[100 Emerging Women Leaders] Ex-Paytm exec Prerna Kalra’s visit to China changed how she looked at home-cooked meals

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In this week’s 100 Emerging Women Leaders, we feature Prerna Kalra, Co-founder of foodtech venture DaalChini. The Delhi-NCR-based startup is converting its manned kiosks to unmanned ones due to the pandemic.
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Prerna Kalra’s busy schedule meant it was a constant challenge to carry home-cooked meals to work every day.

“I barely had time to cook breakfast or lunch, and would find myself craving fresh home-cooked food. Food delivery simply got tiresome, expensive, and just didn’t match my schedule between meetings,” she says.

During one of her work visits to China, she came across vending machines that dispensed almost every kind of fresh food item - from fruits to momos and more.

When she returned, she and Vidya Bhushan, her colleague from Paytm, got into research mode to see if the idea of setting up food kiosks in India was feasible. She found that even with over 3,500 home-tiffin services in 2017, getting home food wasn’t easy. 

Daalchini Co-founder Prerna Kalra knew from the beginning that providing fresh food from an unmanned kiosk would be a tech and operation-intensive business.  

An inspired Prerna, along with Vidya, started Daalchini Technologies in August 2017. The Delhi-based startup provides instant, affordable, and healthy home-cooked food to professionals through its IoT-enabled phygital (physical and digital) vending machines.

The need for strong service was clearly there – and this is what Daalchini wanted to tap. 

“There were multiple reasons for this. The logistics infrastructure of the tiffin services weren’t in place to cater to a large demand. The lack of affordable distribution channel doubles the final cost to the consumer. Customers are willing to pay this additional cost for restaurant food, but are unwilling to do so for home-cooked meals that meets their daily nutrition requirements,” Prerna says.

She explains there was a gap of Rs 40 on each delivery cost and a delivery time of 40 minutes, which wasn’t acceptable to customers. 

Starting with two smart vending machines in April 2018 in Delhi-NCR, the foodtech startup has now set up over 140 machines in office spaces, hospitals, hostels, etc., to provide healthy and affordable home food instantly. 

Since inception, DaalChini has had a steady increase in the number of orders per month. As of 2019, the start was at 7,000 orders per day, and was seeing more than 15 percent growth month on month. 

The impact of the pandemic 

In March 2020, the team was looking at further geographic expansion when the pandemic hit. 

“In the initial days it was about figuring out about survival and thinking about how we could grow our business. We began operations in April 2018 after developing the product for about six months. We grew from two kiosks to 50 in FY19, and from 50 to 200 in FY20. That’s when the pandemic had hit the country and we had to pivot from 77 percent into corporate offices to a much larger scope of hospitals, manufacturing, and pharma companies, in-transit options like cabs/buses, and residential complexes. 

“In Q4 of FY21, we grew from 200 to 310 and now 510+ kiosks by expanding the scope of our solution and clocking Rs 3 crore+ GMV. At the pace we are growing, we should be able to achieve a Rs 12 crore monthly turnover rate by the end of FY22.”

Daalchini was able to achieve this growth by converting its 90 manned pantries at Reliance Industries' plant in Jamnagar into contactless, digitally-enabled kiosks. These are 100 percent cashless, app-based, and contactless.

The company recently outlined its plans to increase the number of vending machines from 400 to 600, across cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Goa, Chandigarh, Mohali, and more.

It is also creating a sub-99 food store to enable brands in all food and beverage categories (frozen, chilled, meal kits, snacks, bakery, immunity boosters, healthy/energy drinks, yogurts, etc.) reach their targeted customers and help them scale fast across multiple geographies.

“When the pandemic hit, the first order of our business was to see how our team fares. We kept working to ensure that they stayed safe and didn’t have any issues. The team’s health and safety have been a priority for us,” Prerna says. 

Daalchini Co-founder Prerna Kalra says hard work and resilience always pay off.

Focus on homestyle meals 

A typical day for home chefs working with Daalchini starts at around 3 am. They prepare fresh food daily with prescribed recipes and ingredients, and ensure it meets food safety standards.

The food is then chilled, packed, and transported to the respective kiosks by the distribution force through bikes and vans. Daalchini’s quick bites are priced at Rs 34 and meal combos cost up to Rs 79. Other packed snacks and beverage items are in the Rs 10 to Rs 99 range. The average order value is around Rs 29.  

Prerna knew when she started that offering fresh food from an unmanned kiosk would be a tech and operation-intensive business.

 “As both of us (Vidya and I) came from product, technology, and operations background, we knew we would need someone to bring food expertise on our side,” Prerna says. The team roped in people with this expertise to get started. 

Daalchini provides instant, affordable, and healthy home-cooked food to professionals through its IoT-enabled vending machines.

Daalchini was bootstrapped with funding from both founders. It has so far raised Rs 11 crore in funding in the last two years from Micro-VC Artha Venture Fund and a few renowned angel investors like Ajay Kaul (former CEO, Dominos India), Renu Satti (VP, Paytm and former CEO, Paytm Bank), Pradyumna Agarwal (Director, Temasek), and Amit Lakhotia (CEO, Park+) and few more.

“As we adapt to the pandemic, we plan to raise fresh funds to expand our solution beyond 10 cities and the form factor to more use cases,” Prerna says. She adds that physical retail remains strong in India, and Daalchini “wants to be a significant part of that growth”. 

Today, despite the pandemic, Prerna says the team and the company are working towards a strong growth trajectory. 

Advising women, Prerna says: “Hard work always pays off. Whether you are funded or not, have media presence or not, hard work and resilience always works. These things have always worked for me.” 

Edited by Teja Lele Desai

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