Say cheese! Meet the man who turned Kodai Cheese into an iconic brand

What began with Rs 5,000 on a bank loan has now grown into a Rs 7 crore small-scale industry.
Say cheese! Meet the man who turned Kodai Cheese into an iconic brand
Say cheese! Meet the man who turned Kodai Cheese into an iconic brand
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Sitting in his heritage-styled office at the Kodai Dairy Products farm in Uchapatti Village in old Batlagundu, GS Mani recollects how his family took over a shuttered unit in Kodaikanal in 1973 and turned Kodai Cheese into an iconic brand.

“Back then, the cheese business in the country was in a state of absolute infancy. Except for Amul, which was producing processed cheese, there was no one else,” says 66-year-old Mani, who studied in Chennai before joining his father, GK Sankar, in the business in 1975.

“Looking back now, I’m proud to say we were a part of the growth plan of the country. After Gujarat, Tamil Nadu was extremely supportive of dairy development,” he continues, recounting the time that was the 70s.

What began with Rs 5,000 on a bank loan has now grown into a Rs 7 crore small-scale industry. The factory is currently situated in the family’s own organic farm which is spread over 16 acres and drip irrigated, with the waste used to create compost inhouse.

“Yet, the country didn’t develop a cheese culture until, possibly, the turn of this century, although cheese possesses all the goodness of milk. Did you know it takes 10 litres of milk to make a kilo of cheese?” says Mani, whose company makes only natural cheese.

Like the brand name suggests, the factory was originally in Kodaikanal, some 60km up in the Western Ghats from the current venue, before moving to the plains in early 2000. “The shift below was due to a variety of factors, ranging from limited milk supply, effluent conversion. Moreover, we were operating out of a rented facility,” says Mani, who handed over the day-to-day operations of the company to his son, Hari, some five years ago.

The factory employs close to 25 workers, with the milk, averaging 4,000 litres a day, sourced from a variety of suppliers from areas surrounding Batlagundu, while the farm itself is home to a dozen cows and goats.

“Infrastructure and knowledge of cheese in India was only for Cheddar back in those days,” narrates Mani, who went to Holland in 1978 to learn to make Gouda cheese, a visit which he says was possible courtesy his father’s connections.

“Cheese making is both an art and a science. Every cheese has its own methodology, right from the starter culture to the renetting time, the process of cooking to the hooping and to salting that helps pronounce the flavour of the cheese,” says Mani, who is also an avid golfer and the force behind the KHMS community hospital in Kodaikanal.

"I got exposed to a wide variety of cheese on my two visits to Switzerland in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It’s a culture there, cheese eating. After returning, I introduced Gruyère and soft cheese varieties,” says Mani, who around the time also had a stint learning at the National Dairy in Karnal (Haryana) and subsequently introduced Mozzarella as another of the company’s growing number of varieties.

Through the 80s and 90s Kodai Cheese became synonymous with the town also because of the positive impact it had in lifting the economic standards of the farmers in and around Kodaikanal.

“Mani’s small scale industry must have easily helped close to a thousand farmers in procuring cows by helping provide them with a bank guarantee. It was part of his supply chain, but the initiative helped better the lives of so many families,” says Prasanna Ghose, a Kodaikanal resident for over five decades.

Mani speaks longingly of Kodaikanal of yore. “The milk was of good quality, the weather was terrific and we were helping the farming community. There was also the joy of being a one-of-a-kind entrepreneur and we were handling around 1000 litres of milk a day.

“Our market in the early days were Kodaikanal, Chennai, Bangalore and Mumbai and being a small business and primarily a one-man operation, I was hands-on starting with procurement, to distribution, to sale, to PR.

“I have myself shared the driving of a 10-ton truck on several occasions to Mumbai en route Bangalore to drop off cheese when the driver said he was feeling sleepy. Those were fun days, too!

“Then the real estate boom happened, starting with the mid-90s, that saw a lot of farmers liquidate their farm holdings and that in many ways destroyed Kodaikanal,” he recalls.

The shift to the plains coincided with increased demand for Kodai Cheese with the primary focus being in institutional sales. “We supplied to Parle, Domino’s, McRennett, Hot Breads among other hotels and fast food chains,” says Mani. “We had our retail sales too, through various Supermarket chains.”

After his son Hari, who studied cheesemaking in Australia, took over, the focus has shifted to retail across the country, especially boutique cheese.  The company currently manufactures 42 varieties ranging from Ricotta, Bocconcini, Cambrie, Blue cheese.

In their retail outlet in Kodaikanal, Cheddar is priced at Rs 500 a kg with the most expensive being Grana at Rs. 5,000 a kg. Panneer is Rs 350 a kg. “Hari has taken it to the next level. Boutique cheese and other specialised varieties,” says Mani, with a sense of pride.

There are large corporates in the diary market and there are also the growing ones like Caroselle Cheese which is situated in the Palani Hills. Mani says his company’s unique selling point is in educating the customers on cheese and the varieties they have introduced and developed over the years.

“I still have the 300-litre cheese vat that we first used back then… for posterity, a reminder for generations to come on how it all began,” he concludes.

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