Fiction Short Stories Small businesses

🍨🍝Ice cream or noodles?

A story of two small businesses competing for the same customers. Who wins?

This story originally appeared in my short-story series, Easy But Hard. In this series, I take a look at stories of people that are easily forgotten.

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The re-birth of two business

“Aaiye, sahab,” Abhinav Shukla said to a fat-bellied customer walking towards his stall.

“Sir, Kulfi?” said Manav, the owner of the stall beside his. The customer looked at his two kids.

“Either this or that,” he indicated to his family in firm words. Kids wanted a piece of both – the Chinese Hakka noodles Abhinav Shukla was selling, and also the Maharaja Kulfi Manav was sellingBoth were priced at Rs 80 per plate.

The kids nagged him for both, but the decision was made. He didn’t heed their requests. After a few minutes of intense discussions, some crying by his youngest son, and a lot of cajoling, they all agreed on having the noodles and skipping the Kulfi today. The father promised he would make similar Kulfi at home over the coming weekend.

Abhinav welcomed them with a smile.

Score: Abhinav 1, Manav 0

The game of chasing customers continued. On the busy street full of people, bikes, cows, and happy faces, these stalls attracted some attention. On the east side of the street, there were only two stalls, while on the west side, there were five stalls, selling everything from Chaat and Chinese to Milk Shakes and Ice Cream. The cheerful atmosphere was partly marred by a few tempos gushing out black smog from their exhaust pipes, but people were happy to cover their faces with their hands as the tempos passed. Once the smog cleared, the smiles came back.

Another customer came walking towards the stall, this time from Manav’s side. Manav walked up to the customer and almost dragged him to the stall, even though he didn’t seem very interested in his kulfi.

But the customer loved the taste and bought more kulfis to take homes.

Score: Abhinav 1, Manav 1.

The day continued. Much like they had done in the last six months, Abhinav and Manav had started to enjoy these chasing games. Some customers were generous enough to visit both the stores, but most of the customers preferred to visit only one. When combined, the quantity of food was too much for a single person to eat. You could either have one plate of Noodles or a Maharaja Kulfi, even though they were distinct, non-competing products.

Manav had thought of moving his stall away from here, but every single nook and corner he visited, he realized he would have to compete with someone or the other. With the heavy foot traffic this area saw, it was far better to stay put.

Which meant the daily competition over customers was going to continue for long. Sometimes, both of them walked up to the customers and dragged them to their stalls, resulting in the customer losing their patience and visiting none of the stalls. The experience was frustrating for both of them.

Today was no different. Where usually Abhinav would’ve seen at least 5 customers till now, he had only seen one.

“Ha-ha, having fun?” Manav taunted Abhinav, while looking at his mobile phone. Manav constantly bickered stating how much effort Abhinav had to put into making every single plate of noodles, while he only had to scoop out the Kulfi from the refrigerator and sprinkle a few dry fruits on it.

“Yeah, of course.” Abhinav replied, “Unlike you, I have to work. My customers pay me for fresh stuff. Not for some Kulfi made weeks ago.”

“Wait, my Kulfi is always fresh.”

“Yeah, merely fetching it from the home refrigerator to the stall refrigerator every day doesn’t mean its fresh,” Abhinav started cleaning his wok. “No wonder people never return to your stall,” he looked at Manav.

“Oh yeah. Look at yourself. Mixing Ajinomoto in your noodles, so that the customer cannot sleep the entire night. They have to spend their nights in toilets,” Manav walked towards Abhinav.

“At least my customers come back. They love the taste of the noodles.”

“So do my customers,” Manav raised his voice. “Remember that time…”

“Listen, Manav,” Abhinav stopped him, “I have been working here for 9 years now. Since you came here six months ago, my business has been constantly declining…”

Manav chuckled. “Keep crying, keep crying,” he said. “It’s not because of my business, but because your quality has degraded. Ha-ha.”

“No, I’m not taunting you or pleading this time. I have a proposal for both of us.”

“Yeah, yeah, and what is that? You should fold your business and leave, right?”

Abhinav stayed quiet. Manav walked back to his stall.

“Okay, sorry. What is it?” Manav asked.

“I think we should merge our businesses together. There is a lot of benefit in partnering,” Abhinav looked into Manav’s eyes. He was loud and clear when he said it.

“Wait? I should merge with your third-class business?” Manav continued with his ranting.

“We can create combo plans of Noodles and Kulfi. Instead of letting people choose one stall over the other, we can let them choose either. Revenues shared half-half for both of us.”

“But what benefit does that give to me?” Manav furrowed his eyebrows.

“Better revenue, more customers, everything you would expect.”

“Well, but I can still…”

“Think about it,” Abhinav stopped him, “I don’t need an answer right now. If you agree, then it’s fine. If not, I will stop coming here from tomorrow. I will look for another place.”

The proposal shocked Manav. Abhinav was offering to move out of the place. Considering he had occupied the same location for nine full years, it was hard to digest this. He stood there shocked for the rest of the evening. A few customers came along, but none of them dragged the customers to their stalls. The customers made their decisions. By the end of the night, the score was an equal split –

Score: Abhinav – 10, Manav – 10

Even if Manav didn’t agree to the proposal, Abhinav was walking away. Was there any reason for merging businesses, in that case? Manav’s gut reaction was to let Abhinav leave. However, he very well understood how much Abhinav would struggle with finding another place. There was not a single place in Delhi where Manav could just walk to and continue his business. He would have to restart, build relationships with local stalls, get people to taste his food.

He would have to repeat his journey of nine years.

“Okay, I am in. Let’s merge, but I have a condition,” Manav said Around 11:30 pm at night, as they were getting ready to pack up for the day.

“What is it?” Abhinav smiled. Looking at his calm face, it felt as if he knew Manav’s answer all along.

“No more saying that my Kulfi is stale.”

“Ha-ha. Likewise. No more saying my noodles taste bad.”

Instead of leaving for their homes, they kept talking until the wee hours of the morning. They created combo-pricing options, wherein a customer could get Noodles and Kulfi, where they reduced quantities of both, but kept the price at Rs. 90.

They also decided to learn each other’s food – for Abhinav, it was scooping Kulfi to the right quantities, for Manav it was spinning up the wok. If someone fell sick, the business would still be running.

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