Farm to fork via foreign lands: how a 20-year-old exporter of organic spices is staking claim to Indian supermarket shelves
Phalada Agro Research Foundation began by providing agri inputs to organic farmers, and pivoted to becoming India’s largest exporters of organic spices, herbs, and essential oils. Today, they also have their own brand in India. Check out their latest: an all-organic store in Bengaluru!
Saturday June 01, 2019,
7 min Read
What do you do when you’ve been an exporter of organic foods for two decades, and your products are available in every major supermarket chain and organic store? How do you get it to a larger customer base and get them hooked? Simple! You show them how awesome the food cooked from these ingredients can be.
The Pure & Sure Café and Store in the south Bengaluru suburb of Jayanagar is the brainchild of Surya Shastry, the scion of Phalada Agro Research Foundations. The cozy space, which features a pretty alcove overlooking the street, is a great for a lazy weekend meal on a hot summer day, or a quick bite in the middle of your errands.
But first, a bit of history
Phalada Agro Research Foundations was started in 1999 by CMN Shastry to develop agri inputs for organic farmers to improve the fertility of the soil and protect them from pests and diseases without using chemicals. At a time when organic farming was practically unknown in India, he believed that this method would be good for the planet.
It wasn’t an easy start by any means. Farmers wondered how they would be compensated for a lower yield (vs chemically treated fields) and who would even buy organically grown food grains and spices in India. This led Shastry to explore foreign markets. Over the next four years, Phalada Agro began helping farmer groups gain certification for organic farming and began to provide them an assured export market for their organic produce.
During this time, he relied on his family’s leather business to provide the cushion the new business needed to survive. Today, Phalada is one of India’s largest exporters of organic spices and herbs, as well as essential oils and extracts.
It also has a thriving domestic business, the brainchild of Shastry’s son, Surya, who joined the business in 2008.
“When we started, organic products from India did not have much credibility among importers. We tried out coffee, but they told they had not had a good experience with Indian suppliers. Then we discovered that there was a huge demand for pepper and Indian spices. Since coffee farmers often also grow spices, we started with that. Today, coffee is among our top three products,” says Surya with pride.
Surya started off as a management trainee and then worked in different areas of the business before becoming managing director a few years later. By this time, the Indian market had grown enough to make the company take a serious look at selling domestically as well.
“I was personally very keen on starting a brand of our own. Once I learned how the entire supply chain worked and saw the Indian market opening up, I felt the time was right,” he shares.
They had already been selling in bulk to other labels in India, so the decision to launch their own brand was an extension of that idea. Phalada launched its retail business under the Pure & Sure brand, with 10 spices and then expanded to 30 products, including pulses and grains.
In retail, shelf space is all-important. Getting retailers to carry your products is half the battle won. “At first, we tied up with standalone organic food stores,” Surya says.
Soon enough, Pure & Sure began appearing on supermarket shelves, first at Nature’s Basket and then in chains like Spar, Metro, Foodhall, Spencer’s, and more. The Pure & Sure range is available on their website and on Amazon, Flipkart, etc., but no retailer carried all their products offline.
The shift from wholesale to retail was a bold move, especially since they were not an early mover in a market where the bulk of consumers believe that the products are expensive.
“Pulses and grains, we realised, were very price-driven and didn’t enjoy much brand loyalty. We do carry them, but we diversified early on into value-added foods such as organic instant breakfast mixes, organic snacks. We were often the first in the category, which did help us get the shelf space we needed,” Surya says.
However, to move forward, he felt they needed a way to not only showcase this range but also show customers how they can be blended into familiar recipes. And of course, how great they tasted.
The result was the first Pure & Sure Organic Café. “The idea was that if you want to cook with organic ingredients at home, you can buy everything you need in one place. If you want to eat out, you can do that too. We are here to connect all the dots for people who want an organic lifestyle,” Surya explains.
One of the biggest challenges with an organic food restaurant is sourcing. “There is inconsistent supply chain out there for a small space to work well,” Surya explains. But since most ingredients are sourced internally, this is not a problem for the new café. The economies of scale that come from owning an entire backend are passed on to customers.
One rule is that there are no exceptions to the rule of organic-only ingredients, he adds.
“I don’t have olives on my pizzas, because I haven’t yet found a supplier in India who can provide organic olives,” he points out.
“Export remains a bigger chunk of our business, but I feel our retail business has bigger potential,” asserts Surya. “The market is projected to grow at least 25 percent year on year for the next five years. There aren’t too many brands out there with a nationwide presence.”
What’s in store at the Pure & Sure Café
If you’re looking to detox without starving this weekend, try some sumptuous organic food and drink at the Pure & Sure café in Bengaluru. The menu is full of surprises and gives diners plenty of options across vegetarian, vegan, Jain, and gluten-free dishes to order from.
The Pure & Sure Café is located in a tree-lined avenue, tucked away from the traffic that the city is notorious for, but on a main road, nevertheless. The white-themed, minimalistic décor reflects the café’s ethos of clean eating. All the items on the menu are made from organic ingredients, mostly from Pure & Sure’s own range. The fresh produce too comes from farms they have been working with.
While the menu is all-veg, Pure & Sure worked with a consultant chef – the 29-year-old Tanvi Chandan, a partner a Pineapple, Inc - to provide some interesting options for meat-eaters as well. A cousin of the much-maligned ripe jackfruit – the smaller, raw version – is transformed into a vegan substitute for recipes that call for meats. You can find it on the menu in the form of a burger, a tikki, and as a ‘jackfruit keema’.
In line with current tastes, Pure & Sure has added keto-friendly options such as the bullet coffee. All hot beverages come with the option of palm sugar or coconut sugar (there’s regular white sugar too.)
The menu also features several super foods such as moringa (the humble drumstick tree), chia, and millets of every kind. The millets, in particular, have also found their way into the biryani (instead of regular rice) and in the Thali Meal, which also features a multi-millet kheer.
Traditional snacks such as the nipattu finds a new avatar as the Nipattu Falafel, while moringa is available, among other things, as part of an avocado-based smoothie. There’s also a Namma Chip-and-Dip which also comes with chakli (murukku) besides lavash and naan.
For those with a sweet tooth, there’s the mango risotto cheesecake, made from organic mangoes that Pure & Sure also exports. You can also opt for fruit platters served with honey and yoghurt. And if you’re in mood for some old favourites, try the Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich, Topped Crostini, Grilled Vegetables, Chilli Cheese Toast. All of it is made in an open kitchen that runs the length of the café.
“We wanted our customers to know that everything was freshly made, using purely organic ingredients and produce,” says Surya.
Pure & Sure has ambitious plans for its cafés and stores. The first one is just over two months old now, but if all goes well, Surya plans to have four such cafés in Bengaluru alone before the end of the year.