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Raising an artisanal dough

Lathered with warm butter or marmalade, they draw her to the joys of baking and savouring the sourdough breads and croissants, that her immensely popular Suchali’s Artisan Bakehouse makes for Delhi-NCR’s artisanal bread connoisseurs.

Between fiscal 2020 and 2021, her business has grown three to four-fold giving Jain the ambition to make the Bakehouse products widely accessible to consumers. “The next year is planned in a way that we aggressively capitalize on the opportunity in the market,” she says. This means reaching more upmarket supermarket stores where shoppers can spend between 200 and 350 buying a loaf of sourdough. The breads are currently available at Delhi and Mumbai in more than 15 stores across Le Marche and Nature’s Basket.

Suchali’s Artisan Bakehouse has also opened an experience centre of sorts for breads on Gurugram’s Golf Course Road. “It is like a world of breads,” Jain says. A similar store is in the works in Kolkata.

Yet baking bread was not on the agenda till Jain was 24, as the management graduate from Mumbai’s Narsee Monjee College, worked with the ratings and research firm Crisil.

A 2015 holiday in Europe changed the course of her career. Savouring croissants and trying variety of loaves in Italy and Spain reminded the data analyst of her profound love for breads.

In Europe, Jain realized the vacuum in the artisanal breads market in India, especially that for well-baked sourdough—a bread that has enraptured amateur cooks and bakers the world over.

A few bakeries aside, no one was making croissants and sourdoughs at scale, says Jain. “I realized that croissants were a luxury in India and things like artisan breads never existed,” she adds.

A series of events—including getting married, moving to Delhi, and a desire to leave her corporate job—drove Jain to enroll in several international baking apprenticeships. The idea of setting up a bakery business had already taken root.

In early 2017, Jain spent three months in Florida’s Born and Bread Bakehouse as an apprentice and returned to found her company Suchali’s Artisan Bakehouse in Gurugram with generous support from family and friends.

She dug her hands deep, literally, into fermented yeast, kneading dough and baking batches of sourdough breads, in a small 250 sq. ft, rented kitchen started buzzing as word-of-mouth recommendations spread.

Ever since, the baker has been continuously upgrading her skills and taking various courses and apprenticeships on and off. She underwent an apprenticeship at the Tartine Bakery in San Francisco in 2019 perfecting the art of making a crusty sourdoughs and buttery croissants.

She also completed certificate courses from the San Francisco Baking Institute—learning about bagels, pretzels and deepening her understanding of artisan breads.

Although she never had a clear vision on how to grow the brand, Jain says she was keen to try something that could give her a greater sense of purpose in life. Three years ago, a chance encounter with folks at homegrown coffee chain Blue Tokai led to Jain forging a tie-up for supplying her baked goodies to the coffee chain that was then two stores old.

Today, the Bakehouse works as an exclusive bakery partner for the coffee chain’s over 40 stores in Delhi and Mumbai, apart from other cities the chain is expanding into.

As orders grew, in early 2018, Mitali Singh, a customer of Jain’s breads stepped in to help grow the business and their plans turned more “aggressive”.

Singh, an MBA from Symbiosis International University, with no prior experience in baking, joined Jain as co-founder. She is currently responsible for company’s retail expansion.

What’s propelling growth for Suchali’s is the ongoing shift in consumption habits of Indians. The market has pivoted to healthier meals, driving consumers to try better foods, at least among the more well-travelled and affluent Indian households.

A more fundamental shift, however, was visible during the pandemic.

Recipes and images of sourdoughs along with banana loaves emerged on the social media platforms as people baked their way through the uncertainty cast by the pandemic. Sourdough, in that sense, made a glorious return to social media pages as well as kitchens.

There was significantly higher awareness about sourdough bread post—2020, Jain and Singh recall, although the sourdough has been around for centuries.

According to a 2006 article in NPR, sourdough is the oldest form of leavened bread; its earliest origins can be traced back to ancient Egypt. It is also a more complex bread to bake. According to an article in BBC Good Food—unlike other breads it does not require commercial yeast to rise. The recipe requires the use of a sourdough starter—that is a fermented dough packed with natural, wild yeast and a bacteria called lactobacilli; it can take several weeks for the starter to be ready and reach the right acidity and flavour.

The end result is a crusty top, with an airy, chewy inside, and a distinct sour flavour.

Several culinary experts also point to added health benefits suggesting it is easier on the digestive system and its high-fibre content could aid blood sugar management.

While Singh points to a gradual transition in the breads market in India that is mostly supplied with commercially baked white bread, the last few years have seen consumers educate themselves about the nuances of eating richer breads.

Singh and Jain have seen a rapid surge in orders and moved to building stronger online ordering and delivery capabilities. The food company also shifted to a larger base kitchen in Gurugram.

Today the Bakehouse employs over 90 people. Its breads and croissants are sold in Delhi-NCR, Mumbai, Jaipur, Agra, Kanpur, Jalandhar, Chandigarh through a combination of modern trade stores, online orders as well as presence through Blue Tokai stores. The offerings have expanded, too. Bakehouse now supplies a variety of sourdoughs, cookies, cruffins, apart from bagels, as well as sweet and savoury croissants in flavors such as Blueberry cheesecake.

Sourdough breads, however, account for 60% of orders. The company is also in the market to raise a funds to aid expansion.

As for Jain, she continues experimenting and learning new recipes—drawing inspiration from top bread bakers such as Jennifer Smurr, Jennifer Latham of Tartine bakery, and American pastry chef Antonio Bachour and finding delectable treats while travelling. “Our innovations really depend on our travels and how we go out to learn and apprentice,” she says.

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