K.R. Balan once travelled on a rented bicycle to sell buns to petti kadais. Today he owns one of the biggest bakery chains in the state.
One morning in 1967, 14-year-old Balan from Kavumpuram boarded a train all alone to Coimbatore. He lied to his mother saying he was going to Calicut to visit his sister. He did that because he wanted to do something to save his poverty-stricken family. “We lived in olappuras – thatched huts. My mother was a daily wage labourer. Father did some small business and farming. I had no education. Life was my teacher,” says Balan who is 61-years-old now. Today he leans back on a plush armchair in his swanky air-conditioned office at Ganapathi, from where he controls K.R. Bakes, one of the biggest bakery chains in the state.
When he started out, Balan would cycle around Coimbatore in a bicycle that he would rent for 25 paise. He sold buns and barley biscuits to shops in the outskirts. In a year’s time, he along with his three friends set up a small shop in Idayarveedhi. “We had no man power or machines and we worked almost nonstop. We woke up as early as two in the morning to make the goodies.” While his friends handled the production side, Balan, who had a way with people, steered the marketing and delivery. “I spotted potential customers as I travelled around in my cycle. Soon, we started sourcing our snacks to almost all the village shops.” The buns were a great hit, recalls Balan. “Coimbatore had many mills. In the evenings, tired labourers would come to our outlet for chai and a coconut bun. Chai shops were considered beedi points and undignified places for women. People would disparagingly refer to us as ‘those chai wallahs’.” But, things changed. The cycle gave way to the scooter and then a Bullet bike. The demand for their buns and cakes rose. Balan zipped around his scooter across the Valayar border to supervise the K.R. outlets that mushroomed in many parts of Kerala.
While his friends decided to move on to other things, Balan stuck on. “I loved my job and had full faith in it.” The brand name KR came into being in the late 80s. “Our outlets had different names. A friend suggested I bring them all under one brand. I chose the name K.R. Bakes.” The two letters, which Balan later added before his name as initials, changed his destiny. From a small room that sold coconut buns, K.R bakes became the most popular bakery brand name. Now, there are 30 outlets in Coimbatore and many more in Erode, Cochin, Malappuram, Palakkad and Trichur. By early 2000, they even introduced a fast food section that sold North Indian items. “We introduced the idea of a coffee shop, way before any coffee outlet chains set up their shops here. But, we cater to the common man and do not compromise on quality. All our fast food are made right in front of the people and served hot.”
Balan and his sons never miss the IBA, an international trade fair for bakery, confectionery and snacks held once in three years in Germany. “It is a great platform where you are exposed to innovative ideas and developments in technology. Bakers from all over the world showcase their products and ideas. I realised my job was indeed honourable.” The Coimbatore production has the latest Italian cookie machine, icing machine, imported egg breakers and cake mixers. “It is not like the olden days. One cannot afford to be laid back. The competition is high now,” says Balan. Balan knows what it is like to be poor and uneducated and this is what has prompted him to help educating economically underprivileged children. “We also tell our labourers to educate their children and assist them financially. Education is important. I know its value as I was deprived of it,” he says. “We have doctors and lawyers in the family now,” he says with pride. His three sons help him in his business. So do his brothers who handle the outlets from different cities. Balan remembers making his sons work at their retail outlets, when they would come home on vacation. He would pay them too. “They never would spend that money. They would save each penny. I wanted them to know the value of hard earned money. I wanted them to know that the money left by ancestors is easily squandered, while the one earned through sweat stays forever.”