Have an energy breakfast with diehard foodie-turned-small time businessman George Penner, whose all natural gourmet culinary products have found a following among customers
George loves bagels. He loves muffins too to start his mornings. Twenty years that he has lived in India, he says, he did not find the stuff that matched his taste and expectation. So he found a way out -- what you like to eat, make it yourself. But in his case it is not that simple.
George Penner does not cook just for himself. He makes bagels, English muffins, biscotti, pizza bases, fresh pastas and pesto just the way he would make something for himself at home, without any additive, preservative and organic as far as possible and sells them to NRIs, expats and the nouveau Indian taste explorers.
The day I met him he had orders for 100 kilos of his products from customers across Chennai, Bangalore, Delhi, Puducherry and few other tourist destinations besides Kodaikanal where he lives now. "My business is growing," he smiles.
What began as a casual trial and fun in his home kitchen has grown into a small and well managed business in the backyard of his cottage, called "George's Gourmet Kitchen", where George works hands on full time.
A cheerful evangelist for healthy and tasty food, George feels India's food industry is expanding like never before. "Even if 99 per cent of them are not interested in my products, with the remaining I can happily run my business!" says George, a Canadian by birth who was born in India and always wanted to live here.
This year marks 100 years of his family's arrival in India. His grandparents came from Russia in 1913. His father too was born here and it was with him that George visited Kodaikanal for the first time. "My fifth birthday was celebrated in this small sleepy town which had no tourists then...in 1956. We stayed for a month and I remember we often went trekking," he says.
After completing his studies abroad, George returned to India, this time to Hyderabad where he ran his own web designing company for a decade. He was yearning to be out of the shackles of cubicle life and deep within, Kodaikanal beckoned him because of the weather. In 2009, George wound up his business and settled in the hill town.
With ample free time, he went back to his first passion -- food, eating and feeding others, says his wife Vera. "He spends most of his time in the kitchen continuously experimenting like a scientist in a lab," she adds.
The cost of imported ingredients for his meals made George to try out his own recipes. He started with what kids love to eat -- sandwich toppings, whole wheat thin crust pizza base and a range of sauces. He made them fresh and priced them low and found an instant market in the town and particularly among students of Kodai International School.
"I know how something is supposed to taste and have the confidence of giving what people want," says George. He wishes the small and medium sized industry received Government encouragement. The big companies have monopolised the market selling only branded and expensive top-end products which an average Indian, who may be a keen culinary explorer, cannot afford. Besides, the packaging frills are attractive but the item inside may not necessarily be fresh, he points out.
When George experimented with freezing semi-baked pizzas he realised that pizzas just don't taste the same when baked again. So he diversified into bagels, the rolls with a hole, because they are sheer fun meal with endless possibilities. Peoples' constant search for novelty inspired George to pack in four flavours, the traditional, cinnamon raisin, sesame, cheese and chilli flake. Given their longer shelf life, he could send them overnight to any big city.
A fresh bagel, he explains, should have just the right resistance on its crust and the right density inside. From its chewy crunchy texture, any bagel lover will tell whether it is prepared the traditional way by boiling briefly before being baked in very hot firewood oven. It is with such special care that George ensures customers return to him.
While we were chatting, a tourist after tasting George's bagels in Puducherry called from Agra wanting to know where else he could find them. Visibly pleased, he says, "When I promise something authentic, I have to be involved from the start to the finish." He has hired part-time help for packaging and labelling but everything else -- from kneading the dough to taking the items off the oven -- he does.
George explains how English muffins are never baked but done on a grill for the leathery exterior and super soft interior. He also demonstrates the traditional way of cutting open a muffin using two forks. Never a knife, he points out and offers me one. They make delicious and nutritious breakfast with fried eggs, mayonnaise and a bacon slice.
George sees an opportunity with the band of people willing to experience new and different tastes. They are growing fast and one has to keep adding new products, he says. Though at present his production capacity is limited, his outreach is slowly extending.
Vera stays out of the kitchen because "he whips up healthy meals". With some training in carpentry, she makes the shelves and furniture required in the kitchen besides doing the inventory and keeping track of timely delivery of orders.
Small yet big
George's is still a small operation but he is always flooded with orders. "Markets, he says, dictate what you do and I realise lot of people go to specialty stores for a good, healthy and tasty product." So George tied up with several exclusive stores known for their customer or product profile and diversified.
Equally popular are the pesto he makes, especially the Picnic Relish. It simply brazened up the sandwich I had by a few notches. The marinara pasta sauce added a heavenly taste to the simple bowl of sauted vegetables.
George believes if a product sells well in Kodi, it will be a hit anywhere and cites the famous Kodi cheese and chocolates as examples. "The town has a good image and environment. Ever since I started this business, it is pulling me more into it." Though he realises he cannot make profit on small volume, he is reluctant to transfer the quality control of taste to any other hand or machine.
Yet he is keen on developing food potential of Kodaikanal. "I can make food", beams George, " but I can't make money!"