It’s 11am on a Monday morning and the scent of freshly baked breads, cookies, and cakes welcomes you to one of the oldest bakeries in Delhi. Established in 1962 by late Jagdish Mitra Dhingra, Defence Bakery is located in the heart of the Defence Colony market in south Delhi.
The bakery, which has three outlets in the city — Defence Colony, GK M-Block Market and Connaught Place — is now run by the third generation owners, Gaurav (40) and Tushar Dhingra (38). “My grandfather used to run a biscuit factory in Multan (present day Pakistan). Called the National Biscuit Factory, and formed around the year 1937, it served as the official caterer to the British Indian Army and supplied cookies and biscuits to soldiers during World War II. Though the factory was doing well, he had to flee Pakistan during the Partition. He chartered a private jet to Mumbai where he set up a candy shop in 1948. When the candy shop didn’t get a good response, he shifted to Delhi and started Defence Bakery,” says Tushar.
Baking comes quite naturally to the Dhingra family. After Jagdish, his son, the late Dilip Kumar, who was a chef himself, took over the business in the 1980s. “Everyone in the colony knew my father and grandfather at a personal level — they treated their clients like family. They used to work for 12-14 hours a day, the whole year. I remember my father challenging the customers, ‘you name it, we bake it’,” says Tushar.
The bakery’s cookies have always been popular with the customers, and, when it first introduced whole wheat bread in the early ’90s, the response was phenomenal. Queues would form outside the bakery at 1:30 pm every day for fresh whole wheat bread.
“A lot of the recipes were formulated by my father or my grandfather. We don’t touch those recipes and use them as they are,” says Tushar, as he lists out some of their bestsellers since the past four decades: honey cookies, wine cookies, plain vanilla cakes and chocolate truffle cakes.
Past patrons of the bakery include some illustrious names such as actors Nutan and Hema Malini, though, due to the presence of five other bakeries within the Defence Colony neighbourhood, there is always tough competition. And, even though the clientele has remained fairly loyal, the sealing drive has affected business a lot — walk-in customers have reduced and business has gone down a notch.
A bump in business hasn’t deterred the bakery from sticking to quality standards. In May 2016, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) conducted a survey in which they collected breads from different bakers all over Delhi in search of potassium bromate — an additive present in bread improvers, that can cause cancer. Defence Bakery stood out in that survey — none of its four products tested contained the chemical. “A lot of people use bread improvers containing potassium bromate without realising how harmful it can be. We acknowledged that years ago and willingly shifted to non-bromate products,” says Tushar.
The brothers now plan to set up at least 10 more outlets in Delhi NCR over the next few months. Plans are also on to expand the Defence Colony branch into Defence Bakery and Cafe.