Pabba's story: 'God chose him to make ice creams'

Pabba's story: 'God chose him to make ice creams'

A typical scene from inside an Ideal ice cream parlour

When S Prabhakar Kamath, the founder of Ideal ice cream, passed away at the age of 79 in a road accident in Mangaluru last month, his death was mourned across the world.

“God chose him to make ice creams,” says Mukund about his father, who was also fondly called ‘Pabba’. Mukund now serves as the proprietor of the business. 

For many Mangalureans, Ideal ice cream is an emotion, closely linked with memories of childhood and time spent in the city.

“Even today, all our shopping trips end at the Ideal parlour. Growing up, we would celebrate exam results there, spend our pocket money on ‘Parfait’ and ‘Gadbad’, and meet friends,” says Reena Pillai, a communications consultant now based in Bengaluru.

Now her children, nine and 11, look forward to cool treats like American Choconut every time they visit Mangaluru.

As a young man, Prabhakar wanted to join the Air Force but fate had other plans. After losing his parents at the age of 20, he started selling tailoring and raincoat material, and later firecrackers to support his siblings. An idea for a sugarcane juice business never took off.

“Next, he bought freezers to sell ready-made ice creams but did not find the dealers. That’s when he decided to make his own ice creams,” says Mukund, recounting how the first Ideals outlet opened on Market Road in 1975, serving 10-12 flavours.

Ideals now has five outlets in Mangaluru.

Over the next six years, Prabhakhar broke new ground.

The items on the menu grew to 35, including their famous ‘Gadbad’ (a 3-in-1 ice cream served with jelly, nuts and cut fruits in a tall glass), Parfait (a cup loaded with four ice creams and fruits), and Dilkush (Gadbad in a bowl topped with vermicelli, rose syrup and nuts). Sitaphal ice cream was also a novelty back in the day.

The second store came up 100 metres away from the first one. “It could seat 200 people. It was the largest in India in those days,” Mukund points out. It became a popular venue for birthday parties, college reunions, dates, and matrimonial meets.

And Ideal ice creams went from being a dessert to a meal in itself.

“My father served up huge portions at prices that the common man could afford. ‘Gadbad’ came for one rupee and 25 paise. Ice cream was no longer an elitist thing,” says Mukund, explaining why Ideal became the go-to choice for people in Mangaluru.

Giridhar Kamath knew Prabhakar closely. He started freelancing with Ideal as a CA in 1983 and then became

his friend. He remembers ‘Pabbanna’ as a stickler for quality, a maverick experimentalist, a tireless worker “who manned the mezzanine floor of a Pabba’s cafe that opened a month before he died,” and somebody who wanted “people to enjoy his ice creams.”

And no ice cream would make it to the customers until it was rigorously “tasted.”

“He used to test a new flavour on the common man rather than a food expert. That’s why he knew the local taste well,” says Giridhar, whose all-time favourite is Chocolate Dad.

“Three years ago, he launched a paan-flavoured ice cream during my daughter’s wedding. Seeing the response, he put it on the menu,” he recalls.

The brand would sponsor a cycle rally and treat the kids with ice candies in traditional flavours, like jaggery-coconut, and pannagam.

“He would say, ‘Don’t turn kids away if they ask for extra candy.” Giridhar adds.

Prabhakar was also somewhat obsessive about maintaining quality, Mukund confirms with a laugh. “One time, a student complained that the vanilla ice cream was tasting ‘charred’. My father went to the kitchen, looked at the bottom of the vat, and spotted a slight burn. He valued every feedback.”

Expansion plans

It’s not just Mangalureans who swear by the Ideal ice creams. Prime minister Narendra Modi, deputy chief minister Ashwath Narayan, cricketer K L Rahul, Karnataka’s Ranji Team, and actor Vijay Raghavendra have dropped by too.

And except for the Covid, their business has never seen a slump, Mukund claims.

So why is the brand not expanding beyond Mangaluru?

“My father would say ‘Never dilute the quality at the expense of competition and price wars; shut down the business instead’," Mukund says about the weight of his father’s legacy.

For the same reason, he has declined offers from venture capitalists.

However, Mukund has some news: “We will be launching in Bengaluru as soon as Covid subsides.”

Surely, that would make Mangalureans like Reena happy and at home.

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox