Brothers Bhuvanesh Subarayan and Dinesh Kumar share with Shonali Muthalaly the bitter-sweet story behind the setting up of their Donut House
“Nobody ate donuts. Nobody wanted donuts. Nobody believed they would sell.” Bhuvanesh Subarayan pauses to hand me a sticky glazed donut. “So I quit my job in Sydney. Relocated to Chennai. And started a donut company.” Not really the most logical move. “I know. But I really liked donuts,” he shrugs.
Today Donut House serves Chennai about 54,000 donuts a month. It has grown into a chain with seven locations across the city so far. In about three months it will open in Hyderabad and Kochi. So much for market research. “Even when we commissioned the research, I knew the results would be negative,” says Bhuvanesh. “But the banks insisted on it, and we needed a loan. The research team went to malls and bakeries, asking people if they would buy donuts. They said no.” His brother Dinesh Kumar chips in, “I was in college in Coimbatore then. The only place I found donuts was at a local bakery, where they would stock maybe 10 every day.” Bhuvanesh adds, “ But we Indians have a sweet tooth. I was convinced we could create a market.”
Working for eBay in Sydney, Bhuvanesh discovered Krispy Kreame and quickly got addicted to their sugar rush. “So after three and a half years in Australia, when I decided to come back to India, I wanted to try to sell donuts here.” His parents had other ideas. “They wanted me to join dad’s business: quarries.” Dinesh adds, “Then they suggested we start a spinning mill, since that’s popular in Coimbatore, which is where we’re from.” Convincing their parents turned out to be the toughest part. “It took us six months! The market research firm didn’t help at all,” says Bhuvanesh. “Every time I travelled to Singapore, I would come back with a box of donuts for my parents.” They finally just wore their parents down. “We joined forces and went on and on about it,” grins Dinesh.
Finally, on April 2011, the two brothers opened their first donut shop, cleverly located opposite Ethiraj College in Egmore, to cover a catchment area that included college students, office goers and a host of apartments. Bhuvanesh was 25 years old, and Dinesh was 23. While Bhuvanesh travelled between Chennai, Singapore and Malaysia sourcing machinery and learning the technical know-how, Dinesh took advantage of his college holidays and moved to Chennai to supervise the café. “Our family and friends helped out too,” says Dinesh, “They were serving donuts, waiting on tables, doing the billing…” Bhuvanesh adds, “Yeah. For a long time people thought this was a café run by a bunch of friends.” Finding the right recipe proved to be a challenge. “It was hard. So hard! We had no idea what we were in for… We had to get the quality right. Achieve consistency. It’s tough because the protein content of our flour keeps changing. If it has too much sugar the donuts get dark, absorb too much oil and burn.”
To make things more complicated, they decided to make the donuts vegetarian. “We made so many samples in our own kitchen to get the recipe right. But I was determined not to use egg, because that way we have a much larger market.” Says Bhuvanesh, “We had a staff of eight at first, including the two of us. We’d come in at 8, when the kitchen opened and leave after midnight, once we closed the accounts.”
“We even did deliveries,” says Dinesh, “When customers wanted a box, we’d drive over to their houses in our cars. If you think about it, it doesn’t make sense economically — but we didn’t want to say no.”
Despite being very successful with sales, this is still a tough business to be in. “If I don’t open anything more for two years, we will get back all the money invested,” says Bhuvanesh. But it’s a Catch-22 situation. “We have to keep opening more outlets. Because I believe that if we stop growing we’ll hit the end. With donuts it’s essential to be where our customers are. You won’t drive a long distance for a donut, right? There is space for another five-eight Donut Houses in Chennai alone.”
As they grow, processes are getting more streamlined. “Right now, we make our donuts from a mix. We’ve given the recipe to a Belgian company based in Mumbai. They make about three and a half tonnes of the mix every month. Once it comes here, all we need to do is add yeast, water and butter.”
He points at the display kitchen, where a hypnotic parade of donuts travels down the assembly line for a dip in boiling oil, from where they emerge crisp and golden. Once the donuts are cooled, the staff coat and stuff them with a kaleidoscope of jellies, custards and chocolates. To stay relevant they constantly tweak the menu. There is a line of savoury donuts specially created to cater to local taste buds: Chilly cheese, Italian spice, mustard olive and southern spice with green chillies. “We also tried black forest and cheesecake donuts, but they didn’t work,” says Bhuvanesh. An unexpected experiment that did work is their donut burger. “A glazed donut cut into half, filed with a vegetarian patty, cheese, lettuce, tomato and our signature touch — pineapple.”
Their personal favourites? Dinesh says it’s the Alien, a veritable chocolate avalanche. Bhuvanesh slides over a plate with a freshly fried donut dusted with sugar. Crusty outside. Steamy, cottony, delicately flavoured inside. Ridiculously addictive. Somewhere the market research guy is blushing in a corner.
How many can you eat?
“Our donut eating competition was huge,” says Bhuvanesh, saying their Facebook promotion drew about 100 participants in just two days. The record for men has been set at 32 donuts in 12 minutes. The fastest woman ate 18 donuts in 12 minutes. As for the brothers? They confess they’ve never eaten more than 3 at a time!