Mohammad Salim and Harris were friends who decided to open a juice bar in 1995, which grew into one of Chennai’s most iconic chains.

A Fruit Shop on Greams Road outlet in Pondicherry
Features Food Wednesday, January 20, 2021 - 16:20

It’s hard not to recognise the lemon yellow board with the long stemmed cherry logo in many of Chennai’s popular neighbourhoods. For the city’s residents, this logo is a special reminder of college days, forgotten romantic dates, times spent with friends, family and more. Twenty six years ago, the logo first appeared in front of a 250 square foot space on Greams Road. It was started as a juice bar which also sold fresh fruit. Today, it stands as the first ever outlet of the iconic Fruit Shop on Greams Road — one of the most loved and recognised homegrown chains in Chennai. 

To pinpoint what is alluring about the Fruit Shop is a task. Is it the vibrant decor, the warm staff or the delicious juices? Ask loyal patrons and they would tell you that it is a combination of these things which helped the chain survive for decades in the city, beating intense competition and surviving the cafe culture which took over Chennai in the early 2000s. Today, many hip cafes and juice shops have set up shop in the city. But the Fruit Shop and its juices have attained an iconic status, and are still popular among the city’s juice patrons. 

The original Fruit Shop on Greams Road 

“Back in the '90s, we were one of the first chains to bring in the hangout culture here. Of the many things that worked for us were the names of our products and even our shop,” says Harris Abdulla, who founded the shop with his business partner Mohammad Salim, in 1995. 

Salim and Harris were running a plywood business in Choolai, and often used to discuss founding a more fun venture. Thus, when the opportunity presented itself in the form of an old client who offered them the 250 square foot on Greams Road, Harris and Salim set out to decide the vibe of their new store. And their first task was naming the shop and its products.

“There used to be a store called The Book Shop in Spencer Plaza. I loved how simple yet striking that shop’s name was and decided to name my store Fruit Shop. I added Greams Road as that is the address of our first store,” Harris tells TNM. Initially, the store sold staple juices, soft drinks and fresh fruit. A few weeks later, it added sweet lime and other fresh fruit juices which pulled in more customers. 

Within a couple of years, the store was well received on Greams Road and its menu kept expanding to new branches with unique names and tasty juices much to the delight of its clients. Each of the drinks on the menu today was created by Salim and Harris, who also gave them their quirky names which can be recalled by any Chennaite.

Photo credtis for bottom picture: Guru Vemuri/Twitter 

Among its popular drinks is Jughead Special, a fruit and ice-cream based milkshake, which is an enduring bestseller of the chain. The Jughead Special, Harris adds, is the brainchild of his partner Salim who rushed into the store one day and told his staff to whip up a sample with ice cream and dry fruit. 

“Salim is a huge Archie comics fan and Jughead Jones is the universal lover of food. So he named the drink after him as a tribute,” Harris says. Another of their popular drinks is the Lime Mint Cooler, which is the first drink that the duo created, but has a less exciting story behind its name. “We wanted the drink to be irresistible to someone who has had a long day and wants something refreshing. A cooler sounded perfect and the name stuck,” Harris says.

Those who have grown up drinking Fruit Shop’s juices would have heard tales of how some of their favourite drinks were born in the Greams Road outlet. Harris recalls one story where his friend, Mark, who designed Fruit Shop’s logo and menu, inspired the name of a drink. 

“He was given a new creation —  a combination of orange and other fruits — to taste. And he loved it so much that he ended up only ordering that drink whenever he visited us. That drink was later named Mark’s Favourite,” Harris says. The chain’s staff too have inspired new drinks and their names. 

For instance, when the Fruit Shop’s first ever employee, Roy, goofed up back in his early days, it led to one more iconic drink being created. 

“We had two new drinks on board and a name for one of them.  But Roy incorrectly named and sent out the wrong drink. And the other milkshake ended up being named Roy’s Folly, made with strawberries. Brimstone (Mango with Citrus), Blue Dot Special, Two to Tango (orange), the Carbuncle,  the Pink Panther, Orange Punch etc are the other popular drinks in the shop," says Harris.

Harris adds that Roy has now quit the store and is now an English teacher in the Gulf. “We catch up over calls once in a while and reminisce about our journey. Over the years, we have built lasting relationships with many of our staff,” he says. 

This is probably why the Fruit Shop is known for its warmth and positivity. Even their menu has a touch of home and family to it, as Harris says that their hugely popular caramel custard is made by Salim’s wife and sent out to all outlets every day. 

“We have sandwiches which are made in our unit and dispatched to all outlets,” he says. But the Unique Selling Point or USP of the Fruit Shop, is probably its commitment to freshness with no additives or colours. This means that the juices might look and taste different, depending on the fruit available in the market. 

“Sometimes the pomegranates are lush and red. The colour they give is deeper. Other times they are lighter and our drinks too change colour with it,” Harris adds. With the seasonal fruits too, the shop sticks to certain varieties of fruit and most importantly, all Indian varieties. 

“If it’s mango, we pick Alphonso and stick to that. Same with bananas and oranges. The Kamala oranges available in India are our preferred ones as they are higher on taste and flavour as compared to foreign varieties,” Harris says. The shop also features rare berries sourced from the hills in its seasonal drinks. 

Over the years, even when the city saw several exciting cafes open up, Fruit Shop survived the wave. “We had Qwikys Coffee, Squeeze (an Australian juice company) and many other shops crop up. In between we also had Mocha coffee, and Baristas opening up. We now have Starbucks which has taken over the scene. During all this time, Salim and I used to be asked why we are not buckling up and expanding to other cities and pushing for more business. But we always knew that quality and consistency was key even if sudden growth did not happen. This is how, I believe, we lasted quarter a century,” Harris says. 

Socially responsible initiatives

Over the years, the brand has also been responsible for socially conscious initiatives and promoting causes. One of its popular ad campaigns was against footboard riding in buses — a menace that the police and government authorities have been tackling for years together. 

“Every year, so many lives were being lost due to this footboard riding on buses. Young boys would recklessly climb the buses and ride on these footboards. With no balance, falling off the vehicle and getting run over was a huge risk,” Harris says. This is why the brand came up with ‘Play it safe’, its anti-footboarding ad campaign. 

“'Play it safe' was about travelling safe, avoiding reckless driving and not travelling on footboard. We put up posters across our outlets and even gave ads in the papers. And the most important thing was that we never promoted our juices or the brand. It was just the cause,” says Harris.

Later on, the Fruit Shop also supported Street Football, which was a global initiative to promote the sport and scout talent from the slums of the city. The walls of many Fruit Shop outlets were converted into text ads for this purpose, with plenty of information on street football painted on them. 

Pandemic and business

With the pandemic hitting business, the chain has now cut down its outlets to 11 from 15 in Chennai. However, the brand has a successful store (a franchise) in Dubai and Puducherry and also plans to open up in Coimbatore, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and other cities. Harris and Salim have also brought on board Dr Hafeez Rahman, a long term patron of Fruit shop who is helping steer the brand forward. 

Fruit Shop on Greams Road in Puducherry

“We will try and expand to Hyderabad and other smaller cities. We are in talks to add more franchises to our chain. However, Chennai will always remain our base of operations as this city is what made us who we are,” Harris says.

 

Show us some love! Support our journalism by becoming a TNM Member - Click here.