Sometime in 1951, Janardhan Rao came from Mangalore (now Mangaluru) in Karnataka to the picturesque hill town Ooty in Tamil Nadu, where his uncle owned the Modern Lodge. The entrepreneur in Janardhan soon figured out that many cooks who worked for the British in pre-independence India were now jobless. They, however, were skilled in preparing chocolates, cakes, and other confectioneries.
Soon, some of these cooks were working for Janardhan, who opened a 250 sq ft outlet on Ettines Road to sell bread, chocolates, fudges and other food products. “Since Ooty had a strongly British culture, there was a good market for breads and chocolates. My father set up Modern Store (now Moddy’s) on December 15, 1951, offering jams, chocolates, high-end confectionary products like eclairs, Japanese cakes, etc.,” says Janardhan’s son and current owner Muralidhar Rao.
With the scenic town of Ooty being home to many boarding schools and resorts, there was a big customer segment comprising students and tourists. “The market for food products gradually increased and subsequently became our speciality,” says Muralidhar.
Almost 72 years after it was set up, Moddy’s today offers around 600 products including, 200 varieties of chocolates, premium ice creams, 50 types of bread, 80-90 desserts and more.
The most outstanding feature of this enterprise is that all its 70 workers are women, who produce 5,000 kg of chocolates every month.
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From Modern to Moddy’s
Almost two decades after it was set up, Modern Store moved to Commercial Road in 1972 with a 300 sq ft shop and a 200 sq ft bakery. Janardhan’s son Muralidhar began to help his father in business while studying and began making chocolates at 14. “I became involved in the business pretty early on, from 1992-93, because the old cooks who used to work with my father had passed away and only a few people knew the trade and could look after the kitchen and production,” he says.
“My studies and training in the bakery happened simultaneously as I attended school and college,” he adds.
After 1995, Ooty saw a rapid growth in tourism. “People began to recognise our products and wanted to carry them back, even though we were only making about 18 varieties of chocolates and a few varieties of fudges. So, after college, I began to travel and explore the chocolate market, observed chefs, and expanded our range.”
Subsequently, in the 2000s, the idea of making this brand unique floated as the name Modern Stores seemed very generic. Muralidhar, however, could not register the brand as Modern Stores because it was a generic name.
“Since a lot of hostel kids in Ooty hung out here and they fondly referred to it as Moddy’s (short for Modern), we thought why not make it our brand name?” says Muralidhar.
“I should thank all the hostel kids for that,” he says with a smile.
The majority of sales at Moddy’s are through the three stores in Ooty, Coonoor, and Kotagiri while online sales contribute about 10 percent right now. Muralidhar is hoping to grow the food business online in the coming years.
Women empowerment with chocolates
Muralidhar proudly says that it is his team of 70 women who run the chocolate factory. The hill station faces a labour shortage as a large number of tourism-related work opportunities are present there. So Muralidhar found a solution which turned into a lifesaver for many women who are now breadwinners of their families.
He began to train housewives and women in handling operations at the factory.
“About 60 percent of my total workforce is women and the chocolate production unit is completely managed by women, with my wife (Swathi Rao) supervising it. All of them have been with me for about 30 years and have blossomed in my factory,” he says.
Most of them are widows, divorcees, separated, or have ageing husbands. “Women from Nilgiris are really strong and in fact, it was them who trained Rahul Gandhi,” he said referring to the politician’s visit to the factory as part of his Bharat Jodo Yatra.
Asuntha, who is 63 years old, has been working with Moddy’s for 15 years. She says they are all like a family. A native of Ooty and unmarried, it is the work at the chocolate factory that is sustaining her livelihood.
“I joined in 2008. My mother used to work for this family. I have a sister who has two daughters. One of them is working with me,” she says, pointing out that three generations of her family have been associated with Moddy’s.
“This work is more interesting than any other job. There is safety and making a vast variety of chocolates gives us a lot of happiness and satisfaction,” says Asuntha who earns Rs 20,000 a month along with provident fund, transport, and food benefits.
All the workers follow an eight-hour shift including lunch and tea breaks. “I live in a rented house and manage my own medicinal and food expenses. I can take care of myself and not be dependent on anyone. It is such a joy to stand on our own legs,” she adds.
Echoing her, V Rani, who is 50 years old, credits her employment at the chocolate factory which helped her raise four children. Rani’s husband left her when their children were very young. “I have been working here for about 23 years. Though I am from Ooty, I have not gone out much,” she says.
“When I was around 23, my husband abandoned me and my parents were not well off, so I joined construction work when they (Moddy’s) spotted me and asked me to join the factory,” Rani says.
