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Bombay Bakery: 100 years and going strong

Updated Jun 27, 2015 04:02pm

Despite the hot weather, you can see the queue from a distance and the cakes, be it coffee, chocolate or macaroon, sell out within minutes despite bakery manager Aziz Mohammad's frantic efforts at limiting the number to two per customer. Such is the lure of the dessert sold at Hyderabad's renowned Bombay Bakery whose busy hall exudes the aroma of its rich, buttery coffee cakes.

The bakery, which has enjoyed a loyal customer base, has stuck to its recipes over decades — if not an entire century — and although not introducing enough changes can sometimes render brands redundant, not only has this establishment managed to retain its fanclub, it has in fact been able to add many more to its list of admirers.

The flavour of the recipe has remained quite the same over the decades, a number of its regular customers say.

Zulqarnain, an excise police officer, has fond memories associated with the Hyderabad dessert joint, making its relevance a generational affair.

The first time I came here was to buy cakes with my father, he says, adding that now he brings his seven-year-old son to the bakery.

“Over the years, the cakes’ exclusive taste has not changed one bit. For generations, we have tasted the same quality and taste…it is amazing how the flavour never changes,” says Zulqarnain, standing at the cash counter with a cake in his hands.

Pakistan’s most famous cakes?

The cakes remain famous, not only in Hyderabad but in other parts of Sindh as well as outside.

The bakery, which has enjoyed a loyal customer base, has stuck to its recipes over decades.
The bakery, which has enjoyed a loyal customer base, has stuck to its recipes over decades.

Given their popularity, customers want to buy a good number of cakes per visit but there is also the risk of the items being sold further ahead and at higher prices. In any other bakery, this may not have been a concern but given its popular taste along with attempts by establishments trying to compete with it, Bombay Bakery has to be on a watch.

“Our cakes are often sold at higher prices by unauthorised proprietors; they hope to make some extra money without working for it. Hence, we only sell a limited number of cakes to every customer; even if they are regulars,” says Aziz, explaining why the establishment does not sell more than two cakes — one chocolate and one coffee flavoured — per customer. Very rarely does the bakery sell four cakes to one customer at a time.

At 1 pm — only an hour into the bakery's sales — Muqeem Sheikh, a young employee at the cakery, tells customers in a calm voice to come back by 2:30 pm as they have run out of stock.

The cakes sell out quickly because customers start queuing up hours prior to the bakery starts selling and by sunset, a line of cars stretches back half a mile.

Customers queue up outside the bakery.
Customers queue up outside the bakery.
The bakery runs out of stock within an hour.
The bakery runs out of stock within an hour.
The queue extends from the counter inside the bakery and ends somewhere outside on the main road facing Hyderabad Cantonment Board.
The queue extends from the counter inside the bakery and ends somewhere outside on the main road facing Hyderabad Cantonment Board.
Not more than two cakes are sold to a single customer.
Not more than two cakes are sold to a single customer.

Can you come back later?

Usually, the long queue extends from the counter inside the bakery and ends somewhere outside on the main road facing Hyderabad Cantonment Board.

“Sir, we have run out of stock for the first half of the day. Please come back after 2:30 pm,” a flustered Muqeem tells a customer who has come all the way from Karachi to buy the famous cakes. Slightly irritated following the road trip, the customer leaves empty-handed.

The bakery is open six days a week except on Fridays and demand continues to exceed supply.

Its red masonry construction with a path leading to the front door flanked by hedgerows offers a serene glimpse into pre-partition days with the culture of Hyderabad distinctly embedded in every brick.

“Look at these small slits carved in the counter, they were used to deposit coins from our sales,” says Aziz nostalgically.

The furniture and counters inside the bakery are made of teak, with a metal bar cordoning off space reserved for female customers.

A separate queue formed by men and women.
A separate queue formed by men and women.
A customer waits in queue.
A customer waits in queue.
The furniture and counters inside the bakery are made of teak, with a metal bar cordoning off space reserved for female customers.
The furniture and counters inside the bakery are made of teak, with a metal bar cordoning off space reserved for female customers.
The cakes sell out quickly because customers start queuing up hours prior to the bakery starts selling.
The cakes sell out quickly because customers start queuing up hours prior to the bakery starts selling.

