Living far away from home, where the dal you packed from the neighbourhood Udipi is as cloudy as the bulbs in your bedroom, nostalgia first manifests itself as a reminiscence not in the brain but on the tongue. The flavours of one’s land are unshakeable, the memories of one’s favourite dishes ingrained. ‘But while we must wallow within our state and national boundaries, why should our taste buds be victims to the same, in the digital age?’ thought Harmit Singh, a foodie who turned his cravings into a venture.
The reluctant foodie-mentalist
29-year-old IIM-A grad Harmitsingh Sikh was an educator, just like the three generations of his family that preceded him. He became an assistant professor at a management institute soon after completing his MBA 6 years ago, and then cracked the NET Exam before going on to procure a doctorate in management from CEPT University, Ahmedabad.
“But there was always this little entrepreneur in me! Be it selling goods made by blind people or running food stalls during Navratri,” says Harmit. So, soon after completing his PhD, he decided to take a sabbatical for two years to see if his entrepreneurial dreams had any substance in them – only to discover, right in front of him, a problem he had experienced all his life that he was equipped to solve.
Trouble in paradise
Being a Punjabi in Gujarat, he was never big on Gujarati food and yearned for the taste of his motherland. Luckily, Harmit’s relatives from Mumbai, Jaipur, Indore, Amritsar and Bengaluru dutifully brought him big bags full of regional sweets and namkeens every time they visited. “Conversely, my mom and dad, and my neighbors would pack tons of goodies from Gujarat when they visited family, or send them to their children studying abroad, whose eating habits they would perpetually worry about,” says Harmit.
So, one fine day, when the urge for "Pinnis" from Amritsar reached its peak, the idea struck Harmit - why not create an e-commerce platform that exclusively delivers such regional specialties to your doorstep? “I strongly believe that certain things can't have any substitutes, and specialty food is one such thing,” explains the foodie.
Dreams on wheels
The idea was simple – convince local vendors from across the expanse of our diverse land to sell their local gems on what was christened as Foodmemories.com. Today, one month hence, almost 110 legendary food brands from 17 different states of India are on their portal.
Since they are dealing with food, to maintain freshness and authenticity, they do not keep any inventory, and source it from the vendors through local courier partners when an order is placed. “We are using our own designed and customised core PhP platform to run our e-commerce web-portal, and this includes vendor's portal as well. The entire operation is planned in such a way that all placed orders before 2 pm will be dispatched on the same day to customers and orders placed after that will be dispatched the next morning in order to ensure timely delivery,” says Harmit. And this militaristic logistical hygiene is what enables them to guarantee delivery within four days, anywhere in the world.
The categories available currently are sweets, namkeens, healthy food (sugar-free, gluten-free, roasted, and organic) and premium food. Sweets constitute 40 percent of their orders, followed by namkeens, including staples, which command a 30 percent share. Health food contributes to 18 percent of sales, followed by premium specialties.
The company generates revenue by collecting a margin from its vendors, which ranges from 15-30 percent of the price of the product. “In turn, we sell all our products at the same price at which it is available at the retail outlet.” They charge Rs 50 per 500gm for domestic shipments and Rs 450 per kg for international shipments. Right now, they’re even providing free shipping on orders above Rs 500 as an introductory offer!
Thus, after incurring expenditure on marketing, promotions and operations, the company nets around an 8-10 percent margin. The average order size for domestic orders has been around Rs 500 and that for international orders Rs 3,000.
His then girlfriend and now wife, Shreshtha Dabral, was a part of the before as well as the after of this journey. She hails from Dehradun and holds an MBA and Ph.D in HRM. She helped build an exhaustive database of some of the most celebrated vendors in India, and currently manages the entire team at FoodMemories.
Meanwhile, close friend Malav Desai, also 29 years old, and a Chartered Accountant by profession, helped in getting the required funds on board to run the show, and his wife Urvi, who has a way with words, handled most of the content and photography for the website. Finally, Sandeep Shah, an old family friend, also framed operational policies and formats for the starter team.
Targeting the nostalgic gourmand
At the beta stage, launched amongst friends and relatives with volumes of 10 orders a day, they are now moving to 60-70 orders in a span of just 20 days, without any paid marketing, and are on course to clocking around 250 orders per day, 25 percent of which will be international orders, in the next two months using suitable marketing.
A challenge was to convince and educate the vendors about the reach and power of e-commerce, to overcome which, the team visited each vendor by traveling non-stop for two months. “Another task was to bring all these products to the Ahmedabad head office to click flattering, marketable pictures,” says Harmit, of a quintessential behind-the-scenes startup landscape during the first leg of the journey. Having said that, Harmit gleefully lets on that FoodMemories has successfully delivered to 1,200-odd customers all over the world, within the promised four working days and with zero negative reviews so far. They are equipped to deliver to 14,000 Indian pin codes and 120 countries.
One goal is to create awareness about their brand for people who know of the local specialties but do not know how to get them where they currently reside. To target this section, they have a put a marketing strategy in place. Another key section is made up of those who may be fans of a particular delicacy, but may not be aware that it has an authentic version, which can now be ordered across borders. For example, if a person is looking to order coffee online, why not order it from Coorg? “The idea is to educate this clientele about the legacy that these vendors carry and offer them the best India has to offer,” says Harmit. This section is being tapped into by pull marketing.
There is a huge demand for authentic Indian food amongst the migrant population in India. So, they are betting heavily on migrants residing in cities like Gurgaon, Noida, Bengaluru, Pune and Kolkata.
The total revenues generated by the self-funded company, till date, are around Rs 8 lakh. “We're planning to invest more in international markets, targeting the Indian diaspora, where our reach is magnified and the ticket size is higher,” reveals Harmit.
The Indian sweet and savoury market is pegged at Rs 50,000 crore, out of which the vendors they have on board contribute to around Rs 2,500-3,000 cr. “There are a few domestic players in the running, like Mishtijar.com and Flavorsofmycity.com, but none of them have the numbers and kind of vendors that we have on board. No one penetrated India like we did. And none of them ship internationally!” says Harmit.
They are looking for $1 million in investment to further invest in vendor tie-ups, marketing, and technology upgradation. They are on course to add 150 more vendors and 10 more states in the next six months.