Kainaz Messman did not let her crippling back injury keep her from setting up Theobroma
Mumbai’s family-run corner cafe is everyone’s favourite patisserie
In many ways, she is the epitome of what a chef should be. And yet, in so many other ways, she fights every single stereotype that abounds in the profession. Kainaz Messman, owner of one of Mumbai’s most famous patisserie Theobroma, is a walking- talking example of someone who didn’t let anything — not even a crippling back injury — come in the way of achieving her dream. Of course, her obsession with the world of food started young — Messman says her entire childhood was food-centric. “Both my mum and dad have always been very entrepreneurial. My mum was a banker by profession but she quit and started her own fast-food business. When we were growing up, most children hadn’t even tried burgers and pizzas.
But at our house, we were already eating Caribbean and Mexican food. We were always very well exposed to world cuisines in that sense. So, it is my mum who has always been my inspiration,” she says. Messman is very aware that the experience she was exposed to has added significantly to her professional competence as well. “As a family, we were very fortunate to have been able to travel a lot. Each of our holidays would be a culinary journey. Even at Disney World, I was more interested in the food they were serving than the parks and the rides. So, in that sense, we have been a food-obsessed family all our lives. Food is a big part of our culture as Parsis, but in our family, it was even more so because my mum was always making something. During the second half of their lives, our grandparents came to live with us, and then cooking became a family activity, a binding force.”
In spite of having grown up in the kind of sweet-smelling house that most children only read about, Messman always thought she wanted to be a lawyer. But when she was 16, fate and destiny showed her their plans. “At 16, I went to France as an exchange student with the Rotary Club. To my luck, I was sent to the south of France, where food is the centre of life. The family that I stayed with had their own gardens, where every fruit and vegetable was grown. We’d go to the market only for things that we didn’t make at home, such as sausages and cheese. For wine, we’d go directly to the vineyards, never to the supermarket. The whole thing was very food-centric, the way my life already was. Till I went to France, I hadn’t decided to be a chef. Back then, it was quite unheard of as a profession. In France, I realised that I actually can be a chef, and it all came naturally to me. I even learnt French because of the cookery books. I could only speak English, but I wanted to communicate with the people to learn the names of the fruits and the vegetables and put that together with the books, which were pictorial. And that’s how I learnt French. Cooking has always been a great part of me and I don’t think it’ll ever leave me,” she says.
It goes without saying that Messman never once faced any resistance from her family. “In fact, they were more than encouraging,” she says. But that doesn’t mean it was always smooth sailing. After studying at the Institute of Hotel Management (IHM), Mumbai, Messman joined the Oberoi Group of Hotels, and was doing very well. “I was very happy with the group. I had got a dream posting at the Udai Vilas [in Udaipur], which was their most recent hotel at that point of time. It was a beautiful property that had set a high standard for cuisine, and I got a posting at the pastry shop there. I couldn’t have asked for more. With the Oberoi group, I would move cities every six months and I loved that. There was so much going on — each city had its own culinary heritage. It was an unbelievable time for me. But in 2003, I hurt my back pretty badly and the doctor delivered a nonchalant diagnosis to me, saying I couldn’t be a chef anymore. I was very disillusioned and I didn’t know what to do, but it was my family that came to my rescue. They told me that I didn’t need to give up what I had worked so hard for, for so many years. I was very fortunate that dad gave me a loan to start my own business,” mentions the 36-year-old.
Like with all things, Messman and her family were going to start Theobroma small in 2004. “We just wanted to open a small neighbourhood café,” she says. They were certainly not expecting the response they received. More than a decade later, Theobroma has gone from being a quaint, family-run corner café on Colaba Causeway to a full-fledged chain (still family-run for the most part except for a recently employed CEO). Like at every other start-up, things were not all hunky-dory at Theobroma at the beginning. Recalls Messman, “We knew how to bake cakes, but little else. We were unprepared for the retail business and the challenges it brings. We were naive in our dealings with government departments, suppliers and landlords and made many mistakes along the way. As soon as we opened, we were almost ready to give up. We were unprepared and physically and mentally exhausted. And while we somehow pulled it together back then, when we started with our expansion programme, we were back to square one again. We were yet to build a team of professionals to help us. But we learned from our mistakes and moved on. We were fortunate that our blessings outweighed our mistakes.”
And it shows. What started as a list comprising a handful of items is now a long-drawn menu with thousands of sweets and savouries on offer. “All we wanted was to serve desserts and bread to the neighbourhood. And my entire family pitched in — my sister was pregnant at the time and she came down for a month to help with the business,” she recalls.
Messman feels that she is blessed to be surrounded by people who shared her passion, which she also credits as one of the reasons for Theobroma’s success. At all times, her family has stood by her as a pillar of strength, supporting her at every single step, both in success and failure. “My family has not only been encouraging me, but has also been working by my side. My parents may not be the face of our business, but they tirelessly work in the background and have jointly created our brand, our business and our team. Many of our employees have been with us from the beginning. They have worked incredibly hard to fulfill every order and keep our shelves full and our customers happy. During season, our key bakers work round the clock, with a few naps here and there,” she avers.
On the challenges in sourcing experienced bakery staff, she points out the shortage of skilled, knowledgeable, trained and hard-working staff. “We have to provide a lot of on-the-job training to meet our growing staff requirements. The hospitality industry is booming and jobs are easily available, which results in high churn and a drop in longevity. We expect our staff to be honest and work hard to keep our customers happy. In return, we look after them, train them and reward them to keep them happy.”
Best Foot Forward
Messman was also well prepared and acquainted with the fact that she was breaking into a largely male profession. “There is no doubt about the fact that F&B is a male-dominated industry in India and across the world — at the top, at the bottom and every tier in between. Women are in the minority for many reasons. And while the obstacles are many, they are largely cultural. Men and women have to learn to work side by side and share the kitchen and business environment. I try not to think or worry about it, since there is a job to be done and I need to get on with completing it,” she says. That is something that she realised early on. Recalling an incident from her training years, Messman remembers her first few days at IHM, when her seniors were ragging her playfully. “They asked what I wanted to become after the course, and laughed when I told them I wanted to be a pastry chef. ‘That’s because you haven’t undergone your industrial training as yet,’ they told me. They said that once I will need to peel potatoes for 18 hours a day, I will know better and won’t want to see the face of a kitchen ever again. But I went ahead — and I really did have to peel potatoes for that long — and to be honest, I didn’t mind that.” She clearly didn’t.
Today, with eight stores* dotting the city and four more in the pipeline, Messman has more on her plate than she had ever dreamed of. She aims to establish a few outlets outside Mumbai and has currently has a store coming up in the capital city as well. For someone who has donned several hats right from being a waitress to a chef to a cleaner and a cashier, Messman clearly has her cake and is enjoying it, too.
*This story was originally published in Outlook Business’ special issue Women of Worth in October 2015