Quality over quantity

When asked why the bakery does not stock up on cakes to cater to the large demand, Muqeem says: “Our management keeps a limited stock to ensure quality, but the customers do not understand that obviously.”

One such customer appears to be Waheed Ahmed, a resident of Karachi, who says he rarely leaves Hyderabad without cakes from Bombay Bakery.

“Thanks to ‘family pressure’…I’m sure you understand it,” says Ahmed, who often stands in the queue to purchase cakes for his family in Karachi.

Taste does not appear to be the only thing that has remained unchanged at the cakery. Faisal, another customer, comments: “I have never seen the placement of these display cases change; nothing has changed from my childhood, 40 years back.”

Faisal was among several customers who had to leave empty-handed and were asked to come back during the second half of the day.

A hundred years old

Bombay Bakery celebrated its centennial anniversary three years back on November 11, 2011.

The bakery’s ownership and business stays strictly within the family.
The bakery’s ownership and business stays strictly within the family.

Founded in the early 20th century by the late Kumar Thadani’s family, the bakery’s ownership and business stays strictly within the family.

There are some who say the bakery was founded by Kumar’s family patriarch Pahlaj Rai Thadani while others claim that it was initially established in the Saddar area by Kumar’s father Kishanchand Thadani. In an interview with Radio Pakistan in 2005, which was later published in a local Sindhi newspaper, Kumar had said that the present location of the bakery was bought by his father in 1922.

Kumar, who was regarded as a stout perfectionist and philanthropist, socialised selectively and remained unmarried until his death in 2010. Yet, he left many to mourn his passing. Kumar would reach out to people in need and help them irrespective of their associations. Born within the Amil caste which is known for its educational and business expertise, Kumar hailed from Dadu in rural Sindh.

Mr C.S. Bhatia.
Mr C.S. Bhatia.

Despite Kumar’s somewhat reclusive nature, there are individuals with whom he formed longstanding and close relationships. His family friend C.S. Bhatia has mentioned their camaraderie in his autobiography.

“He was a perfectionist,” Bhatia, a retired engineer, says. “Hardly a night passed without the two of us dining together when I was posted here [Hyderabad].”

“Kumar’s macaroon cake was a specialty introduced by his father. Since then, Kumar has kept its taste in tact by strictly adhering to the use of quality ingredients,” Bhatia adds.

When asked about the moniker ‘Bombay Bakery’, Bhatia says he is not certain, but it is assumed that Kumar’s father was inspired by the culture of the Indian metropolitan city and had drawn influences from it.

Kumar’s adopted son has converted to Islam and has changed his name to Salman Shaikh. Shaikh does not give interviews and is known for avoiding journalists.

“Salman sahab didn’t even agree for an interview with a popular morning show host. She visited our bakery but left disappointed,” said one of the cakery’s employees.

Everything about this establishment is distinct, from the inside flap of the cake boxes that offer a brief history of the establishment to the outside cover which is adorned with a green ribbon; to the "Shop in a Bungalow" slogan which is instantly identifiable by all and sundry.

Bombay Bakery’s famous, shiny, brown-textured, buttery cakes have taken many a people down memory lane.
Bombay Bakery’s famous, shiny, brown-textured, buttery cakes have taken many a people down memory lane.
Everything about this establishment is distinct, from the inside flap of the cake boxes that offer a brief history of the establishment to the outside cover which is adorned with a green ribbon.
Everything about this establishment is distinct, from the inside flap of the cake boxes that offer a brief history of the establishment to the outside cover which is adorned with a green ribbon.

“Bombay Bakery is a household name for us, we don’t need a special occasion to buy cakes from there...relatives expect Bombay Bakery cakes as gifts when we visit them in other parts of Sindh,” says 66-year-old Bashir Ahmed, smiling after successfully purchasing a cake.

For a regular visitor who has known the cakery for decades, nostalgia adds to the pull factors, heightened by the sight of the bakery’s red brick walls and its unique aroma. But physical surroundings aside, Bombay Bakery’s famous, shiny, brown-textured, buttery cakes have taken many a people down memory lane.


All photos are taken by the author