Made-in-Chennai tiffin box becomes a hit in the US, thanks to Vaya Life

Made-in-Chennai tiffin box becomes a hit in the US, thanks to Vaya Life

Thursday April 20, 2017,

6 min Read

Vaya Life wants to rejuvenate mundane home products like the lunch box with great design and cultural aesthetics.

Remember the stainless steel dabba that your mother meticulously packed when you were in school? And how you would wait the whole morning until the lunch bell, and then scramble to unclasp the box to see what was inside? Today, eating a piece of well-fried sausage, a tart lime pickle, and fluffy stuffed parantha out of a lunch box can instantly take us back to school days, of jungle gyms and ink-mottled uniforms. The tiffin box has, in many ways, shaped our attitudes towards food, and carried the memory and love of our mothers.

Vashist Vasanthakumar, Founder, Vaya Life

Now, in Chennai, where the word 'tiffin' carries a certain emotion, a startup is bringing back the sentiments associated with a lunch box. It is changing the way food is packed and carried outside the country, with the aesthetic designs and cultural moorings of India. Currently, the company sells 10,000 units of lunch boxes, and is gaining popularity in the US for a design made and registered in Chennai.

And just like the ones from your school days, these boxes aren't made of plastic, but built from stainless steel, with a copper finish to the food compartments.

Vashist Vasanthakumar, a 32-year-old entrepreneur who left the high life in the US to find meaning in Indian design, never had it easy in India. People made fun of him for wanting to manufacture lunch boxes. Some even thought he was was mad because he left Apple Inc after almost a decade at the company. However, he has proved everyone wrong over the last year or so.

“India needs great products and design. Why can’t we have products like Nike or Toyota? So my aim was to start with functional things that Indians use on a daily basis and incorporate aspiring elements into them,” says Vashist, Founder of Vaya Life.

His peers from India agree with the fact that more needs to be made in the country. “It is great to see brands designed in India. The IP remains in this country and it showcases our strength in design and engineering,” says Mahesh Lingareddy, Founder of Smartron.

Ever since the company took off in mid-2016, Vaya Life’s endeavour was to infuse freshness into daily home products, whose value and even functionality took a hit with globalisation, with the market getting flooded with cheap plastic products from China and elsewhere. Vaya has revamped the tiffin box into a smart product with sustainable design to impact the daily lives of customers. The company has drawn on expertise from professionals based out of Germany, Japan, the US and India to build the tiffin box.

The 'Tyffyn' boxes have been selling 10,000 units a month for the last six months. Vaya has created a roadmap to reach Rs 400 crore in revenues by 2020. Here is how it is going to do it.

Targeting Rs 400 crore by 2020

Vashist returned from the US in early 2016, but he was already working on products that could make it big in India. He looked at everything, including cutlery, before he zeroed in on the tiffin box.

In his previous avatar, he was one of the youngest directors at Apple, iPhone Operations. At the company, he learnt about the impeccable supply chain functions of the mobile phone manufacturer and, also the rigorous design process that he would have to follow if he ever decided to start up on his own. “Apple made me realise that I could design things in India and yet supply products for the world,” says Vashist.

He then returned to India and raised about Rs 35 crore from friends and family.

Experts laud efforts of entrepreneurs like Vashist. “There is a whole movement of brands that can hit it big in India, from the FMCG category to industrial design. It is great to see young entrepreneurs start this movement,” says Harminder Sahni, Founder of Wazir Advisors, a retail advisor.

A lunch box designed by Vaya

Vaya Life looked at all the major issues with the current lunch boxes in the market—bad design and lack of functionality—and framed a solution. The company spent six months on the drawing board and prototyped over 20 different models using 3D printing and other metal prototyping tools to understand aesthetics, fit and function of the product. Once it had a prototype it liked, the company created a manufacturing process that could make the T-1000s at the same quality. They did run into some roadblocks, which they quickly negotiated.

“We tried outsourcing some components and it never met our quality requirements. In the end, we decided that the best way to control quality and innovate in different manufacturing processes was to bring it all in-house, with state-of-the-art manufacturing, automation and inspection equipment,” says Vashist. The company has the capacity to make 1,000 lunch boxes per day, and has a contract running with a manufacturer in China. The product is designed in India and manufactured for the world.

Retailing only online

The company sells the lunch boxes on its website and on e-commerce sites such as Amazon. They may do a direct-to-retailer strategy in India but will not work with a distribution ecosystem which eats away the margins. Says Vashist,

“We’ve engineered every detail to get the best heat and cold retention in the market. We’ve also come up with a very aesthetic and easy to clean-lid solutions and there are no grooves, which are also leak-resistant.”

This year the company plans to create different variants of the 1,000ml and 600ml lunch/tiffin boxes to appeal to kids, corporates and other specific customer groups, including CEOs and executives. They are also going to iterate some product ideas, including making the product microwaveable without using plastic. This would be for customers who eat after 6-7 hours after packing. They are creating a host of accessories including a revolutionary insulated bottle/tumbler to create a great meal experience.

The company’s industrial design team is based out of Tokyo, while engineering, operations, marketing, customer care and sales teams are based out of Chennai. However, the product began to sell well in the US, Malaysia and Singapore and the company is expanding operations in those regions.

The Vaya Tyffyn is currently available as a 3-container vacuum-insulated lunch box, with a capacity of 1,000ml. It is priced at Rs 2,999 and is available in three variants–Graphite, Maple and Wool. The company is also planning to roll out 600ml 'Tyffyn'. “The product is designed to keep food hot even after six hours of packing, which means, at lunchtime, customers are sure to enjoy their meal, hot and fresh,” says Vashist.

So the founder is going all out to make India proud, and what better way than to start with something that reminds us of our mothers—the humble tiffin box.