The heritage Pune store has begun to expand within the city and may even do business online.
Call it a landmark, term it an easy-to-locate rendezvous point or just dub it the store from where innumerable culinary adventures can begin, Pune's oldest superstore Dorabjee & Co lends itself to many a metaphor.
But foremost of them all, this is the place to look for anything and everything to do with food – from breakfast to snacks to full-fledged meals. The spread is pretty awe-inspiring: cold cuts, cheeses, fresh fruits and vegetables, canned food, meat, fish, beverages, chocolates, ice-creams, cereals, even freshly roasted and ground coffee … basically everything you would need for anything ranging from a daily dal-sabzi routine to ingredients for that fancy, gourmet meal.
“This is where to find what you can't get anywhere else in the city,” says Sunanda Desai, a self-confessed foodie, for whom a weekly visit to the store has been a habit for over three decades. “If it's not available here, chances are it's not to be found anywhere else in the city,” she quips.
Dorabjee's spacious interiors and well-stocked shelves lend credence to this confidence as food from across the globe jostles for attention with local produce. In the cheese section, for instance, Baramati Natural Cheddar Cheese lies cheek-by jowl with Swiss Emmental, Gruyere and Cumin Gouda from Holland; Belgian fat-free ham and Spanish bacon share space with pork products from local producers, and hard-core Puneri delicacy Puran Poli sits just a step away from Mexican tacos.
Strategically located on the arterial Moledina Road at the very border of the city and the Cantonment area, the Dorabjee's story began somewhere in the mid-1860s as Treacher and Co, a store owned and run by an Englishman. The retail outlet essentially served the needs of the British garrison stationed in the city. In 1911, it was bought over by Dorabjee Pallonji Patell, who subsequently passed it down to his wife's brother, incidentally also a Patell. Today it is owned and managed by descendants of the second Patell.
The preferences of its earliest clientele accounted for much of the merchandise that graced the shelves, and laid the foundation for its identity as the place to get premium foods, one that is maintained to this day.
Its 19th century origins also explain the erstwhile colonial-style construction of the building that was felled at the turn of the 21st century, an inevitable prey to modern-day compulsions. The upside of the re-construction exercise was that it enabled a complete overhaul of operations as well as massive renovation and expansion, and the floor space of today's Dorabjee's is probably five or six times – perhaps more – that of the original store.
Through its 100-plus-years existence as Dorabjee's, the superstore has naturally seen several ups and downs, and new incumbents in the driving seat, before its metamorphosis into a sprawling multi-storeyed superstore that focuses firmly on food.
The person largely credited with putting Dorabjee's on the growth path in recent times is Thrity Poonawala, who came into the picture in the late 1980s. Her petite frame and gracious manner belie her capacity to take the tough decisions that she must have had to take to revive the enterprise's flagging fortunes. The first step entailed jettisoning some parts of the business – pharmaceuticals, for instance, for which Dorabjee's had some agencies. “We decided to concentrate on food and go for the serious shopper,” Poonawala says. The decision to stay away from the frills and entertainment options offered by malls and stick to food was more about insurance than investment, she adds.
With clarity on the road map ahead, the store quickly gathered strength. In the early 1990s, Poonawala and her family bought out the property (held by a trust), and around the year 2000, the old building was pulled down and the plot redeveloped. Not only was more space available for retailing, and a complete makeover effected, the basement parking helped to bring back shoppers who had been staying away on account of parking difficulties.
Around two odd years ago, Dorabjee's was ready for further expansion. Space that had been leased out to other retailers was taken back to facilitate this. Today, the three levels are connected with escalators for easy shopping and it is entirely easy to spend a full morning browsing. Shoppers can grab a quick snack at the small eatery in the foyer or have a leisurely bite in the cafeteria on the top floor.
Recently, Dorabjee's opened a branch at Vimannagar and a second one on NIBM road is on the cards. “We may look at e-commerce in the near future. The idea is on the anvil,” says Poonawala who is now more than happy to share her daily responsibilities in the family-owned enterprise with her son Farsheed and daughter Tina Umrigar.
Amongst the legion of admirers of this family-run store was the late film maestro Raj Kapoor who was keen to shoot inside the store for a film. Categorically denied that privilege by the erstwhile proprietor, he included a long shot of it in the famed movie Sangam.
Unlike most modern retailers, Thrity doesn't care for either jargon or statistics. So she has just some idea of the number of SKUs in her shop, and isn't ready with details of average footfalls on weekdays or weekends. What she does know is that the key to success is keeping the customer happy, and all the management's efforts are directed towards achieving this objective.