The 156-year-old store bears witness to all the events that shaped the present socio-political backdrop of the Indian subcontinent
Back in the 19th century, there was no use of technology so traders maintained halkhata - a traditional handwritten accounting system to record profits and losses.
The markets were not big, but businessmen were always on the lookout for an expansion. One such opportunist businessman was Alauddin Halwai, a successful sweetmaker and trader from Lucknow, India.
There is no clear information about when and how sweetmeat business began in the British India (present-day Lucknow). But this shop has a lot to do with the Bengal region, which later became East Pakistan and then took birth as Bangladesh.
This is the story of Alauddin Sweetmeat - a name and taste almost all of us are acquainted with.
During the 1860s, after establishing a successful sweet shop in the Lucknow state of India, Alauddin Halwai decided to expand his business. He started exploring Islamic regions and chose Bengal as his business hub.
Four years later, a shop was opened in Chawkbazar, Dhaka.
"Chawkbazar has been the home of Alauddin Sweets for more than 150 years. This is the area where my great-grandfather-in-law opened the first branch after the one in Lucknow," said Maruf Ahmed, the proprietor of Alauddin Sweets and a fourth-generation family member of Alauddin Halwai.
"Since 1864, Alauddin Halwai has been operating in Dhaka. The early items were 'roshogolla', 'golap jam' and 'shondesh'," Maruf said.
Witness of the history
Maruf revealed the secrets of their success are -- consistently good quality products and affordable prices -- both of which had made Alauddin immediately popular among the customers.
However, the store in Lucknow never closed down and is still in operation. "The original store in Lucknow is owned by the family members of Alauddin Halwai," Maruf said, adding that there is another store by the name of Alauddin Sweetmeat in Kolkata, which is not owned by the descendants but rather by a group of workers who were once employed at the Lucknow store.
Alauddin was a very bright businessman and he knew exactly what he wanted to do. With two stores operating more than 1,000km away from each other, Alauddin was becoming more popular every day.
His business started to expand in the Bengal region because people loved sweets! In 1894, the name was changed to "Alauddin Sweetmeat" to integrate it more into the Bengali culture.
But the story does not end here. Rather, it begins.
The 156-year-old store bears witness to all the events that shaped the present socio-political backdrop of the Indian subcontinent.
"Alauddin Halwai passed away during the British rule and the business was succeeded by his son. The sweet shop has seen the peaceful protests of Mahatma Gandhi, which pushed back the British and also the riots of 1947 that broke the Indian subcontinent and gave birth to East and West Pakistan," Maruf told the correspondent.
The first borders between Dhaka and Lucknow were placed after the India-Pakistan division, but that did not hamper the business.
"The Chawkbazar shop is also a witness to the Language Movement of 1952, the Mass Upsurge of 1969 and the Liberation War of 1971," said Maruf. He added that many prominent political leaders and student activists would regularly visit the shop for breakfast or snacks during those days.
Overcoming the stormy days
But it was not always sunshines and smiles for Alauddin Sweetmeat. It has had its share of devastating storms, too.
In 1971, the shops were ransacked and set on fire. But, Alauddin Sweets managed to bounce back from that disaster. After liberation, Alauddin Sweets transcended the boundaries of a for-profit business and undertook major projects to help rebuild the war-ravaged country.
Presently, the company runs two orphanages and madrasas in Savar and Gazipur, the latter housing over 300 orphans. These schools and mosques are still run as part of the company's sense of social responsibility.
Twelve years later, in 1983, a limited company was formed to take the brand to the next level. It went international and opened branches in London and New York, which are still operating today.
During those days, Alauddin Sweets also introduced Laccha Shemai - an essential dessert item in every Bangali household during Eid. The company also started exporting it to Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Singapore and India, among other countries.
But the business slumped in 1999 after the company's chairman and managing director stepped down. After struggling for almost 11 years, in 2010, Alauddin Sweets began to flourish after Maruf Ahmed held the reins.
Since 2010, Maruf Ahmed has been looking after the Chawkbazar branch. During the conversation, he talked a lot about the business and the present-day situation.
The lull caused by the pandemic
"The pandemic has hit us hard," Maruf said.
"During Ramadan, we used to receive a steady flow of catering orders to iftar parties, starting from private events to prestigious government orders. But this year, the pandemic has left us with no orders," he said.
However, Maruf said that even after the financial backlash, they have retained most of their staff. "We have had days when we did not sell anything, but we still did not fire any of our staff," he said.
The 80-year-old Karim has been working with Alauddin Sweetmeat for the last 60 years. He said that he moved to the city from Barishal when he was only 20-years-old and took up a job at the Chawkbazar shop.
"I could never leave it," he said with a smile.
Torch Bearer of the good old days
This shop still has the lingering smell of the old days. Upon entering the small shop, you will see a counter on the right, which still operates manually. On the left is a big display of different sweets of unique names and colours. At the farthest end stands a table and four chairs for the customers who can sit and eat inside the shop.
Unlike many other well-decorated sweet shops which are operating now, Alauddin Sweets have kept their décor low-key. When asked about how Alauddin is dealing with their competitors, Maruf said, "We are consistent in delivering high quality products and that is both our mission and vision."
The menu comprises diversified items, including toast biscuits and chanachur alongside sweets. Currently, Alauddin is exporting laccha shemai, toast biscuits, chanachur and ghee.
"We have seven outlets all over Dhaka and we ensure that you will get the same quality in every shop," Maruf said.
To guarantee this, workers work in rotation. This way, the workers can compare notes on production processes in case inconsistencies in practices are found and can be easily fixed.
"We maintain the highest safety and food hygiene and all our staff are trained for it," Maruf said, adding that the items are delivered to the showrooms from the factory in their fleet of vans early every morning.
Currently, Alauddin has extended into producing varieties of barfis, motichur laddus, mawa laddus and even cupcakes. For festivals, Alauddin has introduced gift boxes.
"Our core vision is to provide a wide variety of quality sweets at affordable prices and the best service to the customers," said Maruf. He believes this approach will ensure a sustained flow of customers regardless of the market activities of their competitors.
Alauddin's legacy has established a loyal following and as a result, it enjoys a healthy share of international demand. Alauddin Sweetmeat's expansion plans are centred around updating the existing factories and, if possible, opening up another one.
Alauddin Sweets has started operating on digital platforms including Foodpanda and Pathao but they are yet to take orders through their Facebook page. However, orders can be placed over phone calls.
With the company's operations based in Old Dhaka, Maruf hopes to expand into "new" Dhaka and open up shops abroad. He hopes to automate certain processes in the retail end but governmental assistance is of utmost importance here.