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    Volume 9 Issue 16| April 16, 2010|

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Adventures of the Biscuit Maker

Faruq Hasan

My friend Farhan is a biscuit maker. Well, he actually doesn't make biscuits, he's in charge of a company that does. There's a degree of irony to Farhan's career choice because growing up, I was the real cookie monster. One of my fondest childhood memories was conning Farhan into buying a packet of Mr. Cookie and distracting him long enough while I munched half the packet away. I don't know which was more fun, the actual taste of sugar coated coconut biscuits, or Farhan's attempt at stoicism at being fooled yet again.

Anyways, I digress. Farhan studied management at a fancy school with a funny acronym in the UK, and upon graduation, got gobbled up (no pun intended) by one of the largest biscuit manufacturers of the country to manage one of their production plants. My ever hard working friend focused on his career and rose up the ranks and perhaps chastised by my duplicity in our formative years, conquered office politics to be the Head of Marketing for all of Europe. Recently back in the country after a long time, I caught up with his stories over tea andwhat elsebiscuits.

My first question to Farhan was what drove him to biscuits in the first place. Was it his childhood love for biscuits, or the fact he specialised in the food industry while he was in school, or simply about grabbing the first opportunity he got right after he graduated? Farhan gave me an incredulous look and gave me a one worded answer: money. Apparently the biscuit industry in the UK is a 16 billion pound industry, with his company raking in a third of that sum. Wasn't that a lot of money simply for eating a mixture of flour, sugar and flavouring?

But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Biscuits really are omnipresent. Even in a poor country like Bangladesh, we use biscuits as a legitimate source of nourishment. We have biscuits called Energy, Energy Plus, Glucose, Vita Mix, Milk etc. Clearly biscuits seem to be serving as a close surrogate for food on the go. But biscuits in Bangladesh also serve as a social catalyst, bringing together people and acting as an icebreaker. Remember the countless times you would be a guest at someone's house and the first thing they'd serve is some tea and biscuits, and you would nervously reach for them while making mindless chitchat at the same time? Well thank the biscuits for some conversational foreplay!

So do biscuits serve the same purpose in the UK? All that and more, declared Farhan. Biscuits in the UK also serve as an emotional buffer zone, a sort of “me time” for individuals who need time away from the rest of the crowd. Cozying up to a pack of chocolate chip cookies (or Fantasia, as the latest brand is called) in front of the telly is apparently the latest getaway activity in the UK. Farhan confides that this is probably the most promising of all the biscuit “segments” with both production and marketing people parallel to satisfy the burgeoning indulgent side that exists in all of us.

So how does the packet of biscuit we buy at the supermarket actually get produced? Does it start at some cocoa farm in Brazil where the raw ingredients are shipped in, or the a factory in Lancashire where workers and machines alike mix and churn like the witches in Macbeth to come up with the perfect recipe for a cookie that is so addictive it will satisfy your every craving but leave you wanting more?

Neither, apparently. The origins of a biscuit start far earlier, not at a cocoa farm or a factory, but inside the office room of the marketing department. There, market niches are identified, existing product strengths and weaknesses are explored, and potential merchandise is targeted. As you can see, the word “biscuit” does not come into the formula once!

As if the whole process wasn't cynical enough, careers that were unheard of even five years ago are now common and established in the biscuit industry: packaging technologist, branding executive, learning centre manager, strategic project evaluator, and the list goes on. A veritable phalanx of specialists is behind those innocent packets of cookies that you eat every day.

The making of a chocolate biscuit is thus a formula, but not a magical one as most recipes in commercials suggest. Gone are the days when your grandmother passed on a family recipe down the generations. Now, a guy with a suit does that for you sitting in his air conditioned office, having never downed a chip cookie himself, but smug in his knowledge about your own particular taste buds and even the timing you feel your first craving for a pineapple cream biscuit or just a cracker to go along with your morning cup of tea. The shape, structure and the texture of the cream that's put in a chocolate sandwich biscuit is calculated to the very minutia, and nothing is left to chance. If ever there was a moment in life where you felt you were a puppet and someone else was pulling your strings, this was it!

Before Farhan left, I asked him whether he ever forgave me for tricking him and stealing his biscuits. He said he did. “Everything I learnt about the biscuit manufacturing game, I learnt from you,” he explained with a twinkle in his eye. “You see, I realised that friendship means little when it comes between a delicious coconut biscuit.” And with that he was off, leaving me with a shiny new packet of Mr Cookie.


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