Chetna Mirchandani can’t remember a single travel, personal or professional excursion where the best memories weren’t related to food. “Right from initial road trips taken with my family to places like Lonavala, Pune, Mahabaleshwar, etc., with stops made at Taloja for Biryani or at Talegaon on route to Pune for the best stuffed Tandoori Aloo. Trips to Delhi were memorable only because of the street food and chaat of Sarojini Nagar and Khan Market. Or the Dhabbas serving Missi Roti and Mahki Dal in Chandigarh,” she recalls dreamily.
When she could not resist the call of entrepreneurship any longer, she combined her two great loves – food and travel – and launched Tikka Safari, a travel startup that specialises in food safaris. “Each safari is five to seven days long, covers two to four cities and is spent visiting eateries, shopping at bazaars, cooking classes, purchasing local produce and experiencing India in the best way possible – gastronomically!” she enthuses.“At Tikka Safari, India is explored not only through great locations, cities, temples, and monuments; it is explored through local cuisines, iconic dishes, food traditions, in homes and eateries. We help you discover India through its food, one of the single most significant trademarks of our culture,” she says.
“We offer fixed Set Safaris, each with 14–16 seats, where people can register solo, or in small and large groups and enjoy a set itinerary. We also offer customised safaris for anyone who wants to explore food and India with their dear ones. All meals, stay, and travel are included in the Safari,” Chetna rattles off.
Before starting up, Chetna spent 13 years working as a learning consultant with leading international firms. But in July 2014, she made the decision to quit and start out on her own full time. She also runs another startup, content creation firm Ink Pundit, with a partner. But it is in Tikka Safari that she gets to live out her childhood dreams.
Chetna says, “Growing up in a Sindhi household, food was the singular most important thing in our lives. Every problem was solved with food and most conversations revolved around what was to be eaten in the next meal.” Given that her obsession with food has been a steady one throughout her life, the initial idea was to set up an event management firm with a focus on food as the main theme around which the events would be designed. “International cuisines, themed parties, fusion food parties, and gourmet food experiences,” she offers.
But that concept didn’t quite appeal. “The hole in this plan was the fact that there are literally thousands of event management firms and the service I was offering had to have uniqueness in addition to the value proposition. So the plan evolved further and I decided to use another dimension of my experience: travel.” And that experience she has, by the heaps.
“As a learning consultant, I travelled the length and breadth of India. Every time I was in a new city, a lot of time was spent sampling local cuisines and purchasing specialties that different places had to offer. These trips made me realise just how much variety of cuisine our country had to offer, not to mention the locations themselves had a variety that few other countries can match. India has beaches, plains, deserts, snow clad mountains, tea estates, lush valleys, and we have access to some of the most diverse natural topography. I wanted to incorporate that in my business plan,” Chetna adds.
After doing some research, she realised that other than a few players who offered food tours in addition to their regular services, there was no one offering exclusive food and travel trails. “As a person who loves the food, people and places this country has to offer, the idea of Tikka Safari emerged as a way to showcase the best of India by bringing it to food lovers and travellers, both from India and the rest of the world,” she says.
Christening her startup was the hard part because, as Chetna adds woefully, “No name was good enough.” Then an afternoon of brainstorming later a dear friend came up with this nomenclature which she instantly latched onto. As she says, “The name Tikka Safari represents the most famous food export of India – the Tikka Masala – and travelling across the country chasing food both famous and obscure.”
Chetna has strong opinions on why time is ripe for startups like Tikka Safari to exist. “India in the 21st century is waking up to the Internet. Exposure levels to everything that’s happening around us is at an all-time high, purchasing power in this country has risen significantly in the last decade and the urban population has moved their attention from basic needs to fulfilling luxury needs.”
People are now willing to try out new experiences. Mantras like YOLO are the order of the day and why should food be any different? We live in a country where each state has a variety of cuisines which are unlike any other state within the country. Talk about the options!”
She admits that the excitements are rife with challenges. “The challenges in this industry are two-fold, one that is directly linked to the economy, both Indian and global. Dire financial straits, such as the sub-prime crises, obviously directly impact the expenditure on luxury items and reduce the demand for travel, and eating out.
The infrastructural challenges are out of control of both Tikka Safari and the industry at large, but are real and do impact business. Highways and roads, telecom connectivity, trains, buses, stations, public facilities do make a difference to the tourism sector.”
Chetna has a simple strategy to address these concerns. “The key to growing Tikka Safari lies in collaboration. Hotels, restaurants, food bloggers, home chefs, taxi operators, guides, offbeat travel experiences, food walks, etc., are all partnerships that will add to the Tikka Safari experience. The idea is to amass partnerships and eventually allow consumers to pick and choose and create their own Tikka Safari; maybe not just food-related safaris, but a whole gamut of experiences.”
Chetna is bootstrapping Tikka Safari with her own savings presently. “I would at some point consider financial finding to grow the company, let’s see how that goes. I’m positive that it would be a company that would receive funding,” she affirms.
Asking Chetna to pick a favourite food is quite criminal but she relents. “I could wax eloquent about the food items I love. Having said that my ‘always want to eat’ dish is sushi. I love how each morsel is a perfect balance of flavour and every time you bite into it, the experience is a burst of the perfect flavours, each one enhancing the other.
Closer to home, Rechad Crab and Goan masala fried prawns are my favourite dishes.”
Chetna is gratified by the deluge of positive response Tikka Safari has received since going live in June earlier this year, but maintains that these are just baby steps. “There is a long way to go,” she sighs. “In four to six months’ time we will hopefully enter the next phase of our journey, with plans for funding and apps depending on its performance in the coming months.”
While the creation and execution of safaris is right up her alley, Chetna readily admits to the accompanying failures that starting up brought for her. “Since it’s still early days for Tikka Safari, one failure that I can share is my limited skills in marketing. While the food-related aspects are my forte, marketing it and showcasing it to get actual consumers was an area I definitely fell short in,” she shares. But she says she is an eager learner and is okay with giving up control when expertise on a subject matter eludes her.
Moreover, she has other exciting things to look forward to. “The ability to pursue what I am most passionate about – that’s the best motivator in the world. Nights working until 4:00 AM are a breeze, flexibility of working from home in the company of my pets, collaborating with some amazing people, being able to use your creative and decision-making skills, and finally the luxury of creating a culture that you wish to work in.” That, for Chetna, is where the glory of starting up lies and it’s what she can be found basking in most days.