“We are simple people, we don’t like to talk about sales and financial matters,” Eknath Chavan said. “Even our family and friends know little about our business situation.”

Chavan is tight-lipped about the success of Tina’s, a beverage brand he started 23 years ago in Mumbai with his wife Pramila. Like many family-run businesses, he is loath to open up about sales, profits and turnovers. Instead, he uses personal yardsticks as a measure of the success.

For instance, he knew selling Tina’s Ginger Lemon, their flagship product, had become popular when, at Pramila’s suggestion, he discovered he could take voluntary retirement from his day job at the Mumbai Port Trust. The figures of the beverage brand’s turnover were not as important, Chavan said, as the fact that three generations of his and Pramila’s family can live comfortably off Tina’s. Why worry about sales when bottles of Tina’s Ginger Lemon were available widely, occasionally spotted by the Chavans in Aurangabad, Chennai and Kolkata during their travels across India.

“People who have liked the drink have even called me from the airport asking for bottles on their way to Dubai,” Chavan said, with a smile.

On a warm weekday evening, the Chavans, Eknath and Pramila, were relaxed, beaming as they recounted the birth of Tina’s Ginger Lemon. It was a slow day – much of the day’s business had wound up already. Besides, most of the daily affairs were now handled by their son Chetan, who, respectful of the family omerta, remained taciturn about the business. Tina’s, which had begun in the family’s 215-square-foot apartment in Kalachowki, is now made at a factory in Chinchpokli and an outlet near Portuguese Church in Dadar. And it is a quiet staple of Mumbai.

It is hard not to run into one of Tina’s posters at a certain kind of restaurant in Mumbai. At this restaurant, the food is spicy and oily, served soon after it is ordered. Diners rarely Instagram their food and the price to size ratio of the dishes is inverted: the less you pay, the larger the dish seems to be.

Credit: Aakash Karkare
Credit: Aakash Karkare

The walls at this restaurant are normally packed with framed portraits and documents: one of them certifies the establishment as a “Grade II” joint. Since the establishment has probably been in the family for a while, the shrine behind the cashier’s desk is flanked by a black-and-white photograph of a long-deceased, dearly missed patriarch.

In the midst of this busy decor, walls that are now crowded with advertisements for online food delivery services, you will find the poster for Tina’s Ginger Lemon: “100% Pure and Natural, Special Ayurvedic Health Drink, Tasty, Appetising, Digestive. Also effective on: Cough, digestion, gastric problem.”

The demand for the beverage is highest in Dadar and Fort (where the product was first started). Restaurant managers say that while there is no particular demographic that loves the drink, they sell at least one bottle of the concentrate every day. A bottle makes 20-25 glasses, each of which cost Rs 20-Rs 25. For comparison, a restaurant manager in Matunga said that he sold around 80-100 bottles of Coca-Cola every day.

The taste of Tina’s Ginger Lemon, not the concentrate but the beverage each restaurant serves up, depends on how much the drink’s maker adds to water: too much, and the drink becomes saccharine-sweet, like medicine. With the right proportion, it is the Indian version of ginger beer, bringing to mind childhoods spent reading Enid Blyton’s Famous Five: sweet, spicy, tangy.

Much like the vibe of the restaurants it is sold in, Tina’s Ginger Lemon has come to signify a certain kind of middle-class, old-fashioned aesthetic.

It all began when Pramila Chavan, or Tina, as she is known at home, was experimenting in her personal kitchen in 1993. On a whim, Tina made a soft drink using ginger, lemon and sugar, which became an instant favourite at the Chavan home. Her husband loved it so much, he grew certain that the drink had commercial potential.

The only fly in the ointment was that none of the Chavans had any business experience: Pramila was a homemaker and Eknath had his reliable, steady government job at the Mumbai Port Trust.

In the early 1990s, the Maharashtra government had been pushing a course for entrepreneurial development. There was only one catch: you had to be a student to take it. “I managed to convince the authorities to let us take the course as a special case,” Eknath Chavan said. “Classes were held on Sundays, so my wife and I would take our son along with us. We missed many lectures, guest speakers would often look at us questioningly, wondering what a family with a kid was doing in a class meant for students.”

