25 Nov 2017
4 min read
Punctually at 9 am, Damodar Shrestha reaches his potato chips shop. He rolls up the shop's shutters up with all his might, props them up with a stick (which he jams into a hole in the wall), steps inside the shop and unseals 15-some plastic bags, each filled to the brim with variously flavoured chips. He then positions himself behind the counter, ready to sell his unique product. It's a ritual that he's performed every day for the last ten years, and on most of those days, Shrestha almost always sells out his stock for the day.
It doesn't take long for a customer to drop in, usually a girl on her way to school, or a mother who is out grocery shopping and wants to take some chips home for the family. The shop, called Pimbahal Fresh Potato Chips Corner, is located in the junction near Pimbahal Panipokhari--a popular tourist spot--and this location, for many reasons, is ideal for a shop like Shrestha's. A surging crowd is always moving up and down this junction from sun up to sun down, and Shrestha's shop, with its bright yellow flexes that feature blown-up photos of the variety of chips and bhujia available at the store, is almost impossible to miss. A diverse range of trades can be seen being practised in this busy junction: there's a panipuri stand, a tailoring store, a mobile repair shop, a khaaja ghar, and a vegetable shop, all of which attract customers of their own; but more often than not, these customers end up in Shrestha's store too to indulge in some lip-smacking potato chips and bhujia.
But besides these customers who drop in, Shrestha's business is driven by his loyal customer base, who cannot do without Shrestha's singular brand of freshly made, constantly evolving potato chips and bhujia, both of which come in a rather extensive variety of flavours spanning the entire spectrum from plain salted to pineapple. The 56-year-old shopkeeper's chips have today achieved a status similar to that of Sanga's pau, in that when someone goes to Sanga, they're almost always told to bring back some of Sanga's signature pau; similarly, quite a lot of people who visit Patan make it a point to come back with a packet of chips from Shrestha's shop.
What's in a chip?
Shrestha currently sells around 15 different flavours of chips--pineapple, cheese, onion and pudina, to name a few--all of them conceived by Shrestha himself. Every so often, to develop a new variety, Shrestha will experiment with unflavoured chips by flavouring them with various masalas and powders until he comes up with a chip-type that appeals to him. His taste test is simple: "If something appeals to my tastebuds, it must appeal to others too," he says. After he comes up with a particularly inventive flavour, he prepares a batch of chips and pilot-tests them on his regular customers. "I hand out free samples to my customers, and ask for feedback. If a considerable number of people give me positive feedback on a particular chip, I make it a part of the menu." In this way, over the last 10 years, Shrestha has conceived more than 50 varieties of chips; not all of them have made it to his menu, though. But the ones that have, all sell like hot cakes.
One of the more popular varieties is the chilli chips, which are available in five flavours: hard chilli, light chilli, spicy chilli, tomato chilli and mix chilli. This strategy of producing so many flavours contrasts starkly with how chips-manufacturing giants do things; most chips manufacturers usually do not offer more than one spicy variety in their chips lineup. But no matter which flavour--or sub-flavour--you pick, every Pimbahal potato chip is audibly crisp and tastes fresh. These chips aren't as finely processed as Lay's and Pringles, but that's hardly an issue for Shrestha's customers. You can see many air pockets on the surface of the chips, and you occasionally get the over-fried chip, and there's hardly any consistency when it comes to shape. But these irregularities, for Shrestha's customers, are what provide character
to his chips.
The potatoes for his chips are sourced from Panchkhal and Sankhu (sometimes even from Bhutan and India), and he works with whichever type of potato--sometimes red potatoes, other times white--is in season. The potatoes are first thoroughly cleaned and peeled, after which they're sliced by a machine. The slices are then lightly flavoured with salt and left in the sun for around an hour to dry. They are then placed in a food dehydrator, where they're also mixed with masalas and seasonings. The slices are finally removed from the dehydrator and fried in a mix of soybean oil and coconut oil. And they're ready to be showcased in the shop.
Shrestha studied business (marketing) in college and says he still employs in his business some of the strategies he picked up from his books. For one, Shrestha never retails his chips to other smaller stores and never sells wholesale either. "If I retail, the price of my chips is definitely going to increase, as the middleman will obviously sell at a margin. I don't want my chips to be sold at prices that are higher than they should be. I don't think anyone is offering such a wide range of chips and bhujia, and that, I think, is my chief selling point. If I start retailing, I will lose that edge."
"In college, I also learned about customer types, and that each type has to be handled in a different way," says Shrestha about his salesmanship. "I can't treat a five-year-old like I would a grown man. Over the years, I have been able to figure out how to communicate with my customers so that I can home in on the flavour that they're looking for." The way Shrestha conducts himself is very professional indeed. If a buyer is confused about what type of chips to buy from among the sea of chips on offer, Shrestha will often allow them to sample a little bit of everything. And if they're confused even after that, he'll offer to make a special package that includes a little bit of all the chips varieties they liked. And if he's in an especially good mood, he'll even sprinkle some bhujia on top. It's the way that he treats his customers that explains why, among other things, Shrestha has been able to stay relevant in a market saturated with mass-produced chips; giants like Lay's and Pringles can never provide their customers with the sort of experience that Shrestha's shop can. And that probably also explains why people visit Shrestha's shop from places as far afield as Bhaktapur. Shrestha sees anywhere from 60 to 100 customers a day.
For people who know of Shrestha's chips, they also know that it makes for very good koseli. "Some of my customers live abroad, and they always make it a point to come to my shop when they're in Nepal. They even ask me to seal-pack some for their friends and family living abroad,î he says. With an ever-expanding customer base like his, most shopkeepers would think of expanding, mass-producing, branding and marketing, but Shrestha doesn't want any of that. "I sometimes sell in bulk to catering services and to people who are going for picnics, but I don't want anything beyond that," says Shrestha. "I am happy with what I currently have."
Earlier in his life, Shrestha was an accountant for hotels such as Hotel Annapurna, but he wasn't happy with what he was doing. He wanted to strike out on his own, and build his own business around a unique product. He believed that as long as he kept experimenting with unique flavours, all he had to do was showcase them in his charming little shop and let the chips fall where they may.