It will not be an exaggeration to call Smith Field Bakery a cultural landmark of Chennai. This place has seen world wars and the city’s evolution from its roots. Even after 137 years, the cakes, bread and cookies of the bakery still tingles the taste buds of the residents of Purasawalkam and beyond.
The bakery is believed to have been established in 1885 by Ponnusamy Naicker of Sadarasapattinam near Mahabalipuram after he moved to Purasawalkam.
Venkatesh Shankar, the fourth-generation owner of the bakery, located at Perambur Barracks Road, says no one can beat them in the quality and the standards they have set for themselves and that is the reason why the loyal customers keep coming back to them.
“At the beginning, we had just a few items. Loaves of bread, buns, and a few cookies. We had English Marie and Bourbons as well. As we progressed, the bakery was taken over by my grandfather Sundaram and then it was passed on to my father and his brothers, and now I take care of the facility. My father and his brothers took this place to the next level by increasing the sales and also introducing new products. My father used to tell me that during the war times, there was food scarcity. The authorities used to distribute coupons for bread and the people would buy the bread from our shop by providing those coupons. We need to exchange coupons to the government for buying raw materials,” he says.
Venkatesh says he used to come to the shop once in a while during festive seasons like Christmas to help his father in his early years as they get hundreds of orders during that period.
“All our family members used to work here during that period. We will help our father in cutting the cake, putting that in a cover, etc. Then as time grew, I started to understand the trade and why we are special among others. As old age caught up with my father, he is not able to visit the shop frequently, I am managing it now,” he says.
Though many of the old staff have retired, there are a few who are still part of this century-old shop. One of the workers, who has been here for more than 25 years, says despite many opportunities, he continues to stick to the shop as he is taken good care of by the owners and he shares the work experiences he gained from his seniors to the next generation.
Explaining about the most sought-after item in the bakery, Venkatesh says: “Anybody in the locality will vouch for our loaves of bread, they are the most selling item in our place. No one can beat the quality of the bread that we make. We make about 150 loaves of bread every day. It is just half the size of what we used to sell earlier. Thirty years back, we had a sizable Anglo-Indian population in this locality. They liked our product a lot. But now since, people prefer to eat bread only when they are either sick or in a hurry, we have reduced our production. But 150 loaves of bread on a day is still a large number. people get irritated and angry if we say certain items are not available.”
The bakery in-charge says there are a lot of shortcuts to increase production, but they would not try those. “You can make several loaves of bread in three hours but we take six hours for this process. We work in two shifts – morning and evening – to make 150 loaves of bread. There are certain bread improvers. If you take a look at the loaves of bread that you get in other bakeries, you can see that they will be very dense and they will not have many holes on them, in the sense the air pockets will be controlled as it will be easier for them to spread the toppings like butter and all. But, if you see our pieces of bread, we will have a lot of air pockets and it makes the bread light,” he says.
He added that they will allow the yeast to develop and ferment the dough. This dough fermentation will lower the GI (glycemic index) of the bread; the lower the GI, the better the digestibility, Venkatesh added.
“Our USP is that we do not use chemicals or preservatives for products to have a long shelf life, our products are maximum of a day old and not more than that. We make them in small batches and sell them, we do not stock our products. Even if you see now, we won’t have many products after 11 am,” says Venkatesh, pointing towards a few empty glass jars which were filled with cookies earlier in the day.
And the customers are in sync with him. When we visited the place, some of them had travelled over 20 km to reach this place to get their favourite snack.
“This bakery is very close to my heart. The quality of the loaves of bread, plain cakes, and cream buns can never be matched. I have been visiting this shop for close to 30 years. I was working with the Greater Chennai Corporation here and now I have retired. The habit of getting the snack from here seems during my office days never really left me. I visit this shop every month. During Christmas, I never miss paying a visit here. This place is like our landmark, everyone knows Smith Bakery because most of the people here are regular visitors to this shop,” says Vatsala Dhevi, one of the customers.
Another customer, 39, from the Pattalam area, who had been visiting the shop since he was five, says he is an addict to the butter biscuits and plain cakes that are made here.
When asked whether there had been any changes to ingredients, Venkatesh says a big no. He says except for the place, which was present a few blocks away and now functioning here since 2014, there have not been many changes with their bakery.
“The brand of ingredients might have changed but the type and procedure have not. I have not made any changes to the procedure which we had followed all these years. In sync with the other developments, we have introduced a few products. Now we have a list of whipped cream cakes, a couple of fusion items like Rasamalai cake, we even adapted the global version of Tres Leches milk cake, so these are some of the things that we have tried,” Venkatesh noted.
Commenting on his father’s strict quality check analysis, Venkatesh says his father has been his biggest critic.
“It is usually like your product vs my product. He always refers to our new products as my products and the older ones as his products. If he comes to the shop, every one of us will be on our toes. He will check every product, how it is prepared, how it is sold to the customers… He will be worried even if the size of the biscuits is changed. I have to satisfy him before I sell my products to the customers,” he adds.
Venkatesh also noted that they had ideas of expanding the bakery but since their products’ shelf life is low they are not sure whether they would be able to produce larger quantities.
“We are getting franchise requests, the investors are approaching us to take it big but we are sceptical. Because my family and I want to run this as a family business so that we control the quality. We might not have got huge profits but we have managed to maintain our name. Also, I have to think about the wastage if items made in a larger quantity go unsold. Here, I don’t have that issue. People know this shop, we make limited ones and it gets sold every day.”
“If I am putting up a second unit, I have to create awareness about the shop for them. I have to understand the demography and introduce my shop. At present, I do not have any plans to expand this, maybe after a few years down the line after I get satisfied that I have done enough marketing and got enough time for a second unit, maybe it will happen,” he adds.
Finally, when asked about the significance of the shop name, Venkatesh says he does not know the actual reason behind it. Probably the name might have come up to attract the English-speaking crowd during that period, he says.