Kainaz Messman is the founder of Theobroma, once a family-run café and bakery, now an empire with 50 outlets. Sharanya Deepak talks to Kainaz about her journey as an entrepreneur, and her new book, Baking a Dream.
Kainaz Messman has had a difficult two months. But she remains calm as she describes the mayhem that has followed her business due to restrictions imposed during the Covid-19 pandemic. “The lockdown has really turned the business on its head. I’ve started referring to what is happening as the ‘new normal’, so that I could deal with it better. It helps me not panic.”
She speaks slowly, as if to restore order in chaos, but also, to build confidence, her voice showing only minor signs of distress. After the kitchens were managed, she had to decide which of her bakeries would open, and which ones wouldn’t. In the past weeks, Kainaz has been shuttling, re-organising, cleaning, and programming new sets of rules, reassuring staff and team members that they were going to be okay. “It took us three to four weeks to get everything running. That’s the hardest part of being a business owner: putting on a brave face. I am responsible for hundreds of people.”
Theobroma started as a small, Parsi family-run bakery and cafe in 2003, and has since expanded into an beloved bakery chain across India. Today, the intimate establishment has come to represent the quintessential bakery for middle-class Indians — jam-laden biscuits, cushy croissants, dense brownies, rows of cupcakes. At airports and busy markets, the colourful Theobroma boxes come stamped with the bakery’s signature logo, and have both regulars and newcomers marvelling over the diverse range of desserts and snacks on offer. The company has grown to 50 stores with 1,000 employees across Mumbai, Delhi and Pune, selling over 200 products to a customer base of 500,000 customers.
Kainaz is patient, precise, and detailed over the phone; considerate of the person on the other end, much like the tone of her recent book, Baking a Dream, published by HarperCollins in March. The book includes a detailed account of how she set up her business, Theobroma; how travels, family, friends, and a plethora of errors and ramifications, led her to where she is. The book, written in collaboration with her sister Tina M Wykes, captures in all its guts and glory, the ins and outs of running a large and successful business. The writing is candid and approachable, chronicling every story that helped build Theobroma into the beloved brand it is today. In one instance, Kainaz writes about Anita, a customer who, on a difficult day, helped clean and run the café. In another, she remembers a French couple, Joelle and Alain Deramat, guests she met at the café, that then went on to become close friends, who taught her much of what she knows about pastry today. While the book is about a business venture, Kainaz writes without loftiness, or intimidating clues to achieve specific milestones; instead she writes about her own mistakes, comforts, and tips to keep going — which, as she puts it, has to be ‘head on.’
When I ask her about herself, how has she keeps sane during the pandemic, she dodges the question; not because she doesn’t have an answer, but because the health and safety of her team are more pressing on her mind. “Me? I’m fine,” she says, and hesitantly offers anecdotes to prove her point, her tone lightening to delight when she speaks of her family cooking biryani, or her daughter helping her bake in these days. “I gave my mother an ice-cream maker, and we have been experimenting with it.” But the conversation quickly goes back to Theobroma; her worries about the team, and their customers, since the lockdown began. “It is most crucial to me that my team remains safe.”
Kainaz with her sister, Tina
Kainaz was born in Mumbai to a Parsi family, for whom food was a primal bonding activity. Eating with her family was what Kainaz calls ‘elementary training;’ where she realised her love for food, before she went on to become a professional chef. “I am told that our forefathers, several generations ago, ran the canteen on a ship (which is called a mess) and that is how we got our family name – Messman.”
Her stories of the Messman family are lively and joyful: of Kainaz and her sister, Tina, eating at cafes, and watching people enjoy desserts, as they made notes for ‘research’; of ice cream sundae dinners with her father, generous scoops piled high. In many of these memories, Kainaz’s mother, Kamal, is credited as her primary inspiration for baking. Kainaz recounts her mother stewing chicken and prawns for jambalaya, making milk chocolates with rum for her homespun chocolate business, and selling them around Mumbai. In the chapter Mumbai’s Brownie Queen, Kainaz writes about Theobroma’s star product – the dense, sugary brownie that became synonymous with the bakery. ‘My brownie history is as much Mum’s story as it is mine,’ she writes, recounting the story of how her mother once baked a brownie for a pregnant friend, then ended up supplying to restaurants and cafes outside Mumbai. Her mother installed trays in a car, as she drove around delivering brownies, appointing Kainaz as informal assistant. Kainaz remembers waking up in a house that smelled of dense, chocolate-filled desserts. “Mum is the adventurous one,” she says, over the phone. “She was always experimenting and trying new things. She was beloved for all the things she cooked.” Kamal mother loved being the proprietor of her own dishes, kept her recipes close, and remained an independent supplier of the sweets to cafes and restaurants around Mumbai. “This spirit somewhere trickled down to me too.”
Walnut Brownie and Millionaire Brownie
If her family gave her a window into food, she learned grit and perseverance in culinary school, and travel filled in the gaps. In a particularly luminous section of the book, she describes her travels to France as a young woman, where she learned ‘the art of simple and unpretentious cooking.’ Those friendships continue to seep into Theobroma, and her memories spent drinking wine and eating roasted meat present themselves in the company’s menu. “It was love at first taste when I tried the strawberry tart and I have loved it ever since. Made with fresh fruit, vanilla custard, almond frangipane and a crisp butter pastry tart, it was the most attractive and delicious thing I had ever eaten.”
