“Chakra Pongal, Mishti Doi, Paan and Panchamridham,” lists Janani Kannan announcing another order. These are not just popular flavours from around India. They are the best-sellers from Zitter’s bonbon collection.
The studio opens up into an air-conditioned hall with glass refrigerators at sixteen degrees stacked with decadent chocolates and pastries. A gust of cool air escapes from an opened door providing a brief moment of relief in the peak Chennai summer. Janani is spotted beside an oven near a stack of chocolate moulds. “You’ve just caught me in my favourite pastime,” she says looking up from her phone and turning her screen to reveal a robot-shaped mould. “I am usually found obsessively scrolling through online baking stores—not just from India but all over the world,” she laughs pointing at one of the counters that display the chocolate-making paraphernalia that she has collected over time.
Janani’s journey with chocolate started like the rest of us—the nostalgic rich purple silhouette of Cadbury’s drinking chocolate. “There was a cake recipe at the back,” she remembers as she talks about her earliest memories of baking cake as a child. OTG ovens weren’t popular. Red Velvet and Tiramisu were considered exotic. That did not stop Janani. She would play with different flavours and even read about them once the Internet was more accessible. “I would experiment with new recipes and guess what they taste like because most of those cakes weren’t available then.”
This childlike experimentation would only reappear about ten years later when Janani exited the engineering-MBA-corporate job route by applying for a nine-month pastry course at Le Cordon Bleu in Malaysia. Once again she found the gratification that she had experienced only while baking cakes as a child.
She was careful to avoid corporate settings and five-star restaurants. “Instead, I worked at a small cafe called The White Ombre in Singapore where I didn’t have a mundane routine again,” she recalls.
A sudden move back to Chennai, followed by Janani’s sister’s wedding in 2018 led her to dabble in chocolate-making. She hadn’t worked with chocolate much till then. Janani spent the following months reading and attending chocolate-making courses worldwide.
The infamous temperature conditions of Chennai played spoilsport. “For starters, the working temperature for pastries and chocolates is around eighteen degrees,” she chuckles. Nevertheless, starting a chocolate studio was a much lower investment than starting a pastry kitchen.
“There was only one other chocolate boutique that worked exclusively with Belgian chocolate,” Janani remembers being introduced to the brand through a customer, “When I got in touch with the chocolatier, she told me that Chennai wasn’t ready yet and to drop everything while I could.” Soon, Janani’s predecessor moved to Coonoor while Janani bought her chocolate-making equipment.
Gourmet chocolate was rare in Chennai. The few that did fall under the niche required a trained palate to comprehend the difference between the confections. Zitter was going to be different. Janani would go back to her passion. She would mix ingredients together and experiment.
The Chakra Pongal bonbon was a product of that passion. “I was asleep dreaming of flavours when I had the ‘aha’ moment. I quickly noted it down and went into the studio the next day to make it,” she reveals. She had discovered the recipe by chance. The secret ingredient behind the signature flavour was in fact meant for a different purpose.
The success of the flavour fueled her creative instinct as she turned her studio into a flavour laboratory. “The experimentation process is barely organised,” she describes as she reveals that most of the ideas for flavours would come to her when she least expected them. Very soon, Zitter created an eclectic catalogue of South Indian, North Indian and popular international flavoured chocolates from matcha to masala chai.
The conversion period took time. The people of Chennai were not accustomed to gifting luxury chocolates during the festive season. “For the longest time chocolates have been associated only with Christmas,” Janani says. Nevertheless, once her product was out there, she found that her brand attracted a niche of people who appreciated gifting a new product they discovered.
Like most small brands, the initial customer base came from social media and food pop-ups. The interactions with her initial customers allowed her to bounce off ideas and understand her audience. Some of them would get involved while giving feedback and even suggest new flavours to recreate.
Zitter soon gathered a large following through word of mouth, eventually bagging bulk orders from the American International School for teacher’s day and Chennai-based saree brand, Kanakavalli. As the business grew, Zitter moved to a bigger space—the current 3BHK apartment turned chocolate studio.
“Looking back, I jumped into the chocolate-making business and learnt everything from techniques and packaging to marketing and material procurement on the job,” she laughs, “I would ask friends and family travelling from abroad to keep aside some space in their suitcase for my ingredients.” The business grew and she discovered wholesale dealers who brought down the production costs.
She identified more local ingredients and every batch was completed with an increased sense of perfection. “There have been times when I would discard an entire batch over a minor mishap,” she confesses.
The food entrepreneurs of Tamil Nadu have a tight-knit support system. “We’re always sharing ideas and helping each other grow,” she exclaims as she hands out popsicles from her favourite home-grown brand in Coimbatore. The Zitter studio has also expanded to accommodate a pastry kitchen where cakes and glazed delicacies are baked for the neighbourhood coffee roastery turned cafe—Beachville.
Chennai has always been a pivotal part of Janani and Zitter. Following the IPL-themed bonbon collection where each bite-sized chocolate was designed to represent the teams, she hints at a Rajinikanth-inspired collection.
While the playful flavours have been the backbone of the Zitter experience, Janani dreams of moving her brand into a space where she can take classes and display the elaborate process behind her handcrafted confections. “I‘ve collected enough equipment to start a rental service,” she laughs, “Besides, each chocolate has its own aesthetic, so it would be nice to have a storefront.” She is instantly fueled by this dream and catches a creative wave as she quickly shells out ideas from the top of her head. “Creativity truly is a disorganised process,” she says as I take a bite into a fresh batch of a ‘new experiment’.