack and give it a long shelf life, which of course, Pepsico couldn’t have reproduce in its variety, and later, wisely switched to aloo bhujia that’s a different product altogether.
Marketers content that if the Agarwals have survived so long in this market, it’s not on account of their business acumen (which they must sure have) or an astute marketing strategy (rather a complete lack of it), crackling communication (I can’t recall a single campaign that’s left an impression on me, so sorry on that count as well) or, even their product mix (which stubbornly remains the same, all these years), but their singular and tenacious focus on the distribution network that remains forever strong and is the most important factor in the phenomenal success of this brand, especially in the B-towns. I’ve seen portly aunties relish it with their evening tea and adolescents sprinkling it liberally on their cheese sandwich for a munchy flavour!
The story goes that the patriarch of the family was extremely driven and enterprising. He would make frequent trips to adjoining metropolitan cities, where he started cultivating a strong lobby of bhujia enthusiasts among the fore lone Marwaris, who were craving for a taste of their native land.
Years later, he sent out his sons to Singapore to learn the ropes of modern-day packaging technology and ordered noodle-making machines that would multiply their production capacity and there has been no looking back for the family since.
After Haldiram’s death in 1985, his four sons set up separate units in Calcutta, Delhi, Nagpur and Bikaner and continue to trade on the family’s brand name, with an anti-encroachment agreement in place, so as not to trespass into each other’s business fiefdom.
Had he been alive today, Shekhawat would probably have reached for his bowl of crisp Haldiram’s bhujia, burped, curled his mustache and smirked, “Koshsish to bahut ki unhone, par safal nahi hoye!”