A chain of snack kiosks has made a successful business of feeding office workers in India's commercial hub while helping hundreds of middle class women who run them to dramatically transform their own lives.

Kutumb Sakhi - which means family friend - was an independent venture that began in 1975 with the aim of providing employment to economically and socially weak women. Today it has carved a niche for itself in the eatery business.

With its chain of 10 outlets that sell typically Maharashtrian snacks like vada-pav, pav-bhaji, dhokla and kaanda-poha and other savouries, the organisation is a blessing for the perpetually rushed city dwellers.

Located mostly in south Mumbai - home to a majority of offices, mills and leading commercial establishments - these outlets are frequented by office-goers looking for healthy and filling treats.

"We always maintain a certain standard. As our needs are limited, we do not look for high profits, which helps us keep prices low," said the Kutumb Sakhi chairman, Vandana Pramod Navalkar.


Employing around 150 women aged between 20 and 65 years at monthly salaries ranging from Rs.2,000 to Rs.4,000, Kutumb Sakhi's outlets have allowed hundreds of women, including widows and deserted wives, to earn enough to take care of their families.

Even the yearly profits of around Rs.1 million are distributed among the women after two percent is deducted from each one's share and put into saving accounts operated on their behalf.

The organisation virtually adopts destitute widows and ill-treated wives, providing them employment and helping secure their future by opening saving accounts for them under banking schemes run by the postal department.

Vaishali Shirdash Chichankar, 58, who had to take up the reins of her family in 1986 after her husband met with a railway accident and lost his limbs, is one of Kutumb Sakhi's success stories.

"There was a time when my two daughters and I used to live on a hand-to-mouth basis. That's when Kutumb Sakhi came our way," Vaishali reminisced.

"When I look back and see that I managed to get my daughters married off, comfortably look after a handicapped husband and also maintain a small fortune as savings, I feel proud," she said with an air of dignity.

Kutumb Sakhi began as an initiative by social worker and college lecturer Chandrakalabai Hate, who organised a few women to stitch petticoats after buying cloth from a mill owned by legendary cricketer Vijay Merchant.

But the income from this was too low to sustain them.

It was then that Merchant suggested that instead of making clothes, the women could make snacks for his mill workers.

The idea clicked and spread. The first Kutumb Sakhi snack outlet was set up near Marine Lines in south Mumbai in 1982.

Today, apart from its snack centres, Kutumb Sakhi also takes contracts for supplying daily lunch packages to office workers and meals to government-run schools and private companies.

It seems to have followed an age-old saying on a larger canvas: "The way to a city's heart is through its stomach!"