Here's the next instalment, as promised.
I interviewed three young entrepreneurs making a difference to the food business. The kind that you and me want to have on an everyday basis coz we can't (or don't want to) cook ourselves.
Of course dabbas and dabbawalahs have been around for a long time. What started as a Bombay phenomenon has now become a nationwide cottage industry. The difference with these ventures is that they are building brands and have bigtime scale up plans.
Vinamra Pandiya and Ashwini Rathod run Mom's Kitchen in Pune which provides simple, homely food to the young working professional. On the other hand, Cyrus Driver's Calorie Care caters calorie counted meals for the health conscious at the upper end of the market.
The full story 'New Age Dabbawalahs' is published in this week's Businessworld and can be read here. A more detailed interview is featured below.
Interview with Vinamra Pandiya and Ashwini Rathod
Company: Mom's Kitchen
Founded: September 1 2006
Educational background: Vinamra (IT BHU 2005 batch, Infosys from campus placement); Aswini Rathod (NIT Allahabad 2005 batch, Cognizant from campus placement).
Vinamra and I are childhood friends. He graduated from IT BHU in 2005 and I passed out of NIT Allahabad the same year. I joined Cognizant while he was in Infosys. Initially we were in Bangalore, then we moved to Pune.
We had big dreams in our college days. Ki kuch karna hai. That coupled with the frustration of working in a big company ("at the end of the day you know, you do nothing!) led to the idea of starting a business.
Being bachelors living alone we sensed that there was a big gap in food. It is a very fragmented industry. And from the beginning we knew ki hamein khana ghar ghar pahunchana hai. We ourselves used to order a local dabba. But we felt there in no 'brand name' in this business.
Vinamra left his job while I continued to work for a while, to provide some support. We both put in Rs 1 lakh each to start it off.
Neither of us had experience in the food business, or any business for that matter. We took 1-2 months figuring out how to do and what to do.
The name, we felt was most important. The name 'Mom's Kitchen' came to Vinamra at 3 in the morning. The nect thing we did was design a logo and then a website.
Next came the cooking part. We decided to bring a couple of workers from my college mess. We didn't anyone too experienced, but someone who would learn quickly our style of doing things. The food we wanted was very simple, the way moms cook at home, with minimum of tel and masala.
They were in a government job, we convinced them to move from Allahabad to Pune and work with us.
We took a flat at Pashan Road on rent to set up the kitchen. Although the rental should have been around Rs 4000 we had to shell out Rs 7000 because we were using it for Mom's kitchen. The workers were provided accomodation in the same flat.
We started with 11 orders, 1 cook and 1 helper. The first 3 days Vinamra and I personally went to deliver the dabbas. "Badi sharm aa rahi thi ki company mein koi hamein pehchaan na le".
Then we kept one more person but of course he too was not native to Pune so we had to explain the route and rasta personally, actually go along for the deliveries. But by now we were no longer feeling ashamed. So what if we are educated, 'IT types' etc the important thing is to lead by example.
Actually with our cooks and helpers from the beginning we established a very close relationship. We felt ki yeh log hamare ssath hain. Unke saath baith kar khana chahiye. That's been the philosophy of Mom's Kitchen ever since.
Why it clicked
Now Mom's Kitchen does business differently from other dabbawalas. For example, normally you take 1 month tiffin but with us you can cancel by calling up or logging on to our website before 5.30 pm. We have made a program which makes such a customisation possible.
There is also no delivery charge. Meal costs Rs 30 each. 3 schemes - 6 day trial, 15 days (get 1 day free) or 30 days (pay for 27). The scheme works on prepaid basis and the online database tracks how many meals you have availed of.
Our promotion was mainly thru pamphlets and sticking up posters at bus stops where IT people gather. We would go at 7 am and stick up the posters. We also used online discussion forums of companies, orkut scrapping and emailing to promote MK. We handled calls personally - we offered 1 week trials to hook people. And it worked.
In the second month we had 30-35 dabbas and it steadily grew from there. Yet in January we were absolutely broke. We would skip breakfast to save money for petrol which we needed for our delivery bikes.
February was the turning point. We hit 200 dabbas and from then on there was no looking back. Word of mouth had spread, we set up a second centre in Karve nagar. 10 months after starting we have 550 customers. There are IT workers, students, senior citizens and even couples.
Actually there are about 3000 people in 'queue' (we got many enquiries after an article in the local TOI). But we are doing a controlled expansion. Our delivery and cooking systems must be able to cope. We want the processes to be scientific so we are going for ISO 9001 and six sigma also.
Each centre can cook for a maximum 250 people. So we will set up new centres - one in Vimaan nagar soon. The scalability will come with in house training of cooks and documentation of the cooking method (ie for 100 people'sal we need so much dal, so much water, this kind of pan etc). We did it when setting up the second centre.
