Today we are going to talk about 10 aspects that a food entrepreneur in India should keep in mind. Mind you this does not cover the licensing, branding, marketing, pricing, and sales distribution that are important, and most entrepreneurs launching their own brand already have their bases covered. Today will be talking about aspects that will help you stand out of a crowd and make your customers your brand ambassadors.
In the land of contradictions, making a product with mass appeal is very daunting. While alcohol is openly served as Prasadham to God Kal Bhairav and in Kali temples, drinking in front of parents or spouse is demonized (Asura). Invitation for a drink is synonymous with welcoming someone to the inner circle. Yet, frequent or excessive consumption is frowned upon. While some industry experts believe, women constitute 40% of the beer and wine market; yet there is no reputable research report on their consumption pattern.
When it comes to food, aping the west may not work. American brews typically have an overpowering dominant palate. In contrast, Indians prefer a bouquet of flavors with minor tweaks. A small survey at a roadside tea stall is one of the best experiments in Indian taste buds. Many customers order for Masala Chai (spicy hot tea) but rarely do they specify which kind. 99% of the constituents in the three variants are the same across cardamom tea, tulsi tea, and ginger tea. A successful tea-brewer is one that successfully alters its recipe based on climate, time of the day, and even the fatigue level of its patron. Don’t blindly rely on thumb rules, market research. Go to the field, talk to real people, make friends, and then launch.
2. Garam Thanda
No discussion about Indian foods can be complete without our experiments with metabolism rates. When our parents classified food as “Garam/ Hot” and “Sheetal/ Cold” they were often not referring to the serving temperature but its impact on our metabolism. In Europe, we sometimes come across spicy Christmas brews with spices meant to increase metabolism. However, Indian diets, spices, and entire cuisine is often dictated by the weather.
Understanding these preferences and biases is the key to hone the food-craft skills for the Indian market. Since this preference is unique to India, there are not many works of literature beyond Ayurveda, to guide us. Ayurveda puts more emphasis on medicinal properties rather than taste, so we are on our own in this journey.
3. Food memories
Attaching a tag on a special occasion is always a good idea. By limiting the availability of a particular style, we make them special and seal the bond with festivities. A mere sight of bhang and Ghujia brings out the colorful Holi festival moods. Egg nock and warm spicy wines can invoke the Christmas mood. Similarly, Ghewar and Feni are associated with Sawan (monsoon festival), and Kheel and Bateshe with Diwali (festival of light).
This association is also called Olfactory Memory. A power tool in the hands of a brewer.
It is believed that 86% of humans have memories triggered by foods and aromas. I always compared beverage to an heirloom mother’s recipe, with the power to retrieve pleasant memories and to take the consumer into time travel. The magic of the combination of simple ingredients leading to a unique signature of colors, aromas, and tastes; is what continues to fascinate me even to this date. A brewer/ winemaker, like a chef, is an artist who wields the power to transform the Moods, Experience, and Expression by doing minute tweaks in their recipes.
4. Goût de terroirs
Taste of the soil talks about the harmony of environment, climate, culture, language, and ethnicity. Fine cuisine with locally sourced ingredients is much balanced and is cherished more than one that is a mix and match from different parts of the world. For most people Chili is a red spice but, as a chef, you would know that each region has its own local variety and taste so different. Try tweaking the recipe based on the demographics and conducting blind tests before commercializing your product. There are over 50 different kinds of mango and based on the client’s ethnicity, one can predict which one is their favorite. Like hops, almost all spices and grains have a subtle regional characteristic that should be leveraged.
5. Bench Testing
Industry spends millions on demographic, ethnicity, and socio-economic analysis to constantly tweak their product and maintain its appeal. While all of us are seeking the Holy Grail, a product of universal appeal, it is often elusive. The best strategy used in industry is the bench test. In this tasting experiment, a neutral flavor beverage is dosed with various permutation and combinations.
