Cool operators

Three longtime business enterprises in Tiruchi share their stories, shaped by ice cream

May 01, 2015 04:51 pm | Updated 04:51 pm IST - Tiruchi

M. Sulthan assembles a serving of jigarthanda at his family-owned shop in the Big Bazaar Street. Photo: B. Velankanni Raj

M. Sulthan assembles a serving of jigarthanda at his family-owned shop in the Big Bazaar Street. Photo: B. Velankanni Raj

From babies to big folks, gluttons to gourmands, and just about everyone in between, there’s no other dessert that commands such a vast constituency of fans than ice cream.

The idea of using snow and ice to create chilled fruit-based concoctions as well the invention of a device to make sorbets and ‘ice cheese’ are thought to have originated in China in 200 BC. The Arabs are credited with adding sugar rather than fruit juice to milk-based ice creams. The Mughals thought up the Kulfi, the Persians the Faloodeh and the Malays, the Ais Kacang.

The ice cream journeyed from the historic Silk Route nations of south and west Asia to Europe, and from there to America, and now it seems to have come full circle in India, which was estimated by the British marketing agency Canadean to have the world’s most rapid growth in the sector last year.

As ice creams become more widely available in India, their variety and price range are also developing according to the new market’s demands. You can shop for ice creams at neighbourhood groceries or pick and mix your own flavours at upmarket parlours. Mechanisation has speeded up the production. This has sounded the knell for many small-time operators as foreign manufacturers target Indian cities aggressively.

But there are still some businesses determined to keep their customers slurping up their offerings. We met three such longtime players in Tiruchi.



From sherbet to ice cream

The customers trooping into Michael and Son’s low-key ice cream parlour in the Singarathope area seem to have just one thing on their mind: to have as many of the melt-in-the-mouth scoops of the dessert as possible.

“Those who love ice cream keep coming, no matter what the season,” says Leo Augustus J., the fourth generation proprietor of this Tiruchi-based artisanal ice cream company which has five stores spread across the city.

Michael’s version of the dessert, that falls somewhere in the taste range of a gelato and a granita, is equally appreciated for its reasonable pricing (starting at Rs.7).

And what of the man whose name has graced this brand since 1938? Faced with a drought in his native Dindigul, Michael Servai (Leo’s great-grandfather), learned how to make ‘colour’ (sherbet) from a pastor and started selling cool drinks in Tuticorin.

He then decided to invest in some British ice cream machines, and migrated to Tiruchi to expand his business. His three sons, Swaminathan, Thomas and Anthony, took over, followed by their children, who share the brand name under individual management.

Today, Leo is the only member of his generation to continue in the business. “Most of my cousins have opted for software, and I too am an M.Sc in Electronics, but I decided to help my father (Joseph Raj) from 2000, when I realised that there was nobody here to look after the ice cream shop,” he says. He added a course in refrigeration from the Regional Engineering College (now known as National Institute of Technology-Tiruchi), to bone up on the technical aspects of his trade.

“I can now manufacture and repair ice cream machines myself,” says Leo. “Only the preparation of condensed milk is still done manually by us at home. The rest of the process has become mechanised,” he adds.

Leo’s shop, at the entrance to the busy downtown market, was inaugurated in 1968. The decision to retain the well-worn teakwood benches and tables has been a conscious one, because just like the owners, the shop’s customers too run into generations.

The flavour of Michael’s ice cream base is due to the firewood stoves that heat the milk and sugar to the right consistency everyday, says Leo. “We use around 50-70 litres in the peak season. It takes us five hours to get the milk ready. The condensing is an unpredictable process, and even if one batch gets that smoky flavour, we have to discard it and start afresh,” he says.

Leo and his father have also kept the menu simple, because they feel this is what their customers want. Besides their popular fruit salad with ice cream, the store offers vanilla, mango, strawberry, chocolate, almond and pistachio flavours. “Our ice cream doesn’t freeze too well, because it doesn’t contain any form of gelling agent,” says Leo. “This is why we don’t do takeaway orders. Besides, ice cream has become more easily available these days.”

But as many of their diehard fans would attest, Michael and Son remains a firm favourite.



Born and brought up in Tiruchi

Had fate willed otherwise, P. Gunapalan would have been selling mushrooms today. But luckily, the B.Sc Agriculture graduate decided to focus on ice creams. And on creating a premium brand that is proud to have been ‘born and brought up’ in Tiruchi.

For the past 38 years, Gunapalan has been the genius behind the iconic Sea Kings ice cream parlour at the R. R. Sabha Road on West Boulevard Road, where customers flock to relish the chill treats in store.

