At Chappan Bhog, it's all sweetness and light

Nira Varma's shop in Salam Street may be tiny but business is huge, especially today when Diwali, the festival of lights, will be celebrated.

ABU DHABI // Yesterday, like every year for the past 15, Nira Varma rolled up her sleeves, filled a table with empty boxes and, with her husband and children, got to work.

Today, the festival of sweets, or to give it its proper name, Diwali, the festival of lights, will be celebrated. As family and friends exchange best wishes, they invariably also exchange mithai, or sweets.

And in Abu Dhabi, most of them come from one tiny sweet shop, Chappan Bhog, on Salam Street, where Mrs Varma has been making sweets by hand since 1996.

She arrived in Abu Dhabi in 1975 as a new bride. Her husband, Vinay Varma, was keen to get into business, founding what is now the Royal Orchid chain of restaurants.

As the restaurant business grew, Mrs Varma spotted a gap in the market: sweets. "The demand was so high for hygienic, good quality stuff," she says. "There was nothing available."

She decided she was the person to fill it, but first she had some persuading to do. "I gave my husband the hardest time," she recalls.

Mrs Varma wanted an auspicious name for the shop, and chose Chappan Bhog. It means "56 offerings", in reference to the 56 varieties of food and sweets offered to the deities during Diwali.

When it opened its doors in 1996, the shop was an overnight success. On its first chhoti diwali, the day before the main festival, it sold out of sweets by 5pm.

As Mrs Varma and her five staff - two waiters, two counter staff, and a halwai, a specialist sweet cook -cleared up after a hectic day, a customer approached her.

"He said, 'why do you underestimate yourself?,' That's when I really realised what the demand was like.

"Back in the day, my husband would call me from the restaurant to the kitchen saying we were running out, and I would join the chefs in making a fresh batch.

"By the time the sweets reached the restaurant, even before we put them in the display case, they would be all be sold."

Since then, each year Mrs Varma has increased her production. Now her halwai has five assistants. Still, Diwali is a rush. During the week before the festival, the shop gets through more than three times as many ingredients as normal.

While Mrs Varma usually uses about 10 litres of milk a day, each day this week she has ordered more than 100 litres.

"Some corporations order 5,000 boxes," says Mrs Varma. "And all deliveries have to be within four or five days of Diwali. They have to be made fresh and filled immediately."

She also has to be ready for the walk-in customers, whose purchases can range from just a few pieces to hundreds.

"Even the poorest of labourers will buy a few ladoos," says Mrs Varma, referring to the golden, sticky balls of rolled-up flour and sugar.

"We have corporate orders to fill but their requests count just as much."

So yesterday, the shop's usual tables and chairs were cleared out to make way for an assembly line. More than a thousand orders had to be filled at the last minute to make sure the sweets were all delivered fresh.

It is a precision business, says Mrs Varma, like baking. Not only do the ingredients need to stay in proportion, the sweets need to look good.

"Everything must be hand made. Every single ball has to be hand rolled and they must be similar in size," she says.

The demand has got to the point, however, where the little shop can no longer cope - and so Mrs Varma is investing in a factory in Musaffah.

"Even in the new factory, everything will be done by hand," she says. "But assembly will be easier, even if it is just for the annual day of Diwali."