At this time of year, the 300 sq. ft-space of American Dry Fruits resembles a crowded marketplace. Men and women of all ages flock here to buy almonds, cashews and pistas in various sizes and categories (what in dry fruits terminology is called “grades”) in bulk for gifts. It is chock-a-block, with bright neon lights hanging from the low ceiling, and glass-covered racks of all imaginable kinds of dry fruits, mithais and snacks on the four walls.
But, for 53-year-old Dilip Thakkar, sitting behind the small cash register, this Diwali is special for another reason. His younger son, Sameer, gave up a marketing job at Twentieth Century Fox in Boston, US, and decided to join his father and elder brother Manoj to expand American Dry Fruits. “From 1939 to 2007, we have made a name. We have loyal customers, some of whom I don’t want to name. But in today’s age, that is not enough. We have to reach out to more people and for that, I need more hands,” he tells me as I sample this year’s specials—a honey-filled sweet made of cashew paste, and almond chocolates. In both, the sweetness is carefully tempered because, as the brothers say, diet sweets are passé now; you need to invent something healthy that replaces sugar—in this case, it’s honey and home-made chocolate.
The store is something of an institution in the city. Hariram Thakkar, a migrant worker from Kutch, opened a small stall of Indian spices at the exact spot where American Dry Fruits now stands—a few steps away from Bombay House, the head office of the Tatas, and behind Kala Ghoda, Mumbai’s art district. Like all famous business enterprises, its story is one of steady expansion and the forging of a loyal customer base, including the Tatas, say workers. The Thakkars don’t give out any names, fearing competitors will approach their customers. “Most of our customers are restricted to share brokers, bankers, lawyers and residents of Marine Drive, Colaba and Cuffe Parade. During Diwali, we take about a thousand corporate gift orders,” says Manoj.
The office-cum-storage space of American Dry Fruits is the first floor of an old, decrepit building adjacent to the store. An aged wooden staircase leads up to the door where Manoj and his brother supervise the packaging and take orders.
On a late evening, with about two weeks to go for Diwali, some 15 workers are in the middle of filling white metal boxes with varieties of dry fruits (this year’s menu has 25 different kinds of boxes, trays and packets). It is a coordinated effort, the old, manual way—the way the patriarch prefers. “I believe we are what we are because there is a personal touch. I don’t think a machine will be able to do what my workers, trained for more than 20 years, can do,” says Dilip Thakkar.
His sons still don’t match his creativity. “The design for the chocolate box (a dull gold paper box, with a stone-encrusted brocade ribbon tied on one side) was his idea, we couldn’t have done better,” says Manoj. This year, the price range begins at Rs150 and goes up to Rs3,600, depending on the size of the dry fruits and the quality of packaging—silver bowls and carved metal boxes with satin insides cost about Rs500 more than the customary paper or glass containers.
A few yards away from the store, at Flora Fountain, is the manufacturing unit of American Dry Fruits—a medium-sized space with machines meant for drying, sifting and grading the products imported mostly from Iran (in recent years, they have started getting almonds from the US). When a batch of fresh imports arrives, it is fed into gigantic old machines, where it is dried and then manually sifted according to size and texture, before it finally goes into the packaging stage at the store’s office-cum-godown.
Twenty years ago, it was a challenge for Dilip Thakkar to build a customer base for dry fruits. “Only the very rich used to buy dry fruits in those days. Sometimes, I used to wonder why my father would give up a business in spices and want to sell dry fruits. As you can see, he had more foresight than I ever had,” says the owner.
By next year, the young Thakkars hope to branch out to the suburbs (perhaps to Juhu, they say) to tap into the gifts market of the film world.