Not much has been written about the Agarwals, the clan behind Haldiram’s, and how they built their empire by selling the humble bhujia.
The book, Bhujia Barons, is an attempt at chronicling the story of Ganga Bhishen Agarwal (aka Haldiram) whose innovation was not just limited to making bhujia.
He also had an uncanny understanding of the importance of resonance with customers and brand associations.
The Haldiram family business started when patriarch Haldiram began making and selling a new snack—bhujia—to locals in Bikaner, Rajasthan, in 1918.
He turned a local snack into a national product by focusing on product quality, customer centricity, packaging and branding even when such business concepts were unheard of.
At a time when the bhujia’s shelf life was hardly a week, the company extended it to six months.
Given Indians’ penchant for fresh food, this was a risk, but the company successfully attempted to change the habits of customers, a feat even large brands find difficult to achieve.
The book is full of interesting anecdotes about the lives of the Agarwals—a bunch of potbellied men with short physiques and twinkling eyes.
The most interesting is the story of ‘Bikhi bua’, who first introduced Haldiram and his brothers to the snack.
While everybody loved the tasty snack, it was Haldiram who turned it into a lucrative business. She never received credit for it, but it was Bikhi bua who first sowed the seeds of bhujia in the Haldiram family.
The immediate success of Bikhi bua’s bhujia forced Haldiram and his wife to learn how to make it and sell it at their shop at Bhujia bazaar.
The initial sales were slow. However, Haldiram changed the game by innovating with ingredients. He replaced besan with moth ki dal, a lentil grown in Rajasthan, and made the snack thin and crispy.
This changed the fortunes of the family and was just the beginning of the boom.
He named this bhujia ‘Dungar Sev’ after the maharaja of Bikaner to differentiate it from others and create a brand. It could also be seen as an attempt to make the customer feel adequately royal when having this special bhujia. By doing so, he unknowingly led the Indian snack industry into the world of branding.
Haldiram achieved this feat at the age of 12 years in 1920, as a married pre-teen with no formal education.
But what he had was a keen sense of smell and taste, and the ability to blend just the right mix of spices and marketing skills, which even management students take years to learn.
“Let your senses guide you” is the secret sauce of the Haldiram clan. The family’s “art of picking and blending the spices”, coupled with the uncanny wisdom of recognising just the right flavours, has been passed down the generations. Mixing, testing and tasting spices comes naturally to the Agarwals.
The book is an inspiring read, but the narrative hinges towards hagiography and, at times, falls short on facts. There is not enough information on how competition has eaten into Haldiram’s business and the impact on the brand post the USFDA (United States Food and Drug Administration) labelling it unfit for sale in the US.
This business story is like a television saga, full of drama and interesting subplots one can see in a family-run business.
It is as much a story of pathbreaking products and innovative marketing, as it is about family feuds, long-drawn legal battles and complex loyalties.
From the dusty streets of Bikaner to Bengal, Nagpur, Delhi and international markets, the Agarwals have continued to fight among themselves to defend their brand. But the bottomline has always been success.