Meet the two sisters who cake-started their entrepreneurial journey with Theobroma
If you haven’t tried brownies from Theobroma, you have missed out on one of India’s most popular desserts. But did you know the recipe for the brownie was born in a small Colaba kitchen, on the request of a neighbour of the founders, Kainaz Messman Harchandrai and Tina Messman Wykes?
The story of Theobroma’s humble beginnings from what was a doctor’s clinic into a 50-outlet chain and a multimillion-dollar venture at “bakeneck” speed is told by the Messman sisters in Baking a Dream, a book that also offers a no-hold-barred look at the challenges of working with family.
The Messmans may have business in their blood, but the growth of Theobroma was not easy. So, the book also serves as a guide to other entrepreneurs on starting up and scaling their ventures.
In an interview with HerStory, Kainaz Messman Harchandrai speaks about the book, Theobroma, the strengths each founder brings to the business, and their future plans.
HerStory: Can you tell us how your book came about?
Kainaz Messaman Harchandrai: I had been asked to write a recipe book many times. At the first instance, I had considered it briefly, but decided it was not what I really wanted to do. A few years ago, a small publisher asked me to write my story. This was new and interesting. We loved the idea of documenting our journey and creating a memoir for our kids to read. But the book did not happen then.
In 2018, we were contacted by HarperCollins Publishers India and we already had a rough outline ready to share with them. They were enthusiastic, energetic, and encouraging from the word go. The project picked up momentum again and we were on our way. We hope that the book is enjoyable and inspiring, and provide an honest chronicle of what it entails to run a business in India.
HS: When you started in 2004, did you ever think it would be a hugely successful business?
KMH: We opened with one tiny outlet, hope, and a prayer. We didn’t know what to expect or if we would even recover the costs of starting our business. We didn't have a master plan to create a chain or empire.
We set out on this journey agreeing to make only what we liked to eat ourselves. We promised to make it well, and to keep it simple. Our business has evolved, as have we; we didn't have it mapped out.
HS: What strengths do Kainaz and Tina bring to the business? How similar are you and how different are you both?
KMH: We are made from the same mould, but, in many ways, we could not be more different. We look alike, have similar taste preferences, our palate developed against the same background. Most importantly, we love our products; we love food and the joy of sharing and serving it. I am creative, like to dream, and am happiest in the kitchen. Tina is methodical, logical, and factual. I am often happy with status quo; Tina is always chasing the next new idea.
HS: When you speak of teething troubles in the business, you also spoke of hiring. How difficult was it, and in the end, did your hires live up to your expectations?
KMH: We made many mistakes along the way. Hiring many wrong people is high on that list. We had no experience of recruitment, we were so overwhelmed by the day-to-day tasks at hand, and we did not understand or appreciate how important it was to find good people. In the early days, we hired anyone that walked through our doors.
HS: Also, the business was managed by the family before you appointed a CEO. How easy/difficult was it to make the transition to scale up and a bigger setup?
KMH: Our CEO had the difficult task of changing our thinking, setting up processes and controls, and preparing us for growth. There was so much to do that deciding where to start was the hardest bit. We, as a family, had to learn to give up control, to trust our team, to focus on the bigger objectives, and move away from every minute decision and task.
HS: You sold out on the first day you opened... how easy or difficult was it to sustain people's expectations of your products?
KMH: We were overwhelmed by the response. We are passionate about our product quality today, as we have been every single day that we have been in business. We have disappointed at times, but we have used the opportunities to learn from our mistakes. Expectations were high, they still are; this keeps us on our toes and focused on the job.
HS: With a majority of the initial founders being women - you, Tina, and your mum - what in specific did you all bring to the business so that it took off?
KMH: Mum has had the biggest influence on us and on the business. She works hard, and with heart and soul. Mum cooks with a generous hand, she is loyal and honest. Mum humbly serves our guests and respectfully treats our staff. All this we have learned by watching mum; she did not preach, but she simply showed us no other way.
HS: What have been your biggest highs and lowest lows?
KMH: We have been through many difficult times. We have had many thefts, our kitchen was flooded, we outgrew our previous kitchen many times over before we could move out; we have been threatened and scared.
We have also felt immense pride when a mum came to us and said her sick child would only eat our products. We have seen how some of our staff have not only developed professionally, but how their lives have been transformed during their time with us.
HS: Fifteen years later, how do you both look back on the journey, personally and professionally. How have you evolved individually, with the evolution of the business?
KMH: I was not ready, aged 25, to be everyone’s boss. I was totally unprepared for the task at hand. I did not have the maturity and skills to lead people; I have learned to become a better leader and empathetic person over the years.
HS: With Theobroma being such a passion with both of you, how do you strike a work-life balance?
KMH: We love this company and the work that we do. This makes our job enjoyable and rewarding. We put in many hours of work, but it is a labour of love. We have an incredibly good team that supports us. We don’t do everything ourselves; this allows us to do our work and yet enjoy family life too.
HS: In these 15 years, what have been your defining moments?
KMH: The top ones would be
- Recruiting our CEO, thereby embarking on our journey from a mom-and-pop shop to a professionally run company.
- Our packaging and outlets being designed by Elsie Nanji. Having India’s design queen wrap our products and decorate our outlets in her beautiful way.
- Private equity funding. This established a value for our company and gave us access to expertise and ideas that were not available to us until then.
HS: What are your personal favourites at Theobroma and why?
KMH: My favourite product keeps changing (somewhat frequently). My current favourite is our strawberry tart. We get good and flavourful strawberries for such a short time that in season, this is my most favourite thing to eat. I love the glazed fruit, vanilla custard, almond frangipane and crisp butter pastry tart; it equally attractive and delicious.
HS: What is your advice to the large number of women bakers in the country who want to scale their business?
KMH: Prepare for growth before growing. This is incredibly hard to do; you have to invest time and resources to get ready for the size you want to be. Invest in procedures, processes, controls, people; to build a beautiful company, you require a rock-solid foundation.
HS: What are your future plans?
KMH: We currently have 52 outlets across Mumbai, Pune, Delhi, Noida, and Gurgaon. In 2020, we hope to open in Hyderabad and Bengaluru. We are aiming for 100 outlets within the next three years. Tina is hoping for a screen adaptation of our book, and I am dreaming of a Caribbean-style Old Monk Rum Cake.
(Edited by Teja Lele Desai)