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How a Drink That’s Older Than Coca Cola is Banking on Nostalgia

Ardeshir’s in Pune is possibly older than Coca Cola but unknown to the rest of the country. So, what next?

Published
Food
4 min read
Ardeshir’s popularity remains – despite the fact that their cold drinks don’t sell in retail stores.
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The perfectly spiced mutton patties and keema pav at Dorabjee’s, a century-old Irani restaurant in Pune, is best chased down with another century-old favourite – a tangy raspberry-flavoured soda called Ardeshir’s.

If Ardeshir’s sounds like a far-from-hip name for a cold drink to have, it is with good reason.

Started by Ardeshir Khodadad Irani in 1884 (two years before Coca Cola which launched in 1886, according to Wikipedia), Ardeshir’s – which comes in 10 different flavours including the super-popular Raspberry, is barely known outside Pune, as the family-owned business chose to focus on its stronghold – the Pune Cantonment area – for years.

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How the Irani Legacy Came About

Marzban Irani, 48, is the fourth generation to run the business.
Marzban Irani, 48, is the fourth generation to run the business.
(Photo Courtesy: Reshmi Chakraborty)

But that doesn’t make its story any less interesting. In fact, it is also the story of an enterprising immigrant who fled his country overnight, established a new life and a brand that is now 135 years old and still going strong.

Says Marzban Irani, 48, the fourth generation to run the business and Ardeshir Irani’s great grandson –

My great-grandfather fled his village Yazd in Iran around 1865-70 because of religious persecution. He had hit someone inadvertently and was advised by his family to flee the country rather than face prison and certain death. He hurriedly smuggled out at night, took a boat and came to India with Rs 8 in his pocket.
Marzban Irani

The senior Irani tried his luck in Bombay and finally came to Pune which was then a British army stronghold. He was quick to spot the need for soda water and set up shop in Pune Cantonment (Camp in local lingo).

Ardeshir’s has ruled Camp ever since.

The enterprising founder did everything himself – says his great grandson.

He would wash the bottle and fill them; in those days there was no bottled C02 gas, so he would light the charcoal, filter the gas, make sparkling water...I don’t know how but he learnt all this!
Marzban Irani

The soldiers needed soda for their whiskey and Ardeshir’s Sodas demand rose, given that the soldiers no longer had to depend on soda siphons (popular in those days as bottled sodas weren’t common) to arrive all the way from England.

Ardeshir Irani expanded his business by renting a barrack-like premise as factory from the wealthy Sethna family. Located on the aptly-named Sharbatwala Chowk, it’s where the Ardeshir’s cold drinks are made and bottled to this day.

In a drama-worthy twist, the founder’s eldest son Framroze did not see eye to eye with his father and set up his own cola business, the once better-known though now-defunct Frams. He did ensure his father’s work didn’t fizzle out either, by setting up one of his sons, Marzban Irani’s father, Gilani Irani, to look after Ardeshir’s.
Ardeshir’s vintage bottling machine.
Ardeshir’s vintage bottling machine.
(Photo Courtesy: Reshmi Chakraborty)
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Banking on Nostalgia

Ardeshir’s popularity remains – despite the fact that their cold drinks don’t sell in retail stores and they still follow the Returnable Glass Bottle model. You can only find it in select restaurants and cafes, though Irani, who modernised much of the machinery in the factory and is in the process of rebranding the legacy, is trying to rectify that.

He credits their success to a very strong brand identity born out of habit, consistency and nostalgia.

If you went to St Vincent’s or St Anne’s, this drink was part of your childhood memory.
John Fernandes, who grew up in Wanowrie, Pune, recalls

Darius M Dorabjee, whose restaurant sees clients asking for the Raspberry Soda to go with their spicy food, reiterates:

When we cater, our Parsi clientele does not want any drink other than Ardeshir’s with their heavy meal, whether they are from Pune or Mumbai. Honestly, Ardeshir’s has been passed down from generations as the drink to have with Parsi food. They also have the kind of flavours that no one does any more.
Darius M Dorabjee

Restaurants like Dorabjee’s, George and Café Yazdan have always stocked Ardeshir’s. It’s a sweet tale of a community having each other’s backs and good business acumen – understanding tastes and catering to them.

Ardeshir’s at Dorabjee’s.
Ardeshir’s at Dorabjee’s.
(Photo Courtesy: Reshmi Chakraborty)

“Our Indian palates prefer extreme tastes – savoury or sweet,” explains Irani. Ardeshir’s products have the range of flavours to incorporate both.

We have Raspberry, Ice Cream Soda, Green Apple, Peach, Pineapple among the Western flavours and Jeera Masala, Nimbu Soda and even a strong Ginger among the Indian ones.
Marzban Irani

In fact, he jokes how the Ginger flavour is almost taken as a medicine by many old-timers to sort out their digestive issues!

So, what’s next for a brand that is possibly older than Coca Cola but unknown to the rest of the country? Irani plans to bank on the old-fashioned goodness that has brought them brand loyalty so far, target it at youngsters and keep the nostalgic connect alive. He also hopes to expand beyond the limited range it has now. We hope there’s no sparkle lost along the way.

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(Reshmi Chakraborty is a freelance writer based in Pune. She writes on culture, history, ageing and social issues. Tweet to her @ReshChakraborty)

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