Business on the beach

India’s sunshine state is morphing into a hub for food and drink entrepreneurs


(Clockwise from left) Hansel Vaz’s ‘feni’; Black Sheep Bistro’s ‘Diana’ with a tomato-onion relish; and Tea Trunk’s line of fine teas.
(Clockwise from left) Hansel Vaz’s ‘feni’; Black Sheep Bistro’s ‘Diana’ with a tomato-onion relish; and Tea Trunk’s line of fine teas.

When Mumbai-bred tea sommelier Snigdha Manchanda, 31, decided she was done with city life, it seemed a no-brainer to