Mithai meets automation | Pakistan Today

Mithai meets automation

From family concerns to multi-million rupee corporations, the mithai-making industry is coming of age in Pakistan
Starched kurta, checkered dhoti and handle-bar moustaches. Halwais and mithai-makers still persist as slivers of tradition in our otherwise rapidly transforming urban landscape. Hailing from the Mughal kitchens, mithai is quintessentially a traditional product. But while the recipes may be ‘secrets’ from the royal kitchens, the production process and retailing are increasingly innovative and modern. With the advent of larger and more modern halwais like Nirala, Butt and Fazal, mithai-making is rapidly evolving from traditional family concerns into multi-million rupee corporations, transforming not only the way we consume mithai, but the product itself.
Preparing mithai in the royal kitchens for every festive occasion (and there were some!) must have been arduous, but running a chain of stores across the country requires far more effort. For one, most mithai, owing to its ingredients, has a very limited shelf life which, unlike non-traditional desserts such as ice-creams and chocolates, may not be extended by freezing. Of course it can be tinned and frozen, but by and large, customers prefer to have mithai fresh and piping hot out of the frying pan. Couple this with an estimated monthly production of tens of thousands of tonnes (which exponentially rises by 300 – 500 percent during festive seasons), and you have a logistical challenge at hand. So how does a large mithai-maker meet such production targets, especially during peak season such as Ramadan, and manage to maintain a supply chain that delivers it fresh to the consumer?
At Nirala Sweets, Pakistan’s leading mithai maker with a chain of twenty-two outlets across Pakistan and abroad, the answer lies in automation. While the production process is usually labor-intensive, several processes have been mechanized owing to efficiency and consistency concerns. From giant mixers that bring the ingredients together, to mechanized ’rounders’ that make the mithai balls ready for frying, automation has helped improve efficiency and reduce wastages.
The automation lies not only in the mithai production, but also helps maintain a seamless supply chain. From the moment the demand is raised to the instant where it is met, the process is centralized and monitored at every step for efficiency and quality control. [Info-graphic on Supply Chain]Being the pioneers in the mechanization process has neither come easy, nor cheap. Ahmer Farooq, one of Nirala Sweet’s Managing Directors, recalled the hassle the company had to go through to develop a customized machine for making Gulab Jamun. He puts it succinctly thus: “It was a pain!” To try and explain the requirements to the producer was a challenge since the difference between a good Gulab Jamun and a great Gulab Jamun is beyond the comprehension of a Taiwanese manufacturer. The machine is employed usually during the peak season, when earlier, laborers were incentivized to put in extra hours through overtime “Eidi.” Besides, it’s still cheaper to employ people rather than machines, despite the inefficiency, in certain processes such as frying.
The automation is still the exception, not the norm, in this industry because growth is sluggish. With rising input costs and increased health consciousness, especially amongst the consumers with moolah, efficiency through automation is only part of the solution. When your product is essentially traditional and your consumers rapidly modernizing how do you keep the latter hooked on to the former?
.. Innovation,
Dripping with sugar syrup, a mammoth luddoo is usually a daunting affair, both messy and fattening. So the innovative minds at Nirala Sweets came up with two solutions: reduce the quantity of sugar in their recipes and scale down the traditional mithai into bite-sized portions!
“Progressively, given consumer feedback, we’ve reduced the amount of sugar in our recipes,” informs Farooq. While there are sugar-free and low-calorie options available for diabetic consumers and the astute calorie-watchers, even regular customers are opting for moderation in their sugar intake. Meanwhile, bite-sized portions not only look quaint, they make the indulgence appear harmless and feel guilt-free.
.. and Creativity!
What makes consumers pay an insane premium for a box of Godiva chocolates? It probably tastes great but you don’t know that yet. What makes you reach out to that fancy, posh-looking box that costs twice as much as other chocolates? The fancy, posh-looking box, precisely!
“Packaging is a silent sales person,” quips Farooq. As consumers become increasingly sophisticated, it becomes important to emphasize on the packaging and branding. For Nirala, the focus on packaging is supreme. Starting with customizable packaging for corporate and demanding clients, they were successful in creating a niche market from scratch. With fancy boxes, mithai was able to rake in the premium that only Swiss chocolates commanded.
The art in business is no longer restricted for the discerning class only. They are utilizing the packaging to create a distinct brand identity, one that is engaging its customers. With the recent tin boxes sporting Mughal princesses and motifs, and a star-shaped Ramadan only box, they’re able to entice the customers’ child-like curiosity.
So why the red and yellow at the heart of Nirala’s brand image? “Because they’re bright and festive,” states Farooq before mulling that Toblerone might also have been a source of inspiration!
What lies ahead?
The industry has come a long way but its progress pales in comparison to similar companies in neighboring India. Haldiram’s, India’s leading food company with savory and sweet offerings, is a 4 million dollar brand that is recognizable across the shelves not only in India but throughout the world where NRIs live. They have branched not only into snacks and sherbets but also into restaurants and retail chains.
“We do look up to them for inspiration, but they have an entirely different business model and the business atmosphere is not the same in Pakistan,” laments Farooq. Which is true, to an extent, but Pakistani businessmen seem to lack the aggressiveness of their Indian counterparts. Haldiram’s currently exports to the tune of 6 million dollars annually to locations as diverse as New Zealand to Peru with a forecasted growth rate of forty percent over the next 5 years. Nirala, on the other hand, exports only to Dubai and Sharjah at present.
There are, however, plans in the pipeline for setting up in England and Canada where sizable Pakistani communities live. Maybe aggressiveness, coupled with automation, innovation and creativity, would help take Pakistan’s leading mithai-makers to the next level.

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