The next step was market research, but once again, the family did not have the resources to hire a professional company. That was when Eknath Chavan, who has since handled all the marketing for Tina’s, had a brain wave. The transporters, clearing agents and office staff at the Mumbai Port Trust numbered around 10,000-15,000 and he was well-known in the community. Here was a readymade sample group right before him.

Credit: Aakash Karkare
Credit: Aakash Karkare

Making large batches of the concentrate and handing it out for free was not easy on a government salary. Instead, Eknath Chavan asked his friends and colleagues to pay for the cost of making each sample – if they didn’t like it, they could return the bottle and they would get a full refund. As each bottle was given away, he would ask his focus group: “Do you think your money was well spent?” The reply was invariably positive.

Those early customers not only helped the Chavans develop the perfect flavour, but also gave them a series of beneficial suggestions. For instance, this was how Eknath learnt that the drink helped some people with digestion, and that this could be one way to market it. Another customer said that while he enjoyed the flavour, the absence of any colour didn’t look very good when served to guests, so Tina decided to add an orange colour. This colour, the drink’s signature, now has a fan following on the internet.

Punit Pania, a stand-up comedian who ran a community about the beverage on social networking website Orkut, was attracted to the product because unlike other soft drinks, at least it gave one the illusion of having had something healthy. “The radioactive colour was another selling point for me,” he said. If it glowed, it had to work.

In a blog entry, retired Naval officer Vikram Karve described his favourite sundowner drink. On this side of fifty, Karve wrote, Tina’s Ginger Lemon had replaced his other favourite, rum with water:

“It was on a typical hot sultry Mumbai afternoon in Dadar, many years ago, that I had my first taste of Ginger Lemon. The first sip was so refreshing and fortifying that I go hooked to this superbly tasty invigorating drink ever since. Delicious thirst quencher Ginger Lemon Cool Drink was available all over Mumbai, and in my neighbourhood restaurant Vihar, near Churchgate, they blended it in a mixer, so that it looked like an emulsion.”

Once Tina’s Ginger Lemon had a local fan following, the Chavans decided to sell the concentrate commercially. Eknath Chavan realised that getting a manufacturing licence would be difficult, so he began visiting restaurants near his office which already had one. Initially, restaurant managers were hesitant about offering the beverage on their menus.

He remembered their misgivings: “How can ginger be made into a juice? We cannot sell this under beverages, it is a vegetable. What if something goes wrong?” He used his Mumbai Port Trust identity card to assuage their fears, and took 100% responsibility for any losses.

“I told them I will resign, withdraw from my Provident Fund if I have to, but I will return your money,” he said.

For the first decade of the brand, this was more or less the business pattern: Pramila Chavan personally supervised the making and bottling at their house and her husband set off on his bike early morning to take the product to restaurants, while trying to convince others to include it in their menus. Business grew and restaurant managers began telling the Chavans that perhaps it was time to get the requisite licence for Tina’s, before it caught someone’s attention – and it did.

As the quantities of sugar the Chavans bought kept increasing, their supplier grew suspicious.

“He came home and the house was completely jam-packed,” Eknath Chavan recalled. “My wife, my mother and our three women employees were surrounded by ginger, lemon and sugar in the house. The sugar supplier was incredulous, ‘How come no one has complained about you? You are running an industry at home!’ he said.”

It was the supplier who suggested that Chavan set up shop.

Eknath and Pramila Chavan. Credit: Aakash Karkare
Eknath and Pramila Chavan. Credit: Aakash Karkare

Today, bottles of the concentrate are sold in general stores and the brand has acquired a number of distributors. Tina’s no longer sells only Ginger Lemon but also comes in flavours such as kesar (saffron) and chocolate. There are plans to convert the concentrate into powder form for ease of export.

Much has changed in India’s beverage industry, where alongside the headlining aerated drinks, an array of health drinks and cold-pressed juices and smoothies have crowded stores and restaurant refrigerators. Yet, Eknath and Pramila Chavan are comfortable with their place in the market, because they feel there is no other drink like theirs.

“A few years ago, we discovered the full form of TINA from an LK Advani speech,” Chavan said. “Advani said BJP is TINA and TINA means ‘There Is No Alternative’. Obviously, he wasn’t saying it after drinking one of our creations. But since then, we have realised there is genuinely no alternative for our Ginger Lemon.”