On TM Soundararajan Road in Mandaveli, there is a 70-year-old building with fading yellow paint and blue windows. On its facade, is a bright yellow signboard that says Verghese Bakery. Below, is a glass door and whenever it opens visitors are met with a gush of cold air swollen with the warm aroma of sugar.
Displayed in refrigerated glass shelves are red velvet cakes, doughnuts and Japonaise cakes — a rare find. “They are fresh and made today,” says Chrisma Rachel, daughter of the bakery’s current owner, Alex Verghese.
In the kitchen, amidst commercial-grade mixers, there is an electric oven that can bake around 10 trays of puffs or almost 40 loaves of bread at once. Verghese Bakery made the shift from wood-fired ovens in the 1980s. At the sound of a buzzer, PR Paul, the master baker pulls out a fresh batch of flaky, golden puffs, then arranges them on a cooling rack. “They will all get sold out today,” he says with a proud smile.
Chennai’s buns and puffs have become a significant part of the city’s food culture. There are bakeries in every street corner selling reasonably priced, baked goods and snacks to students in uniform and working professionals. We explore four of the city’s oldest bakeries, which have stood strong through wars, fierce competiton and a pandemic.
Whitefield Bakery, Purasaiwalkam
By the Purasaiwalkam flyover, Whitefield bakery is a hotspot. With courteous staff, ample seating and freshly baked goods, this bakery has been open since 1930. It was set up by AS Lokasah and was handed over to Syed Sibgatullah in 1978.
“For an old bakery like ours to survive, usually people suggest we adopt new trends. But our grandfather decided against serving fresh cream cakes because he believed that the high sugar and cream can cause obesity,” says Ishaaq Faizal, fondly called Basha, the current owner of the bakery.
With fresh buns, breads, butter biscuits, puffs, rolls and their signature coconut naans, Whitefield Bakery still does not serve fresh cream cakes and believes that the consistency and quality of these products alone will take them forward.
Cracking jokes and checking on the batch of buns in the oven, the bakers get alert when Basha walks in. There are two rooms separated by a wall. One has the oven and stove and the other is a cooling room. Chinna Thambi, one of the senior bakers, is reminded of Basha playing around in the kitchen as a young boy.
To bake at this scale inside the city, Basha feels the bakery requires more space. “The equipment we use are large in size and we’ll require a place to cool and store our products as well. During the festive season, we won’t even have space to walk around and it can get quite challenging.”
The building holds up well, though old. To improve and manage production has plans to renovate the space soon and also aims to set up a production unit in Tambaram.
White Field Bakery - 8, Purasaiwalkam High Road, Purasaiwalkam
The Crown Bakery in Mylapore
Bavani Srinivasan is attending to three customers who want different things — an egg puff, bun butter jam, bread and a packet of potato chips. While she confirms if it should be salted or spiced, she pops the puff into a microwave to heat it, picks up a freshly baked bun and spreads a thick layer of jam. On the ‘ding’ of the microwave, she has closed three sales.
“We get a lot of customers throughout the day,” she says, shouting out to her mother to send her father down to the bakery. In the same building, a narrow flight of stairs leads to the residence of M Srinivasan.
At 77 years, he is the third owner of the establishment. The Crown Bakery on Bazar street in Mylapore was set up in 1905 by his father, Kanthasamy Mudaliar.
“Everything has changed over the years,” he says and peeps into the kitchen to check on his staff. “Earlier, we had to do everything manually, but now we don’t get people to work if we don’t have these modern appliances or make the new cake varieties.”
Bavani interrupts, “Everything except our breads has changed. We don’t use a lot of yeast and insist that our masters also follow the same. They are very soft and are safe even for children.”
Srinivasan is particular about it remaining a family-run business. “Today the master is on leave, but my business goes on because my daughter can take care of the baking. My father learnt these from the British and then as children when we went to the bakery we were taught things playfully and then when we grew up, we carried it forward. After my daughter, my grandson will be in charge,” he says.
The Crown Bakery- 129/58, Bazaar Road, Madhavaperumalpuram, Mylapore
Smith Field bakery, Purasaiwalkam
Established in 1885, Smith Field is the city’s oldest bakery. It is one of the places from where bread was rationed out during the World Wars. Ponnusamy was the founder of the bakery and today his great grandson Ventatesh S runs the business.
“This business is our legacy and the core of it is freshness and quality. To maintain this, we need more than a good recipe. We have been collecting data to forecast the demand almost accurately. So, on an auspicious day, we know that only five to six chicken or egg puffs will be purchased and make only a small batch,” says Venkatesh.
The bakery has five sales staff managing the shop floor and readying customers’ orders even before they are placed. The kitchen has around 10 bakers and staff.
Venkatesh supervises a batch of cookies being pulled out of the oven. “I used to be in the kitchen a lot as a child too. We had this master who would make sugar eggs for Easter and I would watch him. Recently, when that master retired he took the recipe with him and we lost that product. Over the years, we have lost items like Japanese cakes also due to the lack of demand.”
At Smith Field, products may come and go but the family is keen on maintaining the taste and quality. “Earlier, we used to get powdered sugar from the market but in the recent years we noticed that they have been adding corn flour. It altered the taste and texture of our products so we purchased a sugar mill to make our own,” he adds.
Venkatesh then points to a tray of walnut brownies which is a recent addition. He informs that he has one foot on the fundamentals and the other on new trends to take the bakery forward.
Smith Field bakery, 130, Perambur Barracks Rd, Perumalpet, Purasaiwalkam
Verghese bakery, Mandaveli
Verghese bakery was set up in the 1950 by C I Verghese. Chrisma is his granddaughter and hopes to take care of the business someday.
“I have been coming to the bakery since 2019 and one of my favourite things to do here is meet the customers. The old timers come with many stories and it is heartwarming. While there may be other bakeries, even premium ones, to our customers the taste of Verghese bakery is like coming back to mom’s food and that will take us forward,” she says.
Verghese Bakery - 1, W Circular Rd, Mandavelipakkam, Mylapore