It’s best to draw the tasters from the intended target audience to taste out the batch. I have seen couples and friends debate on what they like the best. So rather than focusing on what they like, focus on what the audience wants, their values, beliefs, and needs. Please note that the ambiance, temperature, music, glassware, accompanied food, and even the table cloth color has a bearing on what flavors and aromas pair the best. So, it is best to keep them as close to the intended mass market as possible. There are ASBC (American Society of Brewing Chemists) guidelines on how to carry out tasting experiments.
It might be a good idea to incorporate some herbs to combat weather (that prevent sunstroke, pneumonia from being drenched in the rains or wheezing from a late-night bike ride in winters). We are very sensitive to our food’s ability to regulate our moods, climate, perspiration, and skin pores. This is the reason why most successful microbrewery has seasonal brews.
6. Safety & Packaging & licensing
Simply adhering to FSSAI (Food and Safety Standards Authority of India) regulations on packaging and getting the product tested by accredited labs is often not adequate. Refrigerated supply chains that developed countries take for granted is not present in India. Most milk dairy outlets don’t have adequate cold storage to stock the day’s supply of milk and stock it in open plastic trays by the roadside. If milk which is prone to spoilage in hours is handled so carelessly, our product could actually be tortured due to erratic power supply, exposure to sunlight, and thermal shocks.
Packaging teas leaves, spices and powders are relatively easy as compared to fermented food. The flavor profile of powders does not change as drastically as packaged liquids. This is because the complex bio-chemical reaction continues in the bottle and age the product. The lab simulated accelerated aging models are not comprehensive for luxury wines and beer. Therefore, before launching any product, do 6 months of intense testing. Test the consistency of the reference fresh batch with 15 days, 1 month, 2, 4, and 6-month-old batches for acceptable degradation levels in taste, color, carbonation, clarity, and other sensory notes.
The glass bottles are heavily reused and recycled in India. It means that after about 6-10 cycles, bottles will develop micro-fissures which can explode if the pressure built up is excessive. Similarly, if the interior coating and treatment of aluminum cans is not right, the acid in the fermented food will leach out. It is difficult to make a perfect brew but packaging it is even more challenging. Conducting field trials and talking to experts is the best way to overcome the hurdle.
People say, ‘don’t judge the book by its cover’ but that is exactly what they do. Today, if we presented a bottle to a friend, rather than thanking us or exchanging pleasantries, he would instead question: “Desi hai ya vilyaiti?” (Is it Indian made or imported?) Trailblazing artists, like yourself, will need to combat these biases of the customers.
Quality, presentation & perseverance always pays off in the long run. We have to attach some prestige and uniqueness to the brew: Humans often don’t value what we have and are familiar with but think that what we don’t have is better and covet it. Even the Great Wall of China was not valued by local Chinese until it was branded as one of the 7 wonders of the World. Add a bit of mysticism around the food, present it beautifully and educate the patrons about the process and novelty before they can even take a whiff of our bottles.
8. Food fashion
Today’s millennials view their food and drinks as a style statement. Not only food is personalized but it also is a reflection of their personality. Food should appeal to the sense of adventure and cultured tastes of its consumers; it is more of a style statement.
जिह्वे प्रमाणं जानहि भाषणे भोजने तथा ।अतिउक्तिरतिभुक्तिश्च सत्यं प्राणापहारिणी । ।The tongue has two purposes of eating and talking. However, both in excess are detrimental to one’s health
Find a charity, social movement or a cause that you are passionate about. Make it known to your clients that your brand is committed in these charitable issues. For a startup, you can gain more eyeballs through this move than by competing head on with the established industry giants.
9. Social purpose
Please be mindful of the social messaging, serving size, and addiction-forming ingredients in the beverage. Using shortcuts can boost sales but will not be sustainable.
Make catchy standees, boards. Don’t be afraid to stand up for your favorite cause. Arishtam has been a lone crusader that tries to promote traditional Indian beverages that were lost because of the IMFL. Find the reason why society should support you and you will be surprised that help will come from unexpected corners.
