Working Title: Tax lawyer turned artisanal cheese-maker Manya Bhardwaj

Working Title is a series capturing the journeys of lawyers who pursue offbeat opportunities.
Manya Bhardwaj with her cheese wheels
Manya Bhardwaj with her cheese wheels

In this edition of the Working Title series, Bar & Bench's Jelsyna Chacko caught up with indirect tax lawyer Manya Bhardwaj, who is now an artisanal cheese-maker based in Pune.

After graduating from Symbiosis Law School, Pune in 2012, Manya worked as a judicial clerk at the Calcutta High Court for close to a year before joining TLC Legal, where she worked on the indirect tax side for 8 years.

In January 2020, Manya decided to switch careers to pursue her calling as an entrepreneur and founded her cheese brand by the name Wheelers' Cheese, with a production unit in Pune's Koregaon Park.

In this interview, Manya speaks about her time as a lawyer, the thought process behind Wheelers' Cheese, the challenges that came with setting up her own venture and more.

Edited excerpts follow.

You worked with TLC Legal for close to a decade. How would you describe your stint as a lawyer?

I was with TLC Legal for about 8 years beginning in 2012. TLC Legal is a boutique law firm which specializes only in indirect taxes. Back then, it was a relatively small firm, and over time the colleagues that I joined with, Managing Partner Vipin Jain, Senior Partner Vishal Agarwal and others became more like family and friends.

It was such a great experience working with them. I worked with TLC Legal in different cities.

I was with them in Bombay, Chennai as well as in Delhi.

What inspired you to change paths?

I had a great time working as a lawyer. Problem solving, thinking on your feet, all that was great, but there was always an entrepreneur’s itch and I think that was owing to the fact that I come from a business family.

My dad, my brother, and several of my cousins have their own businesses.

Over the years of practicing law, I kept soul-searching and revisiting why I was here, and what is it that I wanted to do. I realized at some point that I will have to scratch that itch if I were to have any shot at finding peace in my life!

So, I decided to take a break and figure out what I wanted to do.

When and how did the idea of cheese-making come about?

Process of cheese making
Process of cheese making

I decided to take a break in January 2020 and at that point I was pretty clueless about which direction I wanted to go ahead in. It was all open-ended for me, but the food sector was always a natural choice because I had seen my dad and my brother grow a business in the food sector.

I always wanted something to do with food and I always gravitated towards dairy. I looked at several things in dairy as well, be it yogurt or dairy farming or smoothies, but for some reason, it never became clear.

One fine day, my husband just suggested that I explore something to do with cheese and it was a eureka moment. Something just clicked. The puzzle fell into place, and I never looked back from there.

I reached out to friends who were in Europe, because I thought Europe is a place where people are more likely to know about cheeses.

I started getting connected with people who are in the industry, and I realized that India has this small movement of artisanal cheese-making.

The movement is made up of people who are so passionate, so vibrant about what they do, and I realized that I wanted to contribute, I wanted to be a part of that movement, be a part of this industry. That’s how I decided to start my journey of cheese-making.

What is the story or inspiration behind Wheelers' Cheese?

Wheelers' cheese
Wheelers' cheese

When I looked into the industry that exists in India, I realized that while we as Indians are familiar with the idea of cheese thanks to big players like Amul and Britannia, we do not know about what cheese really has to offer. There’s so much unexplored. So, the idea behind Wheelers’ is to communicate to people that cheese is not something unhealthy.

Wheelers’ intends to re-introduce cheese to people in India and tell them that this can be integrated into your daily average Indian diet.

Cheese is great in terms of health and taste. The idea behind Wheelers’ is to bring different types of cheeses in a fun way to people in an easy-going, approachable manner.

As far as the name is concerned, I love making cheese wheels. Cheese traditionally comes in wheels, so that’s why I called the brand Wheelers’ Cheese.

How did you go about learning the art of producing cheese?

I started learning cheese-making from this great lady Namrata Sundaresan, who has her own artisanal cheese brand called Käse in Chennai.

