For the most part, Pooja Dhingra is a pastry chef. But if you look closely, she is so much more. An entrepreneur who launched the much-loved Le15 Patisserie-chain in her early twenties, a celebrity in her own right, podcaster and youth role model with significant social-media cache, one of Dhingra’s USPs has been her ability to evolve with time.
This became even more apparent when the 35-year-old bounced back from what was a serious blow to her business. In May 2020, after being out of operation due to Covid-19, Dhingra made the difficult decision of shutting down her popular Le15 Café in Colaba, Mumbai. And then, promptly channelled that energy into launching an e-cookbook, while simultaneously working on her ready-to-eat line (more on this later) and opening a new store in Palladium Mall, Mumbai.
“It wasn’t obviously an easy decision but considering the options in front of me at the time, it just didn’t make any sense to hold onto the space. It was a very isolating experience, too, because it was at the start of the lockdown. But once I made up my mind and started sharing the news, I was so overwhelmed by how loved the place was,” she recalls, adding that after the café shut, they decided to launch a café cookbook comprising popular recipes from the eatery, including 45 savoury dishes and five desserts. The idea was to use the cookbook as a revenue generator, at a time when the hospitality industry was at its lowest.
A fresh start
Soon, Dhingra was in the deep with her new line of FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) products, which includes cake pre-mixes, ready-to-drink hot chocolate, cookies and more. Taking Le15 into the FMCG space was always on Dhingra’s mind, who had been developing the products (albeit in the shadows) for more than three years. “I had been working on this for quite some time with an expert product developer. I also visited Paris on a research trip. It is a completely different ballgame – I had to come up with something that was delicious but also stable and preservative-free. I had to rope in food scientists for this. But for a long time, I was waiting for things to be perfect. After the pandemic and the café shutting, I just slipped into survival mode, where I was like, ‘I just have to do whatever I need to, to keep going,” she confides.
Dhingra’s fortitude is emblematic of the courage and tenable spirit embodied by so many of us through this pandemic. The world, as we know it, changed. Serendipitously, though, this worked out for Dhingra, who was launching a line of products at a time when people were cooking a lot more at home. “Running a business is hard enough without throwing a life-threatening disease in the mix. But the thing is that we as a team just came together with the common mission of ensuring that Le15 not only survives but thrives. Even for us, getting the production going on this new line of FMCG products, or coming back to work in the middle of the lockdown was daunting. It was difficult to get supplies; you cannot meet people or even check out packaging. Everything had to be done on the phone, which meant that samples took longer. So, all those things did make the task at hand more challenging,” she tells us.
Baking new dreams
But what has been this entrepreneur-cum-pastry chef’s biggest learning through the pandemic? “Taking things one at a time,” she says. Whether it was opening a new store with limited resources and despite the possibility of low footfalls or reminding herself of the larger picture when picking the packaging for her new products, even if it was good enough for the moment, was all driven by a certain mindset. “At one point, it wasn’t possible for me to foresee what things would be like in two months. Cases were constantly on the rise, so we decided to just get through July. Then Diwali, Christmas and suddenly, I was planning for Valentine’s Day,” she says, adding that she doesn’t know what the future holds, and that’s okay.
But what makes this new chapter in Dhingra’s life, truly interesting, is that she is one of the first movers to make FMCG products within the pastry segment. “When we decided to scale Le15 in 2018, we studied the organized F&B and snacking market in India, which is humongous. That is when I realised that in terms of snacks, such as biscuits, we already had Britannia, Parle and other such offerings. And then, there were imported products (which are expensive). But there was no homegrown brand that was offering premium goods at affordable price points,” she shares, explaining what drove her to foray into this part of the food biz.
That does help explain why the team at Le15 is working round the clock to develop more products and flavours within their packaged offerings, which includes dipkies – crunchy cookies in familiar flavours perfect for your evening chai/coffee – cake mixes, that come in two flavours, hot chocolate, and a mug cake. The plan involves having these products on supermarket shelves and hopefully, even at your local Kirana stores. So, while Dhingra has been known as the macaron queen of India, we are inclined towards bequeathing a new title on her – the Betty Crocker of India!