From a tiny 150-square-feet shop in Bur Dubai behind the Sind Punjab restaurant to 39 retail outlets across the GCC, two spice factories (a 35,000 square feet facility in Al Quoz and the mammoth 150,000 square feet facility in Dubai Investment Park) and two flourmills, Dhananjay Mahadev Datar is not your ordinary neighbourhood grocer. In his 34 years in the emirate, Datar has ensured that he has built a million-dollar brand and changed the face of the grocery business in Dubai. Today almost all the food that is served in most of the UAE’s five-star hotels and fine-dining restaurants, even in the Emirates in-flight catering and in the homes of Dubai’s Indian diaspora, traces part of its ingredients or spices to Al Adil, the grocery and spice shop he set up with his father, Mahadev Datar in 1984.
Al Adil, which literally translates into “a good man” today has 28 retail outlets in the UAE (19 in Dubai alone) and the rest in Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia. It stocks an enviable range of grocery and household items, primarily Indian spices, pulses, rice and flour, oils and ghee, pickles and chutneys, tea and coffee, even canned and instant food, ayurvedic medicines and herbs, cosmetics, dry fruits, mouth fresheners and savouries, confectionery items and sweetmeats.
Datar came to Dubai on the request of his father to help him set shop. Mahadev Datar was a man of principles, a strict taskmaster. He had worked in the Jebel Ali port since 1976 and wanted to set up a grocery business that would cater to the needs of the Indian expatriates in the city. When Dhananjay came over from Mumbai, he realised he was the first employee of the establishment and was required to clean the floor, carry bags, and deliver goods like any other helper.
“It was not the life I had dreamt of. I had always wanted to travel and even got my passport made at 16. I believed that Dubai could change fortunes because in the modest locality where we lived in Mumbai, I saw the Muslims and the Christians transform their lives completely after they travelled to the Gulf. They left their homes with hardly any money in their pockets and came back in flashy clothes, with gold chains, the smell of the Brut (perfume) lingering all over. The women wore fancy ribbons and had easy cash. It was like a new life altogether,” says Datar. “But when I arrived in the February of 1984 at the age of 20, things turned out to be different. My father and I lived above our little shop, in a small room barely 350 square feet. Life was hard and we were trying to get the business going.” The grocery initially lost a lot of money and finally it was Datar’s mother who sold her jewellery back in India to get things on track. “We didn’t really have a choice. So I promised my mother that I would only come back when I was successful and able to return all her gold.”
Around that time in August 1990 the First Gulf War broke out and interestingly enough it changed the fortune of the Datars and Al Adil. “A lot of people went back during that time, but those who stayed on ended up stocking up on food – rice, wheat and pulses – in fear that there would be a shortage during the war. It worked in our favour. Families demanded up to 20 kilos of rice and pulses, sometimes even more, and all our stock got sold out completely. People also trusted us because we did not sell at a high price. We made a name for our quality goods and for our affordable prices,” says Datar.
It was also around this time that Dhananjay realised that the only way to connect with his customers was to get them something from their homeland. In most cases it was food products, spices and daily household necessities. He observed his customers closely to find out Indian expats walking into the store asking for the odd poppadum, a bottle of mango pickle, a special variety of five-spice, freshly milled wheat, a hair oil, some rose water and a whole lot of other things that spanned the north and south, east and west of India. This led him to expand his reach and get products from all over India to serve the Indian community in Dubai.
Today Al Adil stocks up to 9,000 different food and household items from different parts of India. Its chain of suppliers work with clockwork precision, sourcing products from all over the country. The items are then sent to the central warehouse in Mumbai, from where every day four to five containers are shipped to Dubai.
‘From 1993 we started expanding. That year I opened the second Al Adil in Abu Dhabi, in 1994 the third one in Sharjah and in 1995 rolled out our first Al Quoz factory of spices. I realised to win the confidence of customers we have to offer them quality at a reasonable price. And to get their love I have to keep ice on my head and sugar on my tongue. These were some of the valuable lessons I learnt early on,” says Datar.
Working 12 to 18 hours a day, Dhananjay was determined to multiply the number of branches and also to increase the brand value of his business. “I was not the one to remain content with a small grocery shop. To survive I had to diversify. I needed to increase the number of retail outlets, get into wholesale production, and have our own spice and flour mills. I personally researched locations in Dubai to grow and expand and met consumers to understand their needs. I also advertised the brand and came forward to introduce myself to my clients. I wanted people to know the man behind the Al Adil stores,” he explains.
Dhananjay was also instrumental in creating Al Adil’s own in house “Peacock” brand. “We store different brands of wheat, flour, spices, oil and rice in our shops. So I had the idea to come up with our own brand of freshly ground spices and freshly milled wheat and flour under the Peacock brand. The idea has been to constantly innovate. I learnt through my experience. When I came to Dubai I didn’t know either English or Arabic. I learnt it after initially talking to my customers in sign language. I also learnt the hard way that to make a mark in society you have to make a big noise about it. You have to make a splash. I wanted to get out of that image of a small neighbourhood grocer who spends his days only catering to the demands of customers. I wanted to grow to show people that grocery was also like any other big business and people did finally sit up and take note.”
But the constant pressure to innovate and grow also had its effects on Dhananjay’s health. “When you work 18 hours a day, you don’t keep track of your mealtimes or the food you eat. I was hardly resting, eating breakfast for lunch and very late dinners. I fell ill with severe acidity and lost my health completely. All I was allowed to eat was boiled vegetables with a pinch of salt. This was in 2008 and it suddenly dawned on me that I had made a lot of money but I didn’t have anything else. There was absolutely zero self-care and that made me turn my focus on health and wellness. I started eating on time, taking time out to exercise, meditate and spend more time with my family. I lost more than 20 kilos and it was a big lesson for me,” says Dhananjay.
The king of spices, as he is often lovingly referred to by his customers, also underwent a personal transformation around the same time. “I took time out to enjoy life. I started spending on good clothes, a beautiful house for myself, my wife Vandana and sons Rishikesh and Rohit, got ourselves a fancy car to drive, and in the next 10 years that followed, from 2008 to 2018, I expanded aggressively all around the region. I also focused on health products such as gluten free, low fat, multigrain whole meal wheat flour (atta as referred to in India, and used to make different flatbreads). Our consumers are now a more educated lot who are concerned about a healthy lifestyle. We also take great care to stock organic products that bring about a whole range of health benefits,” says Dhananjay.
Datar’s biggest lesson in life has been the teachings of his father. “He taught me to be disciplined and earnest,” he says. “I grew from the hardship I experienced. My greatest happiness is not from the profits I have earned, but how I have changed the way people actually think about me. It’s important to think big and change people’s perceptions. I think no job is too low and no dream is too big.”