If food is an expression of love, a food business is, at its heart, a love story. And these women are proof that love has no bar.
For most people, the twilight years of life are meant to relax, put one’s feet up, and enjoy one’s remaining years. They’re hardly a time for the hustle and daily grind of setting up a whole new business. But these women are not most people. At 68, 77, even 90 years old, they set up food businesses that have become the talk of India. Their motivations may differ – for some, a lockdown activity, for others, a lifelong regret of never having earned their own money. But all of them have one thing in common – drive, talent, and a real love for food and feeding people. If food is an expression of love, a food business is, at its heart, a love story. And these women are proof that love has no bar. This Mothers’ Day, we bring you the stories of these women who inspire with their empires.
Urmila Asher, Gujju Ben Na Nasta
“A hustler all her life” is how her grandson and business partner Harsh describes Urmila Asher, the talent behind Mumbai-based Gujju Ben Na Nasta, which, as the name describes, offers a range of Gujarati snacks. When the Covid pandemic hit in 2020, the 77-year-old who lives in a chawl in Mumbai and used to be a cook for NRI families in London and the US, began to make pickles just for the family. But what began as a lockdown activity has now turned into a full-fledged business, complete with a retail store, a cloud kitchen, a YouTube channel with more than 26K subscribers, and travelling to deliver TEDx talks.
During the lockdown, Harsh, who’d had to close down his luxury bike rental and corporate gifting businesses, noticed his grandma’s tenacity and keenness to stay active in the kitchen, and, given the wave of home-cooking enterprises that marked the first lockdown, he smelt a business opportunity. He asked her if she’d like to turn it into a business, and sent out a WhatsApp message blast about homemade pickles for sale. Within 20-25 days, the duo had sold almost 450 kg of pickles. Now, having expanded to a range of snacks such as dhokla, khandvi, gathia, chakli, thepla, and more, they have trained more staffers so that Urmila can relax a bit and focus on the YouTube channel instead of being in the kitchen for 15 hours a day, while Harsh focuses on the business and marketing. Future plans for this dadi include retailing on Amazon and Flipkart, and making Gujju Ben Na Nasta a household name while continuing to do the thing she loves – cook and provide for her family. (98213 24901; gujjubennanasta.in)
Harbhajan Kaur, Harbhajan’s
“Vela baithna bimari da ghar hai” (To sit idle is to invite disease) is something Harbhajan Kaur says frequently. The 95-year-old is a living advertisement for her words, given that she is the talent behind the much-loved Harbhajan’s – Bachpan Yaad Aajaye, a five-year-old Chandigarh-based business that started, as all the best things do, over a cup of tea. Sitting with her daughter on her 90th birthday, Harbhajan could reminisce about many things in life – her childhood in Punjab’s Tarn Taran Sahib filled with delicious food made by her mother and meetha made by her father, her marriage to a Punjab Services officer, the charmed life they led post his retirement in the 1980s in Chandigarh when they enjoyed going out to explore new restaurants and dishes (she tried a soufflé for the first time) and she would always ask for the recipes and try them out at home.
But the widow who had been educated only till the eighth grade also voiced her one lingering regret – that she had never earned her own money. Her daughter asked why she couldn’t start now. She’d been cooking since she was a child and she was passionate and curious about new recipes, so it made perfect sense. Once Harbhajan said yes, the entire family then swung into action – reaching out to home chefs and food bazaar organisers and making sure she had all the ingredients she needed so she could just focus on the thing she loves – cooking. Her first product (for a pop-up) and her bestseller is the besan ki barfi, based on a 100-year-old recipe handed down from her father, but she also makes seasonal sherbets, pickles, chutneys. Some press interest followed, including an interview that was shared on social media by Anand Mahindra, which went viral and prompted the family to build her online and retail presence. During the pandemic, with the help of her grandson who is a trained chef and granddaughter who’s a designer, plus the rest of the family, the venture became more business-oriented, even retailing on Amazon. (Instagram: @harbhajansmadewithlove)