6 years of experiments and pivots later, this homemade food delivery startup is gearing up for growth
Born from a quest for meal alternatives closer to the home and heart, Masalabox is all about door delivering home-cooked meals and homemade delicacies.
“Our meals are what mothers would approve of,” says Harsha Thachery, Founder of the Bengaluru-Kochi based startup. “In fact, most often, the food is made by mothers themselves. The food is made in small quantities and love and passion are the only additives that go into it,” she adds.
Today, Masalabox delivers anywhere between 1,000 and 1,500 home-cooked meals a day in Bengaluru, and has been seeing a MoM growth rate of 30 percent.
Harsha Thachery of Masalabox
A bumpy start
A former chartered accountant, Harsha closely worked with startups, including her husband’s gaming venture, helping them streamline their financials and fundraising efforts. However, as a passionate baker, she wanted to explore a career in the booming food and services segment. After multiple discussions, the idea of Masalabox began taking shape. During this time, she also became a first-time mother and decided to prioritise motherhood. “Once my child became a little independent, I knew I now could give time to my entrepreneurial ambition.”
Masalabox began in 2014 with a pre-order model but soon pivoted to the on-demand delivery space. “With the onslaught of food delivery startups, people began to expect the food to be delivered on demand. But, soon, we realised it wasn’t probably the best move. Unlike the many big players, we weren’t working with restaurants but home chefs, who handle their daily household responsibilities and leverage their culinary skills to earn some financial income. So it just wasn’t practical.”
Even though the move didn’t work in their favour from a business profitability perspective, it helped them uncover what worked and what didn’t. Armed with these learnings, Masalabox pivoted yet again and began operating through a subscription model.
How they operate
Under the current subscription model, users can subscribe for five, 10, 20, or 30 meals. Users also have the choice between different meal plans according to their dietary requirement - vegetarian, non-vegetarian, rice-based, or bread-based. The meals come from Masalabox’s network of over 200 home chefs who prepare the pre-decided menu in their home kitchens that are compliant with the FSSAI guidelines. In the last 12 months, Masalabox has served over 200,000 meals.
Talking about how the chefs are on-boarded, Harsha shares, “While we do get a lot of inbound applications from home chefs who want to be part of Masalabox, we also actively look out for home chefs who have exceptional culinary skills or are adept in a particular cuisine. Either way, the on-boarding process is stringent. We test the samples, understand their strengths, and help them to ensure that their kitchens meet the FSSAI guidelines. Also, while distributing the orders, we ensure that the home chefs do not cook more than two or three times a week for Masalabox. Because, if it becomes a daily chore, they lose the flexibility to enjoy what they do and will cease to be exciting.”
Masalabox ensures that the home chefs are given ample time to procure the fresh produce. The delivery and packaging is also taken care of by Masalabox. “Our delivery team hand out the packaging to the home chefs, pick up the cooked meals and deliver it to the customers. This ensures that the home chefs can concentrate on what they do best and are not hassled by the packaging and delivery requirements.”
Syncing up on WhatsApp
Masalabox uses WhatsApp to sync up and coordinate with its network of home chefs as well as communicate with its customers.
“As a business, we wanted to have an easy contact point for customers and home chefs, our two key stakeholders. And, customers always preferred WhatsApp over other modes. So, we began using WhatsApp in 2016 and shifted to WhatsApp for Business when it was launched in 2018.”
Masalabox uses WhatsApp for Business to engage with their users and chefs on a daily basis, and get their feedback. “In spite of having inbuilt features in the app to share feedback, many customers prefer to share on WhatsApp. Also, for any kind of customer support, they invariably reach out to us on WhatsApp.”
She adds, “Just the fact that almost everyone is on WhatsApp helps immensely. The simplicity of the chat remains at the core.”
The chat backup also helps Masalabox profile a customer better and helps in identifying the user preferences and context. This understanding has been translated into repeat orders.
The story is no different for the food tech startup’s chef app which helps its community of home chefs to fix their availability, plan individual meals, corporate or party orders, view the menu, track payments and also evaluate the cooking. “Many of the non-tech-savvy chefs prefer to know their daily orders through WhatsApp instead of our app.”
In addition, the insights that they get from the communication stats works as a good tool for the startup to keep a tab on its daily engagement levels and identify the market vibes, explains the founder.
Experiments and challenges
After pivoting to the subscription model, Masalabox also experimented with undertaking corporate orders and party orders. “These were meant to experiment the viability of additional revenue streams. We tested the orders and the revenue was good. But the effort it took to run the corporate orders was unfeasible for a small startup that works with homechefs. So, we are not looking to scale up on that front. But, party orders proved not only to be a good revenue stream, but also an exciting proposition for our home chefs. So, that’s one area we want to scale up. At the moment, 20-30 percent of the revenue comes from party orders.”
Today, with a clear business model, revenue streams, and operations streamlined, the challenges for Masalabox have to do more with marketing.
“Initially, when we started out, it was difficult to get comfortable with ordering food online. But, the penetration of the big foodtech players made it possible. Today, the bigger challenge for us is asking for people to get comfortable with meal subscription because people have got used to planning their meals just 30 minutes before lunchtime. Also, their choice of food depends a lot on what they feel like eating today.”
Now gearing to grow
“The size of the unorganised food delivery segment in India is valued at $80 billion. The GMV of the organised food delivery sector is around $1.5 billion. It is also interesting to note that 34 percent of this market prefers to have home-made food, and that is clearly why we believe we have a huge market to tap. Given that we are empowering a lot of home chefs, we are adding value and gratification to our business growth,” explains Harsha as she talks about the viability of business like Masalabox in a sector that has huge competition from big and small players and razor-thin profitability margins.
Six years after testing the waters and pivoting multiple times, Masalabox is now gearing up to go big.. It is looking to capitalise on its subscription business and also expand its geographical footprint in Bengaluru. Interestingly, they also have plans to bring back the on-demand food delivery service.
“We have been working to put the processes in place and also learn from our past experiences. Another area that we are working on is experimenting with sustainable packaging. A lot of customers have told us while they love the food, the amount of plastic that gets generated is making them uncomfortable and guilty. And, rightly so.”
A mother of two now, Harsha has a good support system at home and work. “If anything, the personal and professional journey now seem more exciting than ever before,” concludes the Founder.