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In the Forefront

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Long recognized as a leading manufacturer and retailer of handmade eggless biscuits, and having built its reputation for taste and quality since the 1920s, the family-run Frontier Biscuits is now leveraging on its brand value to become a national brand with exclusive stores across the country. Rajan Sethi, the fourth generation of the family, and in-charge of business development, talks about the company’s expansion plans with Annie Johnny.

Please trace Frontier Biscuits’ journey from West Pakistan to Sadar Bazaar in Delhi.

The Frontier Biscuit Factory was established in 1921 in West Pakistan by my great grandfather Mangal Sain. After the Partition, the family shifted the business to Delhi’s Sadar Bazar, where they set up a small production unit, from where the biscuits were retailed as well. This unit is now a Frontier Shopping Zone, and we have expanded to two manufacturing units: one at Lawrence Road in Delhi, and the other at Bahadurgarh in Haryana. Both the units are ISO 22000 and HACCP certified. With time, we have re-worked, developed and improved our production processes. We are now using sieving machines for flour, electric diesel ovens for baking and spiral mixers. We have also developed more packaging options, and have more than 100 varieties to offer in different SKUs. Our products have a shelf life of four months, and are very competitively priced between Rs 100 and 350.

What specific changes has the company undergone over the years?

Currently, the fourth generation of the family is running the business. Our aim is to make Frontier’s products more accessible to customers, so we are planning to open more shopping zones in the coming months. This will herald one of the biggest and most important changes for our company. About eight months back we entered markets in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, and have started operating franchise stores in Chandigarh, Jalandhar, Greater Noida and Ghaziabad. We are targeting Rajasthan starting with Jaipur, and then we plan to enter Gujarat with Ahmedabad and Surat. In all these places we will open up exclusive stores.

What is your brand’s USP?

Our products are 100 percent eggless, and have a long shelf life. We also offer the widest range of handmade eggless biscuits under one roof. Also, by being 100 percent vegetarian, we cater to both vegetarians and non-vegetarians. Most other manufacturers offer mixed products. I don’t think you will find anyone else in the market who is retailing only biscuit products, and that too in such an organized manner. We believe that ours is a unique concept as there are no major players following the same business model.

What has helped Frontier Biscuits maintain its growth over the years?

Our products are available only at our exclusive retail stores in Delhi/NCR, Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh. We have around 43 stores (including 11 company-owned), out of which 34 are in Delhi/NCR. We will roll out more stores this year, starting from North India. We are also targeting Mumbai, and then the markets in the South. All our franchise associates share the same vision, and believe in principled growth over time. A franchisee would require an investment of Rs 13-15 lakh, have 400 sq ft space, and the area should be commercially approved. The brand continues to enjoy a strong positioning in the Indian market, despite the presence of big national players in this product category. I believe that we owe our customer loyalty, commitment  to quality standards, consistency, and good taste. Customers today have a lot of biscuit brands to choose from, and they have become more quality and health conscious.

What new marketing strategies have you initiated?

Although our main customers are housewives between the age group of 35 and 40, we are now trying to attract younger consumers between the age of 20 and 25. For this we are doing a lot in terms of our brand positioning and retailing. We are coming up with what we call “express stores.” At these ultra modern stores, customers can move around easily, and browse through our products. The store interiors are bright and colorful, and the sales staff is well-informed and ready to offer assistance. In our old shops, the products were kept in glass jars, and sold loose. We have now made our packaging more colorful with a different theme and design. We have also introduced a mascot which will be placed on every store front.

Since the new stores will be more up market and premium, with a larger area (400 sq ft compared to our earlier 250 sq ft area), they are bound to attract the young crowd. Though we are not entering any new category, we are looking forward to expanding our current product range. We will bring in health based and some international flavored products, and introduce new varieties.

Please elaborate on your plans for product expansion.

The company initially started with 8-10 varieties of biscuits; but today, we manufacture no less than 45 biscuit varieties, and complementary items such as rusks and sliced cakes. We are ready to introduce several new variants. One will be a cookie range which will include double chocochip cookies, honey oatmeal, fruit and nut cookies. We will also introduce a foreign product called biscotti, which are oven baked twice, and come in various flavors, and will be eggless too. These will be made in-house. We have come out with sugar free products as well, which are  targeted at the health conscious consumers.

We have always remained faithful to our basic recipes, and have maintained the quality of our ingredients. However, we keep ourselves abreast of market demands and expectations. For instance, we have removed hydrogenated oil from our ingredients, and are using oil with lower levels of fat content, as health concerns have begun to influence customers’ eating habits. In keeping with this trend in consumption, we have come up with a healthy variant much like the Marie biscuit which is low in sugar, and biscuits made with soya flour, honey oatmeal cookies, cornflakes and whole wheat.

What are the challenges faced by niche players like Frontier Biscuits?

We have faced competition from the very beginning, since there have always been local bakeries selling similar products. But over the years, what we have learned, and tried to maintain, is the consistency and quality of our products, and to offer them at very competitive prices. This has been our strength. While the entry of bigger players in the cookie segment will definitely increase the competition for us, but if taken in a healthy way, it can be a learning experience. Since we are dealing with a niche category (handmade eggless products), and offer the widest range of eggless rusks, toasts, khatais, and dry cakes, it does give us a competitive edge over other players, both organized and unorganized. We have a customer base in Bangalore, Mumbai, and Kolkata, with demand coming even from Australia. But since the biscuits market is largely unorganized, and no authenticated data is available, it is difficult to say what the share of Frontier Biscuits is.

 *This interview was originally published in February 2012 issue of Progressive Grocer.