Thirteen years ago, when my family and I landed in the True North, that first Diwali, a few of us piled on to our cars and drove some 35 kilometres to Gerrard Street. It was a tired and dated boulevard some of you know as “Little India.” The experience lacked the characteristic boisterousness of celebrations back home.
Today, it’s a completely different landscape in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). There are dozens of ethnic stores, smack dab in our neighbourhoods offering stunning diyas (earthen lamps), fireworks and mouth-watering mithai (sweets). You can fill all of the delicious confectionery in designer gift boxes embellished, with colourful stones and beads.
In the next few days, some of us will likely make a trip to Brar’s, an iconic restaurant/sweet shop to pick-up their signature milk cake, both regular and the chocolate infused version, motichoor ladoos and other assorted barfis.
Dial Pabla, 65, founder of Brar’s Food Cultures of India, eldest of seven children, landed in Canada in 1979 and set about translating his dream into a multimillion business. Today, that business spans across five countries. This is his story.
Competing restaurateurs have tried sneaking their chefs into Brar’s in an effort to decode the recipes, but these folks have met with little success.
That’s because the special ingredients, the proportion and processes are all a well-guarded secret, and kept under lock and key.
Dial, who tweaked the original recipes with his ingenuity, can afford to be smug because the recipes are a result of years of innovation and creativity. They cannot be replicated with a mere taste test. God knows, many have attempted.
“Our mithai is revolutionary because other people cannot knock-off our mithai,” Dennis Pabla, Dial’s son said. “My dad has used secret ingredients and has special formula.”
Pabla built his empire based on his love for food. This year, the company has produced/made some 175,000 pounds of sweets and other products for Diwali.
The sprawling enterprise now includes chain of restaurants in the GTA, a manufacturing and distribution plant, and dozens of products that grace the shelves of supermarkets —both ethnic and mainstream —in Australia, U.S., Canada, Dubai and Singapore. The brand has become synonymous with quality.
Brar’s bustling restaurants lend a special pizzazz to the Festival of Lights. The jostling crowd, the huge tent pitched outside with rows and rows of colourful barfis, ladoos, kaju katris and salty snacks transport you to a different world.
There’s a shared feeling of camaraderie with other shoppers because every Indian here wants to recreate familiar rituals of Diwali they experienced themselves.
Dial’s enterprising venture started when he purchased a small store in Gerrard Street, some four decades ago. Few years later, he moved into a nondescript unit at a strip mall in Rexdale.
“One key thing my dad always believed in was: in order to experience real success in life, one must continue to work well beyond the eight-hour shift,” Dennis said. “My dad liked to read about Arnold Schwarzenegger and would often quote him. His favourite quote was ‘if you want to be a winner then you have to make sure you begin after everybody gives up’… “
Dial’s oft repeated words of motivation have stuck with his sons. Dennis, in turn, sprinkles our chat with liberal doses of his dad’s wisdom, one of which is: “if you rest, you’ll rust…”
Dial got into the restaurant business in the ‘80s when Canada had strict controls over imports, so the untrained chef – with an instinctive palate and visionary business acumen- improvised with products available in Canada.
A few years after setting up shop, Dial purchased two stores to launch a full-fledged restaurant. His spirit of entrepreneurship and his cooking abilities took off. Soon, he expanded into other cities.
Dial is a vegetarian and even though the market was ripe for a non-vegetarian buffet, he remained adamant about not giving in. Some years ago, he succumbed and launched a non-vegetarian place, but gave it up and instead focused on turning Brar’s into Canada’s premier vegetarian eatery. Not content to offer an extensive buffet and a sweet shop, five years ago Dial invested in state-of-the-art machinery and the company started manufacturing packaged food such as Ras malai and paneer.
“From the initial three products, we now have 40 products in stores,” Dennis said. “In the beginning, we used to count the number of grocery stores our products were in, now we count the countries…”
And while Brar’s continues on its upward trajectory building a loyal base of customers, Diwali will be that much sweeter, thanks to Dial’s recipes.
Here’s wishing you all a very Happy Diwali. Much like Dial, let’s all find and pursue our passion, and have fun making the magic happen.