At Chetta’s, the grinder’s turning slow but he won’t let it stop

A Cult Figure Among The College-Going Clan, SK Thampan, More Popularly Known As Simply ‘Chetta’, Recalls The Making Of His Iconic Oreo Shake, How His Store Picked Its Spot On Markham Road, And Tells Us How The Going Has Been Tough…

For some it’s brick and mortar while for some others it’s a loan here and a mortgage there. But for SK Thampan, the foundation of his business is the love that his customers have for him. Standing at the entry to his tiny store on Markham Road, the 55-year-old tells us how it is a relationship that he built over several years.

“I came to Bangalore from Kerala almost 40 years ago. I wanted to set up an ice-cream parlour and I had even found a place in Blue Moon Complex on MG Road. In the year 2000, that building had to make way for the Metro and I ended up with this spot on Markham Road. For the first few years, I didn’t have many customers and business was quite slow. I was younger then, and that’s when I realised that building friendships, having conversations and engaging those who come to my shop are important things,” says Thampan.

Soon enough, students of the St Joseph’s College of Commerce became not just his customers, but confidants. Enquiring about their studies, what courses they were a part of and having conversations about simply anything under the sun helped Thampan forge a relationship with them, one that earned him the name ‘Chetta’.

“Many of the students who hail from Kerala started calling me ‘Chetta’, which means big brother in Malayalam. This was many years ago, when my shop was simply called ‘SK’s Juice Center’. But when I realised that everyone referred to my shop as being ‘Chetta’s Juice Center’, I simply had to change it,” Thampan recalls with a smile.

For a city that’s peppered with bakeries and eateries much like the one he owns, SK Chetta’s Juice Center simply had to be different. It was happenstance that led Thampan to concocting the recipe for what’s been his biggest hit.

“I saw an advertisement that had a little child dipping an Oreo biscuit into a glass of milk. I thought to myself that if this was a good enough combination, it could do well as a milkshake. I was skeptical at first, but Rahul Nixon, a student from SJCC convinced me to make a sample. He called his friends over to the store and they tasted it. We made some changes, added a little more of this and a little less of that, and there’s been no turning back.”

Every second order at the store carries with it the word ‘Oreo’. While Thampan calls for the delectable biscuits in bulk, he says these times have seen many of them stay back in their boxes at day’s end.

“In my life I’ve seen a fair share of things, but nothing has ever made me as sad as this pandemic. When I introduced the Oreo shake, a lot of newspapers and news channels showed up to talk about it, and a lot of other bakeries started to make the same thing. I heard they were selling it at four times the cost that I was! Even today, with all that’s happening, I’ve not increased the cost of the Oreo Shake by even a rupee, and I won’t.”

Unaware about how long this could last, Thampan’s initial reaction to the lockdown was one of relief. By his own admission, his work at the store took away precious time with his family; time that he hoped to catch up on.

“When the lockdown was imposed in March, I imagined it could be a few weeks of rest. I’ve spent over twenty years of my life standing at the steps of my shop, and I thought I deserved a little break. I spent time with my wife and my children, but coming back to open my store and have very little business has made things very sour.”

While he understands that the situation is the same for everyone in his position, Thampan says that he wishes for something other than sales that could brighten up his days.

“I know I’m not the only one. Every business like mine is suffering. But what hurts me is the silence. My days are now slower than they’ve ever been and I miss the conversations. Every student to have passed out of St Joseph’s College of Commerce in the last two decades will know about me. Many of them would come back with their families just to have the Oreo shake. If there’s one thing I could wish for, it is for some of them to simply come and meet me right now. I know there are reservations about food and drink, and I understand that. But if you’re ever passing by my store, it would mean a whole lot if you can just stop and say hello.”

Chetta’s SK Juice Center is located on Markham Road, adjacent to the back gate of St Joseph’s College of Commerce.