CMO Rahul Gandhi on food innovation - the need of the hour in the market where branded and unbranded products alike are out to rescue those in need of 'kitchen shortcuts'.
“We sell more parotas (flat bread) than idli-dosa batter,” reveals Rahul Gandhi, chief marketing officer at Bengaluru-based iD Fresh Food. It’s a startling revelation because the company is famed for its idli-dosa batter.
Yours truly has used the aforementioned batter. Hailing from the south, my family would always depend on the local street vendor in Mumbai, who would sell unbranded idli, dosa and medu vada batter with dry or wet chutney. Last year (2020), we decided to try the iD batter for a change because it was a case of health, safety and, of course, curiosity.
A few weeks ago, the afaqs! team was discussing the ready-to-cook/eat segment and the iD name popped up. No, it wasn’t for the idli-dosa batter, but its other food innovation – the squeeze and fry vada batter. Why? Because it lets you make the vada in the right shape – with a hole in the middle. iD also has the filter coffee decoction and a new coconut innovation to tout as well.
India’s ready-to-cook segment saw a startling rise last year during the lockdowns. Be it iD’s parotas and batter or cooking gravies from ITC’s Master Chef brand or the range of ready-to-cook sauces, gravies and pastes from Jubilant FoodWorks' ChefBoss. Everyone saw a surge in sales as people stayed indoors and opted for healthy and safe convenient cooking options than street food.
“E-commerce currently accounts for 15-17 per cent of our total business turnover in major cities."Rahul Gandhi, iD Fresh Food's CMO
While iD competes with a big unorganised market when it comes to the batter, there are other branded players too, such as Rishta Foods, MTR, Desi Kitchen and Organic Tattva. However, we (afaqs!) didn’t expect parotas to overtake the idli-dosa batter. Some of iD’s rivals in this space include Asal and even paratha brands like Amul, Tasty Fresh, and Buffet.
During the COVID-induced lockdowns last year, homemakers had to cook a ton of meals and soon, “kitchen fatigue” set in. Also, nobody was ordering during the early lockdown months, even if the Swiggys and the Zomatos were operational, says Gandhi.
He stated iD’s ready-to-cook parotas and chapattis were a smart replacement for homemade food. Parotas have, in fact, enjoyed a 70 per cent growth in sales since the lockdowns began.
Gandhi also says that iD’s dairy offerings (paneer and curd) forms 20 per cent of its India business because "there was this rumour back in April and May (2020) that the Coronavirus spread through animals... Meat sales dropped, but people wanted protein. So, they switched to paneer."
Founded in 2005, iD is popular for “preservative-free” ready-to-cook food, such as idli-dosa and vada batter, parotas and chapattis, paneer, curd, filter coffee liquid, and even a smart-sip tender coconut.
As per an ET report, the company is expected to clock in a turnover of Rs 400 crore (consumer spend) this fiscal (FY 2020-21), ending March.
Gandhi says that the business is up 130 per cent, as compared to 2020, on e-commerce platforms and soon, the company aims to launch a portal for all its products. Right now, you can only buy its filter coffee offering off its website.
“E-commerce currently accounts for 15-17 per cent of our total business turnover in major cities. In some cities like Bengaluru, it has surpassed modern trade,” Gandhi reveals and reiterates the fact that e-commerce and India share a near unbreakable bond.
A major reason for the company’s rapid rise has been product innovation that solved people’s problems. Take its squeeze and fry vada batter. It’s quite difficult to get the shape of a medu vada with the hole in the middle.
“There were a lot of ready-to-fry vada-shaped trials we did.” Gandhi reveals how one experiment was to sell it in a poly pouch, just like the idli batter... “We then tried an experiment with a Coke/Pepsi bottle, where you cut the top and create a type of piston so that the vada batter comes out it. Then another experiment was a jalebi making mechanism, where you have to make it using cloth… It didn’t work…”
After these attempts, iD decided to take the aid of third-party manufacturers, but that came to nought. At this point, Abdul Nazer, iD's co-founder, “decided to become a fabricator. He took a hammer and some sheets of steel, and made a prototype… After some time, he realised that if the batter comes in the shape of an umbrella, it will drop down into the oil as a doughnut,” reveals Gandhi. It took a whole of three years for the product to come to fruition, he adds.
Vada is a spur-of-the-moment dish that only a mum can whip up. For the rest, we order. “From iD’s point of view, we’re not happy that people have to eat outside,” says Rajeev Ravindranathan, founder and director of People Design and Communications, which has been with iD since the start.
“The problem with the vada is the hole. If it is missing, then it’s a bonda or a fritter. The team struggled on this… We’d see a lot of prototypes.”
“The film we made for vada was done at the last moment. PC Mustafa (iD's co-founder) was to deliver a speech at Harvard Business School in three weeks and we were sent a prototype. The moment we got the pack, the camera rolled... it’s me squeezing it, nobody else had the guts to try it. Whatever you see in the ad is the vadas being made out of one pack,” adds Ravindranathan.
The filter coffee
Another of iD’s popular offering is its filter coffee. It’s unique because the company sells filter coffee decoction, unlike its rivals that sell powder. Some of the rivals include Continental Coffee, Blue Tokai, Bru, Nescafe, Coffee Day and even Starbucks.
Gandhi says that filter coffee isn’t easy to make at home and people usually visit restaurants, which were closed during the lockdowns... “That’s when our sales shot up. We were one of the convenient options of making filter coffee at home and saw a good 70-80 per cent lift.”
Recently, we’ve seen ads for three new blends of iD’s filter coffee: Bold, Strong and Intense.
Turns out the decision was taken 5-6 months ago, when iD was ideating on how to grow its coffee business. One idea was to offer the product blend that the market is consuming.
“South Indians consume a lot of filter coffee in small cups. Go to the west, your coffee mug sizes will be 250 ml in the Nescafe and Starbucks cups. Back in South India, the size drops to 100-120 ml… The new blends we have launched have 70 per cent coffee and 30 per cent chicory, and are priced at Rs 5. That was the whole idea before the new coffee range,” he remarks.
Coconut water is one of the most refreshing and healthy drinks you can have on a hot summer day. Unfortunately, you have to depend on a toddy tapper, or a coconut seller for one.
This is where iD’s Smart Sip Tender Coconut caught our eye. It was “made with the idea that why are people drinking carbonated drinks, can’t they drink something healthier,” asks Gandhi.
He says the thought behind the pack was that whatever packaging nature has created, whether it’s for oranges, pineapples, onions or coconuts, it keeps the fruit fresh for long. When we cut it open, it begins to degenerate.
“The innovation here was, can we keep nature’s packaging and offer an unadulterated product in a ready-to-consume format?”
Gandhi mentions that when iD made this smart-sip tender coconut, “we gave a small hole to insert the straw and a bigger hole to scoop out the pulp. This one took about two years.”
There are quite a number of brands selling coconut water in the market. Some of them are PureFoods, Paper Boat, Cocojal, and Soweka.
While these product innovations aided iD’s rise last year, it was also the hoarding of food items, courtesy of the lockdowns. Gandhi, however, points out a difference.
He says that people were filling their kitchens and fridges with long shelf life products. The thought was, “instead of buying in June, let me buy in April. In the case of iD, you have to consume the food in 5-7 days, the lift in sales we saw was consumption-led.”
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