“You wouldn’t believe it, but those days, we had a lot of ice cream parlours in Tiruchi. I was a late entrant, and had to work hard to establish myself,” says the unassuming Gunapalan, who declines to be photographed for this interview.

A wrong choice of inauguration date was literally, a dampener. “I opened this place on November 14, 1977,” he recalls. “And it was the day Tiruchi was flooded – Thillai Nagar and Woraiyur were all under water, and the Cauvery river came up to my steps. There was no power, no water, no milk. I had to close down immediately.”

Not one to give up easily, and perhaps, as he sees now, with a burst of youthful bravado (Gunapalan was just 23 when he went into business), he reopened the parlour 10 days later, and struggled through the winter monsoon months, before his iced desserts got the students of the nearby colleges hooked.

“What drives me into the business are our customers. I love this city because when I was down and out, there were a lot of people who came and said that ‘your product is good, you will succeed,’” says Gunapalan.

Just as the business has grown (with an upper storey extension on the old premises, two local branches and franchises in Salem and Coimbatore), so too has the menu, from 12 varieties of ice cream and a lime juice in the 1970s to today’s 110 ice creams and 30-40 types of juices and milkshakes.

Starting off at Re. 1, in a market that priced its ice creams at 20 paise, Gunapalan agrees that his product has always been expensive. “We have observed that it is no longer about the price, but the product, ambience and service. Food commands that respect, that if you have these three factors, customers will go the distance,” he says.

“Ice cream is no longer produced and sold,” says Gunapalan. “It is bought and sold, because it has become a technology-oriented product. What used to take me 10 hours in the early stages, now can be done in three with the help of machines,” he says, adding that Sea Kings uses on average, 180 litres of milk, 10 litres of cream, 10 litres of butter and 40-50 kilos of sugar per day.

As to future plans, Gunapalan hopes his son Sabareesh, a design engineer based in Singapore, will take charge from next year. “We are more friends than father and son,” he says. “I’d be happy for him to take over from here.”



Sweet and syrupy

It takes a brave soul to try and relocate jigarthanda from its notional birthplace of Madurai, but the Vilakkuthoon Hanifa group has been quietly serving the health drink-cum-ice cream laced treat to Tiruchi-ites for the past 10 years.

“We have been in this business for over two to three decades in Madurai, and of late have decided to branch out to places like Chennai, Salem, Tirunelveli and Tiruchi, because we are ready to produce jigarthanda commercially,” says M. Sulthan, a law graduate, and one of ten brothers taking care of the family business.

He is assisted by his younger brother Maideen (who has studied catering) in Tiruchi, where the shop has two branches in Big Bazaar Street and at the FSM Hyper mall on Old Goods Shed Road.

Jigarthanda, as its Urdu/Hindi name implies, is thought to make the heart ( jigar ), cool ( thanda ).

The sweet with Mughal roots has several components, the base layer being thickened and sweetened cow’s milk that is mixed with almond tree resin (also known as badam pisn in Tamil) and topped with handmade ice cream.

If that doesn’t sound rich enough, there are more decadent versions that involve a generous layer of basundhi or basil seeds and jelly shavings.

“We make the ice cream in Madurai and transport it to Tiruchi everyday,” claims Sulthan. “In case of a bigger order, we are fully equipped to make more ice cream here.”

Almond tree resin has traditionally been used in Unani medicine to treat gynaecological problems, and as a natural coolant. “But few people below the age of 40 know about it,” says Maideen, adding that around 50 grams of the resin is enough for 2 litres of milk.

“Jigarthanda makes it easier to digest the resin, because it’s soaked in the milk and ice cream and doesn’t feel like medicine.”

The 2014 eponymous Tamil movie starring Siddharth has helped popularise jigarthanda among younger customers, feels Sulthan.

“But those who know the drink will definitely seek it out no matter where it is sold. Here, we get customers driving up late at night and ordering takeaways, worth Rs.500 to 1,000,” he says.

Priced originally at Rs.5, the rising milk cost has pushed it up to Rs. 25-30 for a ‘basic’ jigarthanda and up to Rs. 40-70 for those with additional toppings.

“We cannot raise the price too much because it is a product aimed at the middle-class consumer,” says Maitheen.

The brothers smile enigmatically when asked about what gives their ice cream its distinctive flavour.

“It’s a trade secret, but generally, the taste of milk used to make ice cream varies from place to place depending on the cattle fodder and the quality of water, among many things,” says Sulthan.

Next on their wishlist: dedicated counters within bigger eateries that would popularise their brand in the near future.

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