Baking a Dream is filled with many such stories — of spontaneity, intimate meals with friends, and experiences that spurred her inherent curiosity. These personal anecdotes sit alongside recipes that have been an important part of the Theobroma story, and a little bit of commentary on contemporary food culture, that provides insight into her personality and outlook. ‘I take much joy in listening to people talk about food in ordinary conversations, where there are no filters. I am listening with rapt attention when people say they want to eat something — in particular when they are unwell, tired or stressed.’ Among the bakery’s best selling goods are dark, heavy, comforting desserts; nurturing sandwiches, biscuits dotted with jam — simple foods that go well with tea or coffee, snacks that fit snugly into boxes as presents for friends.
“I put in there what felt right to me,” she says. “But it is also about listening to my guests, making sure that their desires are represented too.” Parsi aunties would wander into the cafe during lunch hour, and ask Kainaz why she didn’t bake the ‘classics’ like black forest cake and chicken patties. And that’s how the menu came to include some of the beloved retro snacks and pastries. “As a small, family-run business, with mum and I always hovering around, it was an intimate affair. I learned what my guests like, and who they are,” she says. When the café expanded into a business, Theobroma did not lose its essence, but a whole new array of challenges arrived.
In 2010, the cafe opened their second branch, and began to grow into the brand they are today. Kainaz was hesitant to expand — the small scale made it possible to personally oversee everything. “People had started demanding our products, and Tina and Dad wanted to expand,” she says. “It took me six years, but I gave in. We took small steps, opening one bakery at a time but they were giant leaps for the company.” Of the expansion, Kainaz remembers complete chaos, of how the family-dependent structure they had been running on stopped working for them. ‘Theobroma’s infrastructure had not been created with rapid growth in mind,’ she writes. ‘On the surface, things seemed under control but behind the scenes, we were barely able to breathe. Our kitchen and equipment had outlived its usefulness. We recruited anyone who walked through our doors, so our staff was unqualified and untrained.’
“Of course,” she agrees now, when asked if they were big changes. “I didn’t entirely know what we were getting into. I was okay with what we had.” She also admits that her drive for perfectionism, and the level of personal involvement in each guest’s experience, was not sustainable in the new model. There was going to be a lot of shape-shifting involved. “We are all different and strong-willed personalities, so we had trouble. I had differences with my father — he is from a different generation, he has never worked in a corporate structure, he doesn’t believe in mechanical protocols — which of course works for the café. The business had to be more streamlined,’ she says. “We needed to change our mindset and evolve from being people-dependent to process-dependent.”
Cyrus Shroff, the company’s CEO, who came on board in 2013, has a large section of the book dedicated to him. Kainaz attributes his skills to helping them find a ‘method to their madness.’ Cyrus set up processes, and showed the teams what could be gained with streamlining, and dedicating themselves to a process. “He was from a corporate background, for him too, it was different to enter our small family-run affair.” Cyrus himself writes in the book, amusedly recalling the disarray and the charm of the venture he had decided to join. “At the most basic level, even recipes were not documented, they were found in drawers and on pieces of paper, some were typed and filed, mostly they were in everyone’s heads.” Cyrus’s words in the book provide valuable insight into why the Messman family’s business is so unique — Kainaz’s artistry and ambition for her pastries, the deep enthusiasm from their guests, and the intimacy that the company’s ethos held, made it unlike any other.
One of the keys to Theobroma’s success has been the streamlining of management, and how the bakery functions across cities and states, meeting diverse customer demands and fulfilling them. When Kainaz recalls those early years, she is clear-eyed. “I have run Theobroma so long, that with it, I have grown too — we are both adults now,” she laughs. “I was much more egocentric before, I wanted to bake what I wanted, I was pigheadedly adamant,” she says. “When the bakery grew into a business, I had to listen to others, and I am glad I did.”
In January this year, Theobroma, under Kainaz’s leadership, landed an investment of 20 million USD, from private equity firm ICICI Venture Funds. The investment lets Theobroma further increase its customer base, and fulfil their plans to expand, which includes a doubling of their footprint — 90-100 new stores in the next four years; 20-25 of these will be in Bangalore and Hyderabad, as well as other smaller cities.
“But we will ensure the same quality; no compromise,” Kainaz is quick to add. Even with expansion, she is clear that it is ultimately the quality of products that linger with customers. The company expects to grow to 2 million customers in the next four years. “Any kind of growth is daunting,” says Kainaz, but she is confident that lessons are learned on the way. “You can’t really know what’s exactly in store.”
There are many reasons why Theobroma is successful, but Kainaz’s connection with her customers is an important one. For her, the small milestones she celebrates with her customers matter. ‘Babies-in-arms that were brought to the Colaba outlet are now teenagers. We have made birthday cakes down the years for so many children, that we feel like we have been part of their growing up,’ she writes.
That a young Parsi woman runs the company is an important feat. “The business world is disproportionately male, and it can be intimidating and overwhelming to women,” says Kainaz. “It is certainly harder for a woman, as in everything, everywhere,” she adds. “But things are improving, and we have to make ourselves heard. But for me, I don’t want to be on top, it is not about one person. These things are not done alone. It is important for me to work together with others. Listening to one another is underrated, but for me, it is the most important thing.”
Sharanya Deepak is a writer from and currently in New Delhi. You can read more of her work on her website.