When Munshi Ram Sethi left Hoti Mardan, west Pakistan, for Delhi in 1947, he was 17. He had never imagined that 65 years later, he would be the chairman and managing director of 64 shops that sell biscuits made by two processing units that his family runs. As a young boy, he spent long hours in the small biscuit-bakery shop his father Mangal Sain ran. “It had no name in those days,” says Munshi Ram, of the shop his father had set up in 1921 in Pakistan. Their best-selling treats then were atta biscuits, namkeen-zeera biscuits and rusks. Now Frontier’s best-sellers are kaju-pista biscuits, wholewheat biscuits, rusks and chocolate-chip biscuits.
From 10-15kg of handmade, eggless biscuits made daily until the early 1950s, to 7,500kg per day in 2012, Frontier Biscuit Factory Pvt. Ltd has come a long way. Today the company supplies sweet and salted biscuits, rusks, khatai and cakes across Delhi, Chandigarh, Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.
“But biskut (as he pronounces it) eating habits until the 1970s were not what they are today. Not many people consumed them and the customers who did wanted freshly baked batches made from raw materials they provided. We used to be paid for the labour of making the biscuits,” Munshi Ram says. They used to be paid 50 paise per kg for baking these pepawale biscuits in the 1970s.
When the family moved to Delhi, Mangal Sain decided to set up a biscuit-bakery shop in Sadar Bazar, just like the one he had left behind. Munshi Ram says it was he who even-tually named the shop Frontier Biscuit Factory. “I don’t remember how the name came about; but I named it in 1947 when we moved to Sadar Bazar. My father did not object to it.”
At 82, he may no longer be taking day-to-day decisions for the company, but Munshi Ram insists on dressing up every day to visit the flagship factory in Bahadurgarh, Haryana, a 45-minute car ride from his home in Delhi’s Rajouri Garden area. Ask him, however, how many shops Frontier Biscuit owns today and he turns to his two sons, Pawan and Sanjeev Sethi.
“When bauji started the shop again with our grandfather in India, they had just two or three workers, and knew five-six biscuit recipes,” says Pawan, 54, a third-generation entrepreneur who is now a director in the company like his younger bother Sanjeev, 48. The company now bakes 48 varieties of biscuits, cakes, khatais and rusks, including three “no added sugar” varieties.
Like his father, Pawan started early and was given charge of accounts in 1977, a job he still manages. “My grandfather had retired from the bakery early and my father handled everything on his own until I joined. One of my earliest memories is of making handwritten posters on A4-size paper sheets about our shop with my father and sticking it around the neighbourhood.” Later, when the company started advertising in newspapers, Munshi Ram chose the Hindi publication Vir Arjun and Urdu daily Pratap.
Pawan says his father took Bata as his business model. Frontier biscuits sell from shops that are either owned by the company or are exclusive franchises. “He was always against the idea of selling our products from a kirana dukaan (general store). One of his favourite pastimes was to visit other bakery shops to see how they stack their products, what new biscuits they made, etc.”
Sanjeev, who shared this passion for innovation, joined the production department in 1984. Forever eager to introduce new biscuits, he wanted to bake their own version of Parle-like glucose biscuits, which eventually did not work out. Sanjeev tells us how he invented the Milk-Elaichi Cookie. “We got a lot of elaichi (cardamom) one Diwali and I decided to take this to the factory and use them with a batch of biscuits. I got the elaichi finely ground and when it was used with batter, we got a flavourful biscuit,” he says.
One of the toughest phases for the family was in the 1970s and 1980s, when the Delhi government banned neighbourhood bakeries from baking in their premises because smoke from the wood-fire ovens was a pollutant. All the bakeries and food industries had to move their units to the Lawrence Road area. “Bauji got a piece of land in that area but production and profits did not increase for a while after that. In those days, our daily sale used be around Rs 800-1,000 and profit was about 10% of the sale.” This was also a period when raw materials such as maida (refined flour), sugar, ghee were not easily and freely available.
“Bauji still talks about a time when almost daily, he had to go from Rajouri Garden or Sadar Bazar to Modi Flour Mills in Okhla to get materials loaded in a truck,” explains Rajan Sethi, 28, the fourth generation of Sethis, who joined as chief, business development, in 2007. Now, of course, all the raw materials can be procured on phone.
Sanjeev says his father had only two options at the time: sell the business or be even more determined to set up more shops.
Munshi Ram opted for the second. The second Frontier shop opened in Rajouri Garden by late 1981 and the third one in Model Town. They then opened shops in Paschim Vihar, Ashok Vihar, Kamla Nagar and Tagore Garden. “By the time I joined, people had started approaching us for ‘agency’ or a franchise of Frontier Biscuit,” recalls Sanjeev, and the first franchise opened in Janakpuri in 1992. Munshi Ram insisted franchises would not sell anything except Frontier products.
Although some Frontier shopping zones still sell loose products today, by and large the company is moving to a pre-packaged format. “Over the years, people have started buying more biscuits at festival times since these products have a higher shelf life (Frontier biscuits have a four-month shelf life) in comparison to mithai or other sweets. Since we are a company based in the north, Diwali, Rakhi, Lohri are high-sale periods for us,” says Rajan.
In 1989, Frontier Biscuit became a private limited company and had a turnover of almost Rs 40 lakh. By 2011-12, the turnover was Rs 36 crore.
One of the initial changes Rajan introduced was to apply for an ISO 202000 certification, which eventually came in 2010. “It was a huge challenge. Since these are handmade products, we had to train our staff to maintain hygiene, modify our factories by installing more air ducts and introduce new inventory measuring systems. Quality was always important but I also wanted to make our process more professional and standardized,” says Rajan.
As more and more biscuit brands make their way to the grocery shops, it is difficult to understand how Frontier can grow if it continues with its sale-direct-from-store-only policy. But Pawan, Sanjeev and Rajan are not worried. “Ours is a niche product. Britannia or Parle are not our competition. The real change through the 1980s and 1990s was the introduction of new flavours all the time. In the last five years or so, customers have become health-conscious. Now, the challenge is to ensure they get what they want,” says Rajan.