Bakery breads, a product, once synonymous with the European breakfast, set root in the Madras of yore during the heydayof the British and other Europeans who invaded, settled and did various kinds of businesses in the port city. In recorded history, the last two decades of the 1800s was when some enterprising Indians chanced upon a business that would not just provide the much-in-need bread to the westernized settlers but, also gave them and their families their own ‘daily bread’, in other words, a livelihood.
The keen business acumen of those adventurous people who ventured into the bakery business, also ensured that they name their ventures with brands that the Europeans could easily identify with and would, therefore, patronize.
In 1885, Ponnuswamy N., of Sadaraspattinam, started Smith Field Bakery in the heart of Madras with a vision to make it synonymous with quality baked goods. Since then Smith Field has been serving fresh baked goods every day. Tradition remains unchanged. “We bake our goods from premium flour and natural ingredients. We neither use commercial improvers nor add preservatives. We believe in preserving the tradition that has been tested over a century,” says Venkatesh, the current generation family member who oversees the running of the bakery, along with his father. Smith Field decided against opening bakery and sales outlets in several parts of the city, only to ensure quality of their baked products.
Yet another bakery of yore, White Field, went into several transformations and familial disputes and is now on the way to a slow recovery.
Meanwhile, another enterprising young man, Manickam Pillai, left his home town in Arcot, way back in the 1870s and descended on Madras to chart a career of his own. He meandered his way into some British-run trading companies, before the entrepreneurial spirit within him prompted him to strike out on his own. Having sensed the demand for quality home-baked bread among the large European community in the coastal city, he ventured into starting a small bakery.
Bringing in his nephew who was to later become his son-in-law, the business expanded with additional capacity to cater to an ever-growing clientele. Two generations later, the family member who was running the bakery around the early 1900s felt the need to establish a brand that would be easily identifiable for the large European community. “He selected four names of his most popular customers and got someone to do a blind pick of one name. From the selected name, he modified it to suit his need and arrived at the current brand of McRennett,” says Vinod, the current generation family member who runs the business along with his brothers and father.
For many years since the establishment of the first retail outlet on Mount Road, McRennett operated with a single point of sale. “Those days, the two most frequented places by the Europeans to buy their daily needs were Spencers and McRennett. By then, Bosotto Bros had also come up, as an off-shoot of a hotel by the same name,” says Vinod.
Over the years, a health and fitness conscious generation started being very choosy of what they eat. With a demand for healthy, sometimes egg-free and gluten-free products, many modern day bakeries have had to change their product range to cater to the modern generation. In the process, wholesome, unprocessed and organic bakery products started getting introduced in several new-age bakery counters.
But, to a well-established network like that of McRennett and the ever-popular Smith Field, the order of the day remained the traditional offerings. Says Venkatesh, “When it comes to Christmas cakes, for instance, there is nothing to beat the traditional rum and raisin plum cakes. After all, you don’t eat that every day. For the remaining part of the year, you can probably go for ‘healthy cakes’. Even then, we find that there is a year-round demand for fresh cream-topped cakes.”
In McRennett, for instance, the cake and cookie lovers will not settle for anything less than the tasty, buttery cookies and rich plum cakes. Even the popular department store brand Nilgiris and the local favourite Prima Bakery sees there icing cake with plum filling, flying off their counters.