We have 25 cooks/ helpers and 5 people in office to handle calls. Calls come in for 14-15 reasons - we have taught them how to handle them. So far we have had no complaints re: food except a very small number who find it too simple/ non spicy.
Now we have investors willing to put Rs 25-50 lakhs into the business. We plan to expand to 10,000 in Pune by next year. Already we have a waiting list so it's more a question of having the cooking and delivery ability than generating demand.
We may also start a thali place which is going to be different - it will be exactly like home. Very simple food, ghar jaise curtains, newspaper - a total non restaurant feel. Max Rs 40 per thali. Whatever we do must be 'different'.
Our entire business is built on trust and personal relations. We hire only non Puneites as they are more dedicated, don't ask for too many holidays etc.
They say there is a 50% profit margin in the food industry. But given the amount of customer service and processes you have to put in we make 25-30%. The break even point is 150 meals per centre. Now we earn more than we did when we quit and down the line prjections of course make us feel v happy. Earlier our families said 'tum drunken pagal ho' for quitting secure IT jobs. NOw they also are happy.
There has been a lot of trial and error. As well as experimentation. We customised our bikes to be able to carry 36 tiffins for delivery. We were outsiders to Pune, so when MK started doing well we even got threats from locals whose business was affected. But we did not back down.
In future we will enlist housewives also to provide for 'special requests' like Andhra food etc. We will provide raw materials and pay them a fee for cooking.
We are both 26 years old. The dream is professionalise meal services in the whole of India. Companies today have fancy canteens but their khana is pathetic. First 3 days you are excited with the glass and fabcy varieties but it all tastes the same.
We design our menus along with the cooks and promise 'no repeat' for 30 days. or money back. We take weekly customer feedbcak. Like many people said khana garam hona chahiye so we started packing food while it was still on the gas. We got demand for regional dishes like dal baati and also parathas, chhole bhature etc which we provide once a week.
The most amazing thing is the support the people working with us have given. "Inhi ki duaon se ham aagey bade hain".
Initially we promised them Rs 1800 and that too we did not pay for 4 months. And they never complained. They would get up in the morning at 7 am, then make two times ka khana, undertake delivery etc. So much hard work and no complaints.
Today we pay our cooks Rs 6000 and of course provide food, acco and mattresses etc. We feel proud that Mom's Kitchen is supporting 25 families. "Koi 5th std pass hai, koi 4 th std pass hai." They may be uneducated but they are not dumb. We constantly ask for suggestions and feedback thru a letterbox at each centre.
Also Sunday sessions where we feast together and even encourage them to discuss their personal/ inter personal problems. There is no 'sir' here, no maalik everyone is a bhaiyya. IN return we address them with izzat also eg Dubeji. We show them motivational movies like Boxer, Guru.
Woh customers se pyaar se baat karte hain, even if they are occassionally blasted by someone.
Extras we do for our customers: If someone makes a special request like 2 rotis extra we give it to them. We pack rotis in alumnium foil and some things in disposables. We're trying to build an assembly line for packing.
We are trying to check which process causes delay, how to speed it up etc. We are very quality conscious. Once the bhaturas cracked and we phoned up all customers and informed them we could not deliver the food that day. Was it necessary? We feel with food you have to be very careful. Poor word of mouth can destroy your brand name.
Right now abt 60-70- people order both times,mainly senior citizens. IT guys mainly order dinners. We may do company catering later but perhaps under a different brand name.
We tell our cooks: Subah naha ke pooja karke khana banaiye. We're planning to introduce them to yoga also. A person in a nsaty mood can't cook well can he? Remember how your mom cooked after fighting with dad?
We also had a peculiar situation where one kid preferred Mom's Kitchen food to his own mom's food because we had variety. We had to go and convince him, "Beta ma ke haath ka khana hi best hai."
The idea is simple and the case for such a service strong. But to make a success of it operationally the big challenge. And that has been cracked by Mom's Kitchen.
It's a tough business: daily production, finicky customers, tricky delivery logistics but through a mix of inventiveness and doggedness Ashwini and Vinamra have fashioned a workable system. And replicated it at a seocnd location.
Key to their success has been the bonding they've created with the workers. Something they instinctively embraced because it was the right thing and the smart thing to do. A lesson in that for many would be entrepreneurs!
Also good to see techies involved in such a hands-on business.
Mom's Kitchen got a canny feel for the market as well. A budget version of the dabba was introduced esp. for students @ Rs 25. It has everything except foil packaging and raita!
At current order levels Mom's Kitchen will do Rs 65 lakhs worth of business in the coming year. Probably more, with expansion in Pune as well as Chennai on the cards.
Here's wishing them all the very best!