Apeksha Jain's experiment with making jam led her to start a company that makes artisanal jams, preserves, and relishes.
Food is as much about technique as it is about instinct. You could follow a recipe to a T and still not get the desired results but following your gut helps you stir that magic into food. Through The Gourmet Jar, Apeksha Jain has done just that.
The 35-year-old’s tryst with food started when she was 15 because, as she says, “I have a big family of foodies. I loved cooking for all of them and felt really satisfied when they would enjoy what I made!”
Be it with VCs or customers, Apeksha has let her products do the talking, and we caught up with her to talk about inspiration, recipes, and any big post-funding plans she might have.
Apeksha hails from Meerut and spent her early years between home and her boarding school in Mussoorie. It was during a summer break while studying economics at Lady Shri Ram College, New Delhi that she began learning French, a language she loved so much she decided to make a career out of it.
It was in 2009 when she was in Paris while her husband did his MBA there that Apeksha had a lot of free time and access to the most amazing ingredients. “I was naturally spending a lot of time cooking and experimenting, and that was the time when blogging was the new thing to do. So I jumped on that bandwagon, and as time went on, I delved deeper into the food world,” she says.
Upon their return to India, Apeksha’s husband kept reminiscing about this banana jam he had eaten at a B&B in Burgundy.
By 2011, I knew I was a talented cook, and one day I just told myself that a banana jam couldn’t be so difficult to make, so I looked up the basics and made my very first batch. It came out amazing! He loved it, and hence I started experimenting with more flavours.
Gradually, Apeksha’s friends and family got to taste her preserves and their response too was encouraging. When it dawned upon her that the Indian jam market lacked fresh, artisanal-style preserves, she decided to address the gap.
Apeksha started with three products and over the years has added and deleted a few. In 2012 she started from home and sold her products through Facebook. It was only in June 2014 that she started selling extensively and the business moved out of her house.
The bestsellers are the banana rum jam, orange whisky marmalade, mango jalapeno preserve, and spicy onion relish. “The response from the beginning has been fantastic, and I think what our customers really love is our unique flavour combinations and the purity of our ingredients,” she says. Apeeksha adds new flavours every six months, while also phasing out the flavours that didn’t get a good response. Last year she added a range of mustards and relishes as well.
They have a 4,000-sqft production unit in Noida, where there are 12 women involved in all the processes. “Yes, we have an all-women production team,” she says.
Over the past couple of years, they have sold more than three lakh jars through three sales channels — through their website, through their distributor to retail stores, and institutional packaging to hotels and restaurants.
Recipe books did come to her aid in the beginning, but Apeksha now operates on instinct. “It took a lot of practice to master the techniques and there have been batches that went wrong or flavours that just didn’t work together. Eventually, experience helped me master the recipes and techniques.”
When coming up with a recipe, she first starts with the core fruit, conceptualises the kind of end product she wants (jam, relish, chutney, or savoury spread) and then does trials with different flavour combinations. She says, “The first one to try all of these is my husband! I then send samples to friends, family, and regular customers, and use their feedback to zero in on the best one. The recipes I use are most definitely my own creation.”
Exposure through television and availability of different kinds of produce has changed people’s food
habits and tastes over the years. Apeksha says, “People are travelling a lot more, hence they are exposed to new flavours. There’s also an increased focus on cooking new things at home, thanks to shows like Master Chef and the increasing access to exotic ingredients in India. There’s also a huge shift towards organic and natural food as the awareness about the harmful effect of artificial ingredients is increasing.”
The jams and preserve market, according to Apeksha, is worth over Rs 300 crore, The Gourmet Jar has immense potential as they are not just an FMCG brand for retail counters but also part of the gifting market. “And we’ve also created the category of relishes in India.”
The Gourmet Jar competes with international brands like Bonne Maman, Dana, and Hartley’s, and Bhuira Jams on the domestic front.
Apeksha raised an undisclosed amount from Chandigarh Angels Network (CAN) last year and is using it towards upgrading the production facility, building a team, and increasing spend towards brand building.
Asked about the challenges she faced while fundraising in the food sector and whether she went through anything on account of being a woman, she reveals, "The biggest challenge was in making people believe in the growth potential of the condiment market. It’s something that has not been given any attention till now, and the word ‘gourmet’ has not really been associated with it. I never felt that anyone questioned me because I was a woman. In fact, I feel people were keen to invest in my brand because they were happy to promote a woman entrepreneur."
The big win was to convince the investors, which she nailed through a blind tasting.
We did a blind taste test with a few Indian and imported brands, and the results made it very easy for them to believe in the brand.
This year, Apeksha plans to introduce a few sugar-free variants, more savoury condiments, and some interesting gift boxes. They have recently moved to a bigger production facility in order to increase the scale of operations.
While they do not have a brick and mortar store at the moment, we may see one in 2018. Their marketing has been mostly through social media and events and by word of mouth but going forward, there is going to be increased emphasis on digital marketing and some interesting collaborations with related brands.
“Supply chain management and logistics have been an ongoing challenge,” says Apeksha. One of the biggest obstacles she faces is that of perception management. “The Indian consumer thinks that if it’s imported, it’s better, but that is not the case. The way we overcome it is by doing a lot of sampling. The moment you taste our product, you realise the difference in the purity of taste and flavour.”
One of the best compliments for Apeksha has been to see her husband quit his own job and join her full-time. “He’s always been a constant pillar of support but this made me feel like I’ve reached a major milestone, that I’ve created something from scratch and brought it so far.”
The desire to innovate keeps her on her toes, along with the instant gratification on people’s faces when they sample her products. There is nothing stopping her from doing what she loves. No wonder then that her motto for the year goes:
Dream. Believe. Do. Repeat.