Imagine it is the 1550s; Mughal Emperor Humayun is sitting in his courtyard with all his nobles and elite present. The King orders his ShahiHalwai (royal sweet maker) to serve SohanHalwa, prepared exclusively for His Highness and the royal guests. Humayun takes a bite of the saffron-and-cardamom-flavored delight and praises – as he always does – the hands that made it.
Humayun’s immense love for the SohanHalwa prepared by the sweet maker originally from Persia can be judged from the fact that he had limited its consumption to the royal court and even restricted the halwai from selling it commercially.
Fast forward to 2016: the public is not restricted anymore from consuming the gooey goodies prepared with clarified butter (ghee) by the third generation of the Mughal era sweet maker, operating under the brand name, S. Abdul Khaliq Sweets. That, however, is hardly helping one of the sub-continent’s’ oldest SohanHalwa merchants to attract customers in Karachi – the only Pakistani city where the business has its presence.
The royal sweet maker opened its first commercial outlet in 1835 in ChandniChowk, New Dehli, making a fortune from its customers who were addicted to the distinguished taste of its famous range of sweets
The business fared well even after it moved to Pakistan. Starting with its flagship store, opened in downtown Saddar, Karachi in 1947, it expanded into a chain of four outlets in the same city. However, with the rising competition from other sweet makers taking a lot of its business over the past decade, the sweet maker has been struggling to survive. In fact, word on the street stipulates that it might eventually become history just like the Mughal emperors – this is happening when the sweets and confectionery businesses have been witnessing a boom in the country’s largest city.
“Karachi’s environment has gotten better over the years and people are more confident in starting their ventures, thus the restaurant industry is rapidly growing,” said Nauman Mirza, Chief Executive Officer of EatOye – Pakistan’s largest food-ordering portal, which had been doing business with S. Abdul Khaliq until 2013.
While the retail sector was witnessing a boom, it got a further boost after security forces in 2013 launched a targeted operation against criminals and terrorists who had held the port city hostage for years. The business environment thereafter improved drastically.
The country’s retail market has grown more than three folds during the last decade. Planet Retail, a global retail-forecasting firm, estimates the size of Pakistan’s retail market at $152 billion, up from $43 billion, a 2006 estimate by Small and Medium Enterprises Development Authority. The growth and expansion of once small-time confectionaries, such as United King, Hobnob, Khalid Sweets, and La Farine, into retail chains indicate the industry has been going through a boom over the past few years.
In contrast, S Abdul Khaliq Sweets has shut down its outlets including the flagship store. The business has reduced to only one store, located at Boat Basin, a food street in the upscale neighborhood of Clifton.
As one walks into the Boat Basin outlet, time seems to have stopped for the famous sweet maker. A closer look at the showcase hardly reveals any sign of innovation – sweets are displayed in a manner indicative of style of sweet makers 50 years ago.
Barring a thin staff presence, a manager and two salespersons, customer activity was rare; a stark contrast to the now-defunct Saddar and Bahadurabad outlets that used to be filled to their capacity with loyal customers until recently.
“Our old customers from Bahadurabad, Saddar and all over Karachi still like our HabshiHalwa and other sweets,” Tariq, the manager said expressing his satisfaction regarding their loyal customer base. “We also try to get their [old customers] orders delivered because it is inconvenient for them to reach Clifton branch.’’
Though optimistic about the magic of their centuries-old recipes that he kept promoting during the conversation, Tariq hardly had any idea about why the owners closed their outlet in Bahadurabad – a lucrative market for retail businesses that have been thriving on the back of high purchasing power of the area’s inhabitants. The Bahadurabad outlet was their most profitable branch, according to market sources, which was located at a stone’s throw from both United King and Khalid Sweets, other sweet makers that have made it big from the very location. Tariq refused to comment on the closure of their outlets saying he was not authorized to speak on the subject.
While our interview requests still await a response from Farrukh Bari, the current owner and maternal grandson of Sheikh Abdul Khaliq, market sources tell us S. Abdul Khaliq’s unique selling point was the quality of its mithai (sweet) and the location of its outlets, which targeted upper socioeconomic class of people. They needed to expand over time, but they didn’t, sources say, adding that the competition took over their market share at the same time.
“They’re now trying to focus on their specialty [sweets], but it’s difficult for them to expand,” an industry expert said forecasting “they may just be able to survive’’. Explaining, the expert said the revenue wasn’t utilized as an investment for expansion and the business was left to operate the way it had been operating since ages. “Technically they should have been as big as United King and the likes, but no one in the family was daring with the money,’’ he said.
The ‘ShahiSohanHalwa merchants seem to be gradually losing their brand loyalty which formed the foundation that helped their ancestors build the legacy.
“Forty years ago, my [late] father used to take me to S. Abdul Khaliq’s shop at Regal Chowk in Saddar. We used to have scrumptious RasMalai and RasGulla,’’ an old customer of the legendary sweet maker and a resident of Bahadurabad, HaroonRasheed said recollecting his childhood memories.
However, Rasheed doesn’t seem to be a fan of the traditional sweet maker anymore. “Last time when I went there six years ago, they had maintained their quality, but I was left disappointed by the service and unfriendly staff. I was given sweet in a heavy box which was unjustified for the price I was paying for the sweet and not for the 250 grams of box,’’ he said explaining why he stopped visiting S. Abdul Khaliq Sweets.
Our research shows the company has made several attempts to grow the business, but none helped. A few years ago, S. Abdul Khaliq tried to franchise the brand in order to expand. However, the effort went in vain when no response was received on their official website, which doesn’t seem to have been updated for years – it still shows outlets that were closed two years ago.
They also opened a branch in Gulistan e Johar a couple of years ago only to close it within a short span of time. Another attempt to market the brand was opted by the halwa makers, on social media, but today the Facebook page – showing last post from November 2015 – demonstrates the failure of the venture to establish relationship with its customers.
The mithai makers also ventured into customized cakes and bakery items to keep abreast with changing market dynamics and consumer habits, but that didn’t work either and they came back to basics.
Industry specialists say that sticking to the original product range is a good move, but the closing of flagship outlets in Saddar and Bahadurabad was an error which should have been avoided. The halwa merchants should not try to ‘reinvent the wheel’, they say.
Whether it is strategic mistakes, rising competition, poor customer service, or the declining interest in traditional sweets, old customers and fans of S. Abdul Khaliq’s rich history seem dismayed over the downfall of the SohanHalwa merchant’s legacy. Some still hope that the ‘royal sweet makers’ will be able to regain their lost name while others like HaroonRasheed are content with the memories of good ‘halwa’ days.