The Bubble Maker: Saurabh Rathore Talks About London Bubble And More
British or American breakfast food isn’t a big thing in India. We do have a few standalones in every city but other than weekend brunches, people don’t exactly reach out for pancake-waffle-sunny-sideups. And that sucks, because breakfast food should be served 24×7 for Leslie Knopes like me (if you don’t know who that is, you are a lost cause).
So, when dessert waffles became a thing in India, I was part-elated, part-aghast. For starters, waffles are not supposed to be mass-produced like fries. They deserve singular attention and lots of love. That is what makes a waffle crispy and golden from outside (but not crunchy and tooth-cracking – the crust needs to allow the syrup to seep in but also provide enough resistance to prevent sogginess) and pillow-y within. Expecting such precision from an assembly line is asking for the moon. Secondly, when you start a chain, you open your doors to home deliveries. Nothing is more disappointing than a cold, damp, soggy waffle. After The Belgian Waffle Co. chain became a success story, many others mushroomed. Mini pancakes became a thing too. Millennials started lapping up these new dessert options. And, honestly, they weren’t bad at all. Bandra’s famous Bombay Salad Co. opened Bombay Waffle Co. with savoury waffles (bless them) but, unfortunately, couldn’t keep it afloat (damn them). Waffles, evidently, were going to stay as a strong dessert variant in the country.
One day, I decided to scroll a little deeper into Swiggy’s restaurant list — like one does, past-midnight, craving sugar — and came across London Bubble Co. The menu was extensive and I was inquisitive about checking out bubble waffles in India. A Hong Kong staple, bubble waffles are egg waffles, which are turned into wraps with fruit, cream, and other sweet fillings. LBC had Nutella and Ferrero Rocher options with a variety of gelatos. “We make sure that the balance is just right. The portion is planned in such a way that you feel like you have eaten a lot but are not completely satisfied. You want to come back again,” says Saurabh Rathore, the young chap behind this wizardry. We sit down for a brunch chat because I really needed to meet the man behind my latest addiction. By the time I met Rathore, I had eaten my way through the whole menu of LBC.
Rathore is 30-something, outrageously driven and extremely business savvy. A Bombay boy, he moved to the US and Canada after his graduation and tried his hand out at different things before becoming a waffle artist and working at a coffee shop in Vancouver. “I wanted to come back to India and do something similar here. When I came back, I started with one small waffle store in Juhu, and it is now a multi-million dollar operation. I think it was the right time to get into the market because the dessert industry in India has been traditional, but millennials want global options and we want to offer that to them. Also, in India, the challenge was to make it vegetarian. Bubble waffles are egg-based products, but we changed the recipes around and also made it more gourmet. And people loved it.”
Rathore’s right about that. The first LBC outlet opened in 2017. Today, with a record of one waffle being sold every seven minutes, outlets are currently flourishing across Chennai, Kolkata, Indore, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Rajkot and Pune. Through a franchise model, LBC has managed to exponentially grow to 50 outlets in 16 months and is on track to mark its first 100 by the end of this year.
“This company has been fully bootstrapped,” Rathore tells me, when we talk about his company Gobble Me Good, LBC’s parent company. “I started out with Rs 50,000 and in 22 months, we’ve done a turnover of about 18 crores. And we are adding a bunch of brands to the company’s portfolio. We’ve signed an exclusive deal with Oyo as well, where we will be working with Oyo’s townhouses and will be serving London Bubble. We are looking at presence in hotel chains like the Crown Plaza and JW Marriott as well.”
What Rathore’s mammoth task was to own a market packed with competitors who were already established (and had created the market, in the first place), and introduce a new product into it. Not to mention that he was also fighting for visibility in the already-saturated mass-produced dessert market of this country. “We realised that we are competing with the industry of desserts,” Rathore laughs. “There are waffles, pancakes, ice-creams and many other things. The truth is, you can only choose to eat one dessert in a day. So, at the end of the day, what you want is to always have customers come back to you. Also, a lot of people fail to understand that India is a price-sensitive market. Economically, if we are not viable at any point, there’s no way we can win. And that’s what we’re doing. We are maintaining the quality and we are doing the quantum. My outlets would do what The Belgian Waffle Co. and 99 Pancakes can do together. So, we are ensuring that prices are cut down, but the quality remains the same.” And are there markets he’s getting into where his competitors haven’t? “Yes. We are looking at Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, and East Africa. All these markets love desserts. They have a street culture. And, when it comes to India, we are trying to get into Tier 2 and Tier 3 markets.”
But Rathore isn’t stopping with bubble waffles. He opened Wake Cup Coffee And Eatery a few months back. It’s an Indonesian brand, but he’s bought its intellectual property rights for the Indian subcontinent. “With Wake Cup Coffee And Eatery, we are focusing on the third wave coffee culture, which has hit the West, and India is yet to experience it. There are a bunch of coffee chains but there isn’t any education about it. We are a chai nation and we will always be that, but with the focus on millennials, coffee is something that definitely will happen. We would be targeting metros and international markets right now. Also, it’s an Indonesian brand. I don’t expect it to blow up like London Bubble Co. I’m content doing five coffee shops a year.”
Personally, I still see coffee as a dessert alternative, even in metros, I tell Rathore, and he agrees. People care more about frappuccinos and pumpkin spice lattes. I know people who say they “love coffee” but cannot drink it without milk and three satchets of sugar. Wake Cup’s medium roasts are delectably complex, with strong notes of caramel and berries. He asks me how I take my coffee. I tell him black, with ice, no milk or sugar. He approves and orders an espresso for himself. Wake Cup’s bagel sandwiches aren’t bad at all. For the Instagram-friendly, their Silver Spoon and Gold Digger latte options come in shades of mauve and are dusted with edible glitter. I point out that it’s Pride month. We laugh.
“See, I think India goes by aspirational value,” Rathore tells me, as we walk out of Wake Cup. “Even with Starbucks, 75 per cent of their sales actually come from cold beverages and 10 per cent come from food. They introduced food because they realised people need it because they don’t come for just coffee. We are now slowly opening up to coffee experiences and appreciation, and it will take some time to drill that into people’s heads.”