Durga Menon Tells Us How She’s Cooking Careers Of Underprivileged Women At Her Organic Bakery
- IWB Post
- September 8, 2017
Demand for organic food has grown dramatically over the last few years. With the understanding of how adulterated and chemical induced food items are leading to an increase in the lifestyle health problems and terminal illnesses like cancer, people are now going back to the basics: Organic food derived which is grown organically without the use of any pesticides, chemical fertilizers, etc.
However, a few years back, most people were, in fact, ignorant or unaware of the health benefits of the whole-wheat and organic food. Even if a few people knew about the organic multi-grain or the whole-wheat bread or other items, they were far too accustomed to the mass produced refined flour based items.
It was during this time where most were still inclined towards ‘unorganic,’ refined flour based bakery items that Durga Menon dared to dive into the market of organic and whole-wheat and grains based bakery products.
Leaving behind a successful career of 12 years as a Software Engineer in the U.S., Durga Menon came to Bangalore with her husband with a dream to open her organic bakery and help the less privileged women develop soft skills like baking and cooking so that they can sustain themselves.
It’s been 7 years that Lluvia Bakery was setup and it has not only established a loyal customer base who swears by the taste and health quotient of its products, but Lluvia has also empowered dozens of underprivileged women.
In conversation with IWB, Durga gives us a sneak-peek into her bakery and her personal life.
Did you observe a shift in the food eating patterns in the U.S. from unhealthy and refined flour based to healthier alternatives that led you to conceptualize an organic bakery in India?
OMG, in fact, it was opposite of this! Though people became aware of the organic food, it wasn’t easily available anywhere in the market. Living in the U.S., we were suffering a lot of health issues and then we also got the news that my father-in-law, a farmer in India, passed away after suffering from Multiple Myeloma( known as the farmer’s cancer), we were decided to switch to whole-wheat and only organic products. But, when we returned to India, we thought, people here would be acquainted and more accepting towards the organic breads and other items, but we were shocked to see that they, too, were not very keen on switching to whole-wheat and organic products, as yet.
You started Lluvia with a twin mission to introduce organic bakery line and also help underprivileged women learn soft skills. What was your inspiration behind it?
I specifically remember watching this program on TV with my husband where Muhammad Yunus, 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner, was delivering a speech. He addressed how we need to uplift the lower strata of the society and not by charity but by making them independent, imparting developmental skills in them. I was so inspired by his speech that I bought his book and understood how he built a similar community in Bangladesh.
My husband knew that for me a job in IT was just a backup and I had no heart in it. He saw that I enjoyed baking and he was the one who pushed me to continue it. It was during this time that we both had an idea to help underprivileged women by involving them into our baking venture.
In 2007, I did this French bread baking course in the U.S. as French bread is considered to be the best. But, again everything was just made out of refined flour. I just closely observed the techniques and started experimenting with whole-wheat and grains. It took me a lot of time to come up with perfect recipes. However, after returning to India, I had to scrap all my previous recipes because of the unavailability of many of the raw materials and other things. It took me another six months to research and create a list of items. Though I started working in 2009, Lluvia Bakery was officially launched in the year 2010.
Initially, my friends and relatives helped me by buying from me and spreading the word. I still remember that for my first cake order I didn’t know where to get a cake box. I bought a 1 pound cake, gave the cake to my maid and packed my cake in the box. I never spent a dime on marketing. It was all mouth publicity. At the initial phase itself, I got this huge order from Genesis Colors which comes under Satya Paul after a staff member suggested my name to the head saying that he loved our dark chocolate brownies which are organic and has no cocoa powder. They asked me to deliver high-end hampers to the most influential people in Bangalore.
Being said that, I still think that we have a niche market as many people still do not prefer whole-wheat or multigrain bakery items. The major reason behind this is also its limited availability. We have a hard time convincing big confectioneries and stores to keep our breads as they do not trust that our products will sell.
*laughs*Most of our experiments fail and the good thing about it is that many of them end up becoming a part of our menu. *giggles* There was this one time that one of our staff members mistakenly put cheese into the Foccacia bread. It was a big batch and we couldn’t just throw it away. On our request, the client agreed to take the order and guess what? He loved it so much that he suggested that we make it a regular.
Share with us one recipe of yours that’s inspired by your mother’s hand-cooked food?
*laughs* In the south, most women mix ragi or wheat to the residue of the milk cream that’s left after churning out the ghee from it and put some sugar to make these sweet treats. I wanted this exact flavor for my Ragi cookies and it’s a favorite amongst children and adults alike. At Lluvia bakery, we all try to incorporate the tastes and flavors of the food that we have relished throughout our lives and that’s why all of our products have that personal connection with people and their childhood memories.
Most women who work with me come from very orthodox and underprivileged backgrounds. They have large families and very little earnings, and yet, they are not allowed to have a job. But, at Lluvia, we give them the freedom to work at their own pace and time. We are very flexible and want them to actually grow. Right now, I have 10 women working with me and it’s more like a family. Unfortunately, many women discontinue after a time as they are burdened with their familial responsibilities. But, there was this one woman who came to us for training as she wanted to start her own canteen. We taught her how cook food in a hygienic manner, how to talk to the customers, etc. She hasn’t been able to set up her canteen as yet, but she’s running her business from home and we’ve connected her to a school that provides midday meals for kids. She is earning quite well for the initial phase and we are constantly in touch with her to help her grow further.
But, there was this one woman who came to us for training as she wanted to start her own canteen. We taught her how cook food in a hygienic manner, how to talk to the customers, etc. She hasn’t been able to set up her canteen as yet, but she’s running her business from home and we’ve connected her to a school that provides midday meals for kids. She is earning quite well for the initial phase and we are constantly in touch with her to help her grow further.
Now, with a super surge in demand for the organic food and the big giants coming in with their organic line of products, how are you maintaining your edge?
With the surge in demand, suddenly, everyone is claiming to be organic and it’s very difficult to actually find authentic organic food. Our edge is our authenticity. People have seen us in the market for a long period of time now and they trust our quality and the authenticity. Plus, we have that homemade, home-cooked feel to our bakery items that makes us stand apart.
Most favored items of children: *laughs* Of course, the Chocolate Cake. It’s made out of pure chocolate ganache and whole-wheat. Then there’s this Jalapeno Cheese Bread and these mini pizzas which are freshly cooked and baked from scratch which are hot favorites amongst kids.
Your favorite midnight snack: I love the multigrain bread which is 80% soaked millets and 20% whole-wheat.
Your favorite tea-time companion: Granola Bars
P.S. To know more about Lluvia Bakery, you may visit their website, here.