Chitale Bandhu, a 62-year-old institution, sells 3,000 kilos of its famed bhakarwadis everyday.

Every city has a sweet tooth. Chennai has jangiri and mysore pak, Kolkata gets high on rosogollas, Delhi gorges on rabdi jalebi and Pune is famous for its pedhas. One place that has been whetting Pune’s appetite for sweets and savouries (namkeen) over 62 years is the famous Chitale Bandhu.

Chitale generates a more profound recall value for its Bhakarwadi, a crisp and spicy Maharashtrian snack which has a long shelf life.

Set up in 1950 in a 500 sq. ft. shop, Chitale Bandhu has had a successful journey with two company-owned shops in the city’s vibrant localities of Bajirao Road and Deccan Gymkhana. Besides, there are eleven franchises spread across the city through which the brand sells.

The Chitale brand also exports its namkeen, especially bhakarwadi, to the US, Israel and Singapore.

With an annual turnover of about Rs 200 crore and 2,500 to 3,000 customers shopping on average a day across two shops, the Chitale brand has been a part of celebration for many of the city’s households.

The menu at Chitale is as rich as its heritage with over 60 different sweets and 40 namkeen. However, it is their bhakarwadi which sell like hot cakes. Three attendants serve the customers on the bhakarwadi counter, where it is often normal to find queues.

Started in 1970, bhakarwadi was an instant hit. “In 1972, we installed machines to give shape and size to bhakarwadi as the queues started increasing,” says Srikrushna Chitale, proprietor of the Bajirao Road branch.

Today the bhakarwadi sells about 3,000 kilos a day. In the early 1970s, it was about 300 kilos. People are very critical to Chitale’s business, which boasts a 300-strong workforce.

The success of the Chitale brand is that it has kept pace with the times and with people’s aspirations. Be it introducing machines to sort and cut different products or be it the computerised billing system that the shop introduced in 1985, the Chitales have ensured that they remain in vogue even as they try and maintain their traditional class. “Even as we mechanised there was no question of compromising on quality. It was the first time that any mithai shop introduced computerised billing in Pune,” adds Chitale proudly as he alternates between this interview and signing vouchers every five minutes.

The family, which also sells the popular Chitale milk separately, works on a joint-divide concept.

“We are a joint family… but we are a joint-divide family. In joint families, it happens that internal household problems come into the business. That is something my grandfather, B.G. Chitale, saw really early. He told us, ‘Don’t live together.’ He said everybody should have their own house,” says the younger Chitale. “We are all living in nuclear families … but live close to each other. Any business problem, we all sort it out together.”

The women of the household advise on product development and product innovation. “Ours is a kitchen-driven business … so their expertise always comes in handy,” he says.

Both shops have a modern customer management process. This is evident when the security at the gate hands a grey plastic card to the customer at the entrance. This is a programmed card which can store up to 40 products in its memory. So, a customer buying at different counters can simply hand over his card to the attendant who enters the quantity purchased. This, when presented at the billing counter, eases the bill payment process and saves time.

It is, however, not a sweet run for the Bandhus always. The business has its own set of challenges. The products sold are highly perishable in nature and require robust inventory management. “Everyday we monitor our production. If yesterday there was rain, we just curtail the production because the previous day’s production might continue today. We manage demand and supply on daily basis,” he adds.

Other than for milk, which gets supplied through his uncle’s factory in Bhilawdi near Sangli, getting good raw materials is a challenge. “We have a tough time in ensuring that we procure good quality raw material. Pesticides and fertilisers have also adversely impacted the quality of raw materials,” he rues.

Inflation does not seem to have dented customer’s propensity to throng Chitale Bandhu, however. “Our business, on an average grows at 10 per cent and typical margins are 13-14 per cent. There have been no changes. Five years ago we used to sell 10 per cent of cashew mithai than what we sell now. Cashew prices have shot up but demand has also gone up. We feel people have a lot of money.”

However, consumption of sweets and savouries is not restricted to festivals. “People consume mithai even without any occasion. It might not be as much in the North. Here, there are very few people who consume one kilo but there are many who buy a quarter of a kilo,” says SR.

He learnt much of his business by observation.

“When I was in VII standard, I used to sit in the shop and observe. It was very easy for us as we stayed above the shop when we started. But my son has to acquire the knowledge after graduation. He has to go to the factory,” he adds.

The Chitales do not plan to professionalise the company as they feel it robs them of their independence.

“We do not even want to go private (limited) because it takes away certain executive powers that might be required to run our business successfully. The young people do not get enough of a free hand to run the business then,” he says.

(This article was published on September 20, 2012)
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