Married at 13 into an orthodox family, she didn’t let chores come in the way of her love for baking: Supriya Roy
Supriya Roy, one of Kolkata’s favourite bakers, found that a successful business is like a perfect pastry – with many layers and requiring hours of patient sifting
Supriya Roy remembers every detail about the first pudding cake she ever made at home – even its lip-smacking flavour. Fruits and other ingredients were bought from the local market. There was no oven at home, so the trifle pudding cake had to be made using a pan of hot water on a chulha. In the end, golden syrup was poured on the pudding and, voila, a cake as good as the recipe written by the head chef of the British royal family! Roy surprised herself that day, and for 28 years now, she has continued to delight the people of Kolkata through her confectionery chain, The Sugarr & Spice.
Roy traces the roots of her liking for cake and baking to her childhood. Being the second-youngest of her eight siblings, she preferred peace and solitude, and found that around her baking corner. Over a chulha, or a wood stove, she first made clay models and toys. She moved on to making khichdi – her first culinary preparation – and then cakes, pastries, and savouries. Much later – after her marriage and children – she found her quiet, happy corner again, in the bakery she opened in the garage of her palatial home, on Harish Mukherjee Road. That was in 1990.
Her 28-year-old business draws more than 100,000 customers every day. She does not reveal its profit, but its revenue was quoted as Rs.800 million two years back, in another interview. According to Zauba Corp, in FY18, the baking company clocked a revenue of Rs.420 million.
Cakes had been an integral part of her childhood. “Whenever my father used to bring home cakes, I managed to steal an extra bite from it,” Roy says. Later in her life, she would always be busy whipping up something exciting in the kitchen. It was then that her brother said, “You cook so well, why don’t you start a shop?” She balked at the idea then, mostly because she didn’t want to start something that would tie her down to one place. “Yet, his words stayed with me,” she says. Today, she runs 125 fully-owned and franchisee shops in Kolkata and its suburbs. But, it wasn’t a cakewalk for the 68-year-old.
Born into an orthodox family, Roy got married at 13 into a royal family. A couple of years later, she became a mother. Although she quit her studies to care of her family, she restarted her education a few years later. In fact, she would often study while tutoring her son. She says, “It was like drowning and then coming up for air again.” She later completed her graduation as an external candidate. However, between bringing up her son and managing the family, Roy came to realise that she never had time for herself.
Her son was in class 10 when she enrolled for a flower arrangement course under Uma Basu at the Academy of Fine Arts. But Roy was young and not accustomed to her stepping out of her home alone. Back home, she has memories of travelling by a palki from the station to her home. She decided to utilise her time learning all the things she never did otherwise.
One thing led to another, and soon Roy was taking baking lessons at her home from a pâtissier at the Grand Hotel (now The Oberoi Grand). She followed it up with lessons in continental cooking from another chef from the same hotel. “But I realised that I should do things more professionally and in a structured manner.” So, Roy enrolled at the Institute of Hotel Management in Taratala and, upon completion of her course, she challenged herself to earn something.
She was not obligated, as a girl, to earn money. But, Roy’s role models while growing up were her father and father-in-law who were financially independent. She started a baking and cooking class for women at her home with one student and began advertising in the newspaper. The word spread, and soon she was teaching 40 students everything from Indian and Chinese dishes to making ice cream. Roy ran the class for 10 years, and she credits this experience for giving her the much-needed push to start The Sugarr & Spice.
“I was very shy as a child. In school, I was once asked to write something on the blackboard and I started shivering. But the cooking class gave me a lot of confidence,” she explains.
In 1990, Roy started out in a 200 sq ft garage with about Rs.300,000 that she had saved from her cooking classes. She was 40 then and her son was getting married around the same time. So, while she was designing packaging for her baked goodies, Roy was also busy with the duties of being the groom’s mother. But, she took charge of everything in her new business: ordered a baking counter, hired mechanics and then put up a 30-ft longboard that spelt out the shop name. She began with 11 boys to help her in the kitchen, and a new oven – gifted by her husband. Today, over 500 employees work under her.
Cakes being her favourite, she began by dabbling in newer and innovative varieties. She was advertising in Anandabazar Patrika and The Telegraph, and customers came from faraway cities and suburbs such as Batanagar, Chandannagar and Bardhaman.
A year later, Roy realised that the expenditure on advertisements was weighing on her profits. So, she decided to stop that and instead focus on product quality and logistics. In 1995, she expanded her factory to 4,500 sq ft within the premises of her home and even began importing ovens, mixers and other bakery machines from Germany and Switzerland. Roy says, “As a kid, when I used to burn my clay models in the chulha, it would come out unevenly black and red-coloured because the heat was not evenly distributed. Baked products such as cakes, and breads too, need even heat distribution which requires foreign technology.”
The next milestone was to offer franchises, and she is painfully particular about how the business should be conducted. Now, there are 250 distributors in Kolkata and its suburbs, who are tasked with spreading a slice of joy.
Roy, who follows Buddha’s Madhyapantha, is insistent that her cakes are made on a mass scale, to reach everyone. The products are even priced to that effect – at as low as Rs.10 a piece. Around 2000, the company launched packed products such as cakes, cookies, bhujia and more.
When Roy started out, she recalls that there weren’t as many government initiatives to support MSMEs. She was not aware of all the taxation departments but she was adamant that she would do it by the book, and registered her business. “One day, government officials came calling and asked to see my factory license. I didn’t have one, no one told me I needed anything other than a trade licence, which I had.” She later educated herself about the various licences and personally ensured that she had all of them.
Another hiccup was in 1998, when Roy applied for a loan, and the bank asked for collateral. Luckily, her family stepped in with help. She says that their support saw her through hard times.
Roy has seen business interest from abroad. Once, she received an offer to open a shop in the UK through the British Embassy. “They asked me, ‘What do you need to set it up?’ They were so keen on helping anyone start their venture,” Roy says. She had turned that down because she wanted to expand in her city. However, more than once, she has been left stunned by their stringent rules when it came to running a business here. This pushed her to implement HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) and ISO 22000 systems, to ensure that food-safety mechanisms are in place, in her own business. “I tell my workers to imagine that this is an operation theatre,” she adds. Her immediate plans now include opening a factory in Sankrail and another in Siliguri, in West Bengal.
Time changes people’s tastes and Roy hunts for new recipes or presents the old favourites in more interesting ways, like with Baby Corn Chicken Comby. In the Comby, the bread is cut in the shape of a comb, stuffed with roasted chicken cooked with fried onion and tossed with parsely, garlic, and baby corn.
To keep up with the new, Roy attends every bakery festival. Recently, she attended IBA (Trade Fair for Bakery, Confectionary and Snacks) in Munich, Germany, with her family. “I noticed that they have beautiful embossed packaging and containers. I was inspired,” she says.
She recognises the importance of presentation and tries to match the standards of five-star hotels. And when original foreign flavours such as savoury French dishes fail to impress Indian customers, she has learnt to infuse the sweet-and-sour Indian taste in the items.
In 2000, Roy was awarded the National Award for Best Entrepreneur (small scale industries) and, in 2010, her company received the MSME National Award for manufacturing quality products.
As someone who was married young, Roy believes that women have a bigger purpose in life than just bearing children. “We must all keep battling on with all our strength,” she says. It is a spirit she has kept alive in business and otherwise.