The evolution of Kyani and Co.

The story of how the more innovative and adaptive of Indian businesses took on their famous foreign rivals after economic reforms were introduced

Vidhi Choudhary
Updated9 Feb 2016
Farokh Shokriye has continued the legacy of his family. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint<br />
Farokh Shokriye has continued the legacy of his family. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Mumbai: When burger chain McDonald’s came to town 20 years ago, exciting the city of Mumbai in the first flush of post-liberalization consumer boom, it worried Farokh Shokriye.

As the man who would later take over Mumbai’s oldest Irani cafe, Kyani & Co., Shokriye wasn’t sure if his humble Parsi chicken patties and traditional mawa cakes would withstand the competition from the mighty Big Mac.

They did—and that’s the story of how the more innovative and adaptive of Indian businesses took on their famous foreign rivals after economic reforms were introduced a quarter of a century ago.

Shokriye, who had worked at the beer company London Pilsner for more than a decade, didn’t plan on a life with Kyani and Co., established in 1904 by Iranian (known in India as Parsis) immigrants and operated by his family.

In 2000, Shokriye, then 40 years old, found himself at a crossroads. He could either migrate abroad—like most of his family—or continue his family’s legacy by taking over the Kyani cafe.

“I had plans to migrate abroad to settle down with my family in New Zealand. But somewhere down the line it dawned upon me that that would be very selfish on my part. All my cousins had left for the US; me and a cousin were the only ones left. My father and uncle were in their late 70s and his (father’s) health was also failing.

“The option was to go abroad and forego everything here—forego India, forego the shop, forego the legacy, be a little selfish. Or take over the business and grow. I took a call and thought it would be better if I settled down here in Mumbai and carried on.”

And so it was that Shokriye found himself running the Kyani cafe, a south Mumbai establishment whose high ceilings and period furniture evoke the charm and nostalgia of a bygone era.

“My father, Aflatoon Shokriye, took over the shop in 1959 with his brother-in-law. Since then we have been running the show,” says Shokriye—that’s over half a century.

Iranian immigration to India dates back at least 1,300 years when followers of the Prophet Zarathushtra, known as Zoroastrians, sought refuge in western India (present-day Gujarat and Maharashtra) in order to escape religious persecution. A steady trickle of Zoroastrians and later Iranian Shia Muslims continued into India during the Mughal and then British rule. Today, India is home to the largest Diaspora of Iranian Zoroastrians and Shias outside of Iran.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Irani cafes had sprung up on almost every street corner of Mumbai, Pune and Hyderabad, becoming a symbol of both Iranian cultural integration and distinctiveness.

A hundred years on, ‘Irani’ is just another brand on the streets of Mumbai, the Indian food and beverage market having opened its doors to fast food, fine dining and celebrity chefs with the advent of economic liberalization in 1991.

Kyani had to work hard to stay relevant—from a handful of bakery items, the menu was expanded to reflect more variety. “I remember one Parsi gentleman was working in the Reserve Bank; I was sitting here in the cafe with my dad; he came and told my dad: ‘My dear sir, if you do not grow, in the next 20 years you will be wiped out. You have to grow.’ That went into my mind and I took the initiative,” says Shokriye.

Since 2002, the menu at Kyani has expanded—combinations like chicken/mutton and cheese sandwiches are now available and delectable keema dishes made it to the menu. “We observed that under the old menu, customers used to ask for a certain combination of products—for example, instead of a plain chicken sandwich, they wanted chicken and cheese. But, since it was not on the menu, the waiter would say no and the customer would either leave or settle for the plain sandwich. That’s when the concept of giving more variety came in.”

The changes at Kyani took place amid a virtual revolution in the Indian food and beverages industry in the post-liberalization years. The industry is expected to grow at an average annual pace of 24% to reach 3.8 trillion in sales by 31 March 2017, a report by consulting firm Grant Thornton India and lobby group Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci) said.

Across India, fast food outlets are emerging as a great leveller as rapid urbanization and the influx of migrants from small towns to the metros make for a more-diverse customer base and consumer habits change. Every fast food chain has affordable offerings on its menu to cater to the changing demography. The fast food brand, which once fed consumers belonging almost exclusively to the high-income groups, has seen the profile of its consumers change. The average walk-in consumer is younger.

Fast-food chains such as McDonald’s, Domino’s Pizza, KFC, Subway, Haldiram’s and Bikanervala are projected to have combined sales of 92,000 crore by 2016-17 as they expand into smaller cities.

Shokriye admits he had apprehensions when McDonald’s first entered India about 20 years ago but today he feels the market has space for everyone to grow. “We have sustained because the population has grown, income levels have gone up. The people who come here, they go to a McDonald’s also. If it’s two days a week there, then the other two days they come here.”

Only three Irani cafes survive in Mumbai now and though Shokriye says these cafes no longer have the comfort zone of the 1980s, his passion for Kyani is unbridled. “I would not like to close down till my last breath,” he said.

“Today, a grandfather comes with his grandchild telling me: ‘I used to come here years back and brought my grandchild to see this place’. That is the attachment people have with Kyani.”

This is the 14th part in a series marking the 25th anniversary of India’s liberalization.

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