Chips Ahoy: Mumbai’s Family-Run Wafer Shops
Two days ago, I saw a kadhai big enough to bathe in. Five feet wide and three feet deep, it was used with a large mesh “spoon” that could scoop leaves out of a swimming pool. In this massive bowl, I was told, between 200 to 300 kilos of sliced potatoes are converted into crunchy hot wafers every day. I was at A1 Wafer Co.’s Dadar East outpost, and the staff was walking me through the production process on a starch-slicked kota floor. In the two days I spent looking for Mumbai’s surviving mom-and-pop wafer shops, I had eaten more potato chips than I had in the last year.
Until a couple of decades ago, family-run wafer shops dotted Mumbai—Coronation Wafers, OK Wafers, Gala Wafers, Sun Wafers and Golden Wafers were among the more well-known names that aren’t around today. Now only a handful of these shops remain thanks to the proliferation of bigger brands, Mumbai’s real estate prices, and the younger generations not wanting to be in the labour-intensive chip shop business. Here are three family-run wafer shops still going strong.
“There are many problems in running this kind of shop and plant now,” says 47-year-old Venkatesh Subbiah, owner of Ideal Wafers. “You need a ground floor shed for the bhatti. It gives off a lot of heat, so you can’t construct anything above it.” Fortunately, Subbiah owns the Khotachiwadi plot where his shop stands, and he is under no pressure to redevelop it. The old-world charm of the surroundings also makes Ideal possibly the most romantic wafer store in the city. The easiest way to find it is by asking one of the residents strolling through Khotachiwadi’s cottage-lined lanes for directions. They’re likely to point you in the direction of the coconut tree in the shop’s compound, which was earlier called Baptista Compound after the man who started a potato chip shop on the same spot in 1942. However, Mr. Baptista (Subbiah doesn’t know his first name) soon got a job with the East India Company where the salary was better than the profits from the wafer business, and sold his shop. The establishment was run by about 12 to 15 owners before Venkatesh’s father Muthalagar Subbiah, the shop’s potato supplier, bought it in 1959. At the time, Ideal made only plain wafers and salli, both of which were priced at about 10 paise for 25 grams of each. By 1964, the shop was so successful that Muthalagar Subbiah was able to buy the compound and the four residential buildings around it from his landlady for Rs1 lakh. Today, Ideal sells 75 kinds of fried snacks including kachoris, banana chips in many flavours, and salli in three sizes. However, the plain salted wafers continue to be the bestseller, with daily sales of up to 40 kilos.
Eat this: Salted potato wafers, masala mota salli, salt and pepper banana chips.
A1 WAFER CO.
A1 was started by Gokaldas P Chainani in 1948, after he noticed that wafers had become the fast food of choice in a city that had been introduced to them by the British. Chainani, inspired by the success of Coronation Wafers—the company widely credited with popularising the snack in Mumbai—converted his failing restaurant, on Balaram Street in Grant Road, into a wafer plant. In 1962, he bought another factory in Dadar East, right by the railway station. Both outlets continue to run out of their original locations. Fifty years on, A1 not only sells to retail customers but also supplies to movie theatres, restaurants and cafeterias, including Dadar’s popular Plaza Cinema. While the Dadar store still has the plant attached, the wafers sold in the Grant Road shop are now made in a Reay Road industrial estate.
Eat this: Salted potato wafers, salli chivda, and masala wafers from the Dadar East outlet; wafers in flavours such as garlic, lime ’n’ spicy, cheese, and tomato from the Grant Road shop.
When, at the age of 18, Velji Mansi Gada moved to Mumbai from a village in Kutch in 1973, he worked in his uncle’s textile shop “to understand business”, before opening his own dry fruit store. Inspired by the success of Coronation Wafers, he befriended one of the company’s salesmen and visited their plant. By 1978, he had enlisted the help of two of his brothers and launched his wafer shop, where before they hired labourers, Gada would make wafers by hand from 8pm to 2.30am, pack them until 7.30am, and then sell them from 9am to late afternoon, making deliveries on a bicycle. In 1979, the brothers bought a space in Mahim and set up a factory. “From 1979 to 1985, Welcome was the biggest name in the wafer business,” says Gada’s son Sameer. “We made about 1,200 to 1,500 kilos of wafers in a day.” Sameer says that now, 5,000 kilos of Welcome’s products are sold in several states including Punjab and Gujarat, and that they supply wafers to hotel groups like the Taj, the Oberoi and Renaissance. Welcome has done somewhat better than the other wafer shops because it has adopted some corporate practices, such as branding their wafers and expanding distribution to other states, while continuing to be family run. Sameer Gada has his own personal gauge of a wafer product’s success. “The customer must eat at least 100 grams of a 200 grams packet as soon as he opens it,” he says.
Eat this: Salted potato wafers and yellow banana chips.
WHERE TO BUY
A1 Wafer Co. 51 Naigaon Cross Road, near Dadar Central Railway Station Bridge, Dadar (East). Tel: 2411 2423. Tuesday to Sunday, from 9am to 7pm. Monday closed. Victoria Building, behind Apsara Cinema, Balaram Street, Grant Road. Tel: 2307 7151. Monday to Saturday, from 9am to 8pm. Sunday closed.
Ideal Wafers Shop No.32-D, Khotachiwadi Trail One, Ideal Wafer Compound, Khotachiwadi. Tel: 2381 2569. Monday to Saturday, from 9am to 9pm; Sunday, from 9am to 1pm.
Welcome Wafers Shops No.1/2/3/4, opposite the Railway Station, Mori Road, Mahim. Tel: 6516 2881. Monday to Saturday, from 9.30am to 6.30pm. Sunday closed.Tags: A1 Wafer Co., Ideal Wafers, The Tastemaker, Wafer shops, Welcome Wafers