11. Future Ready Automation
Try as much to automate & streamline the process. Invest in all the labor-saving tools, tips, and layout that you can find. The earlier you plan for them, the more scalable your enterprise will be. BTW planning for automation does not mean that you invest in expensive machinery. It just means that the space/factory is future-ready. From one truck a week you can quickly scale to 10 trucks a week without having to relocate, do fresh construction or open multiple offices. As your brand grows you just install the equipment and upgrade. This way non-linear exponential scaling is easy.
- Have a traveling hoist and pulley mechanism is always very good. It allows for the movement of heavy equipment and fermenter without the need of hiring a dozen laborers. A single operator can lift 1-2 tons of equipment (as shown in the picture) and save a lot of time & effort.
- Unloading dock. Make a small elevated platform where the truck can directly park and unload. I insist that make two. One of the levels of Tata Ace and another of the level of the full-size truck. If the platform is at the same height as the floor of your truck, goods can be rolled in and out with ease.
- Provision to upgrade trolley with forklift. Just make sure that the doors are wide enough and there is enough room for this equipment to turn. You need not buy a forklift on day one. However, as you scale, you will appreciate the forklift’s ability to do vertical stacking. Which means 3 times more storage capacity in the same warehouse. Also, glass bottles and fragile material is better handled with this equipment rather than being rolled on a trolley.
- Use Gravity as much as possible. I had the fortune of visiting a winery in the hills that had perfected this art completely. The fruit was crushed at an elevation. Juices were fermented into a must at a level below. The barrel aging and bottling at a level below that. The three-level construction meant that without the need of any pumps the wine could transfer from start to finish. The grain processing in traditional German Beer Breweries & malting companies also use elevation to automate. Electrical equipment is good to have but don’t underestimate the frugality & elegance of a nice floor plan.
- Invest in IoT, sensors, and internet-enabled process controlled machines. One does not need to invest in expensive PLC/PLM to a process control and automation of your production unit. Simple, inexpensive devices hooked to a Rasberry pi or Arduino board can achieve a lot of automation at a fraction of the cost.
As India develops, it is becoming harder and harder to find skilled manpower ready to do simple manual tasks. Making your factory future-ready is the best way to be able to scale up as your brand grows.
11. Think Frugal
The 21th Century is the time for the garage startups to achieve global domination. The only way you can achieve that is by taking extra care of two most scarce commodities
- Your Time
- Your Capital
In the picture, you can see that instead of an expensive Concrete Roof (pakka construction), The fermentary owner simply installed insulation panels on the Tin Shed Godown. This with a water cooler tower helped them achieve a state of the art set up at 1/4 the price.
The strength of your brand is always limited by how fast it can scale without a fresh round of funding/capital raising. Creating capacity quickly & with efficient capital is the key to success. Make sure the investment is responsive i.e. it can be tuned to the changing market demand. A firm with low overhead and lean investment always is the last man standing.
12. Hire a consultant
Yes, Arishtam does conduct Business consultancy both in India and abroad for small entrepreneurs trying to launch it big and take angel funding. All business consultancy is covered under NDA and is charged at 5,000 per hour or 20,000 per day (plus travel and lodging).
Before concluding, I would like to leave you with this thought. Customers are now more and more involved & aware of food production, harvest, processing, and cooking. They are demanding sustainable produce free from pesticides, antibiotics, dyes, and chemicals. Locally produced ingredients with the lowest carbon footprint are in vogue. The words like gluten-free, low sodium, glycemic index are now ubiquitous on the product labels. The alcohol industry is also undergoing a similar transformation. India traditionally had been a land of whiskey and hard drinks drinkers but as people are drinking in moderation, the consumption of IMFL/ spirits is lagging behind the craft beer sales. Drinking is more for social bonding (lubricant) rather than as an intoxicant.
Yet again, I remind my readers that this website is not to promote drinking but to refine their production techniques and increase awareness of the magical possibilities combining simple healthy ingredients. India being a land of diverse cultures, there is no single beverage style that fits us all. Adapting to our nuances and acknowledging our idiosyncrasies is essential to scaling the hobby. Do not do the mistake of judging every beverage by western standards. A successful brand needs to be in harmony with the taste, culture, preferences of its patrons.