“My mother used to work here for Murali’s sir family. Slowly I began to learn chocolate making and became the sole breadwinner of my family.” Rani now oversees the production and earns Rs 32,000 a month.
The women have two shifts, one from 7.30 am to 4.30 pm and the second from 9.30 am to 6.30 pm. Apart from food and transport facilities, they are provided with four days off a month, for which they get paid extra if they choose to work.
The chocolate factory has been headed by Muralidhar’s wife, Swathi, for the past 14 years. A professional Bharatanatyam dancer, she developed a passion for chocolate making after her marriage. “Murali and I got trained before taking over the factory. We are extremely proud of our women and if you talk to each of them, they have a strong story of their own. These women are very reliable and have been with us for many years,” Swathi says.
Moddy’s: chocolates with a difference
Moddy’s chocolates stand out for two qualities – they are vegetarian and they are couverture chocolates.
Couverture chocolates are pure chocolates that contain cocoa butter instead of vegetable fat which is commonly used to cut costs. Their chocolates contain 45 percent cocoa against an average bar which mostly has 7 to 14 percent.
At Moddy’s, they have been making couverture chocolates from day one, which are known for being very smooth, aromatic, and shiny. “When you break the chocolate, you get a lovely snap, and it never gets stuck to your palette,” he adds.
“We use the same process for making chocolates that are used in Europe,” says Muralidhar.
The chocolatier offers a range of products including nutty clusters, truffles, pralines, bourbons, fudges, and varieties of hot chocolate, along with chocolate bars of different cocoa percentages, sugar-free, white and fruit chocolate.
They also have a range of desserts, brownies, pastries, cakes, mousses, and custards apart from pizzas, breads, and coffees. “We organise a hot chocolate festival every December and all our products are eggless and have vegan and gluten-free options as well. We are pocket-friendly, and have products from Rs 10 to Rs 5,000,” says Muralidhar.
A sustainable enterprise ‘Made in India’
At Moddy’s, the chocolates are entirely made in India.
For the last seven decades, the Raos have been procuring cocoa beans from small cocoa growers and cooperatives in Mangalore.
Muralidhar is all praise for Indian cocoa and its unique flavours. “The flavour of cocoa bean varies from place to place. If I take a cocoa bean from Kerala or Mangalore (Karnataka), I get a berry and cinnamon note. One from Andhra or Pollachi has a tobacco note, even though tobacco is not grown on that soil. It is just natural and the aroma differs.”
The cocoa beans are collected, roasted, ground and stored for use. About 5 tonnes (5,000 kg) of chocolates are made a month. Apart from rare and exotic fruits, everything is sourced from India, with cashews from Mangalore, and dairy products from Tamil Nadu.
Moddy’s Chocolate is well aware of Ooty’s fragile ecosystem and the flora and fauna. As a sustainable business, they decompose their wet waste and use it as compost in the gardens and use recyclable materials as much as possible.
“In the next six to 12 months, we are looking to make Moddy’s a zero-waste enterprise. For now, we don’t use packaging in Ooty much. In the case of master packaging, plastic of more than 120 microns (as advised by the government) is used,” he says.
“At the store level, we use recyclable plates and wooden spoons and pack chocolates with aluminium and butter paper covers. For major bulk packaging, we use cardboard boxes and minimum plastic and aluminium foil,” Muralidhar points out.
The owners at Moddy’s are looking to offer a complete chocolate experience to children, drawing inspiration from Willy Wonka’s factory visit. In addition to this, they are also planning to take Moddy’s footprint pan India in the next five to ten years.
Muralidhar shares his dream project: “We are looking at a project where will be bringing the exclusive taste from a cocoa bean farm we source from. It will be purely artisanal where I can trade beans in such a way that you will know the exact soil and farmer’s land where it is coming from. It’s like giving credit where it is due and enhancing the detailing.”
He adds, “I can bring the unique aroma and taste of the local soils while trying to give a better price to the farmers.”
With cocoa beans being an intercrop that can be grown along with coconut, areca nuts, or rubber, Muralidhar says southern India is blessed. It has the Western Ghats, the Godavari belt in Andhra Pradesh, the Mangalore-Chikmangalur stretch, Idukki-Nilambur in Kerala, and Pollachi in Tamil Nadu as cocoa bases.
“We are not a big consumer of chocolate. Chocolates are not the mithai that we prefer. But as a country, we have got fantastic cocoa, which has to be promoted. We are a tropical country and we can grow good cocoa,” he says.
(US Anu is a Madurai-based writer. She specialises in stories around human interest, environment and art and culture.)