She is a phenomenal teacher, one of the best teachers that I have come across in my lifetime. I look forward to learning from her even today. I’ve been learning since the last year and a half, and she continues to teach me, to handhold me.

She has always been a mentor, but over time, she’s also become a great friend because it’s such a niche and nascent industry, there aren’t many people you can reach out to for solving problems.

And you face a lot of problems when you’re making cheeses. It’s difficult. You won’t find answers on the internet, so you need people who have been on that journey, who know what they’re doing.

Namrata is one person who’s always there to help you out, handhold you when required.

The next person I learnt from is Sohrab Chinoy of ABC Farms. He is one of the pioneers of artisanal cheese making in India. With the years of experience behind him, he had so much knowledge to impart, not only in terms of cheese-making, but life in general.

It was so good learning from him, interacting with him. He always had these little anecdotes he shared from time to time.

Cheese-making is a slow process. It involves a lot of waiting. So, you have to have that rapport with your mentor so that you can strike a conversation with each other during those long hours. I was very lucky to have found mentors who I built a great rapport with.

Manya Bhardwaj in the process of making cheese
Manya Bhardwaj in the process of making cheese

Does your experience as a lawyer in any way give you an edge in protecting the uniqueness of the cheese produced by Wheelers'?

To put it very bluntly, at this stage, no.

Cheese-making and the law are worlds apart. Every cheese is unique to a cheesemaker as every art piece is to an artist.

That being said, artisanal cheese-making is very, very nascent in India; it’s a growing industry, it's a tough market. So, the legal framework as well is pretty unstructured and nascent.

Hopefully, as the industry grows, the legal framework will grow as well. At that point, I’m hoping that I’ll be better equipped to protect the uniqueness of my cheese.

What are the challenges that come with starting your own venture?

There were so many.

The first one was when I started learning how to make cheese in 2020, which was during peak COVID time. Learning how to make cheese virtually was a challenge in itself.

The next challenge was starting something small from my own kitchen. It was crazy! The days I would make cheese, my kitchen used to be a mess, like a halwai’s shop.

One big challenge, as far as cheese-making is concerned, is getting milk. Your cheese is only as good as your milk is. The milk speaks for itself. Several trials and errors were involved in finding the right milk which would yield good cheese.

After I moved from my home kitchen into a separate production facility, there was a new set of challenges starting from training people, handling production, marketing, advertising, everything.

Cheese-making is something that you constantly keep learning. You can always better your product. I’ve spent sleepless nights trying to make a good mozzarella, which is one of the trickiest cheeses to make.

The process of aging is challenging. You have to take care of your cheese every day for at least three months. You wait patiently for the milk to come to its final form, a form that you like, that speaks to you.

It has been a series of challenges, ever-evolving, but that’s what keeps me going.

Do you miss being a lawyer?

Absolutely! Being an entrepreneur starting out in an industry as nascent as this one, it can get lonely.

I do have a small team working with me, but I do miss the times when you’d have a problem, you’d have several people - colleagues and great mentors - around you to brainstorm with you, discuss with you, go to court for you if you’re not feeling up to it for whatever reason. There was more interaction, as far as the legal side was concerned.

Though I have kept in touch with most of my colleagues and my mentors and catch up with them very frequently, I miss being around lawyer friends of mine.

What advice do you have for lawyers pondering on taking unconventional routes?

If that unconventional route is something that you can balance with your study of law, your practice of law, then it’s great. There’s not too much to think about.

The real struggle actually happens when all the years you’ve spent in law become an opportunity cost for pursuing something that may or may not work for you.

The left and the right sides of your brain will always be at war with each other - one wanting to pursue that unconventional path and the other one wanting to stick to the safety and security, the predictability that the legal fraternity offers. That’s just a struggle you have to sort out on your own.

The one advice that I will give is to reach out to people in the new industry and to talk to them about what opportunities, what challenges are existing in that industry, where you might see yourself, where you might find your footing in the industry.

You will be surprised to know how many people are willing to help you out, to give you information that you need to be able to make a better call for yourself.

Then it’s up to you, if you want to remain in this great profession of law or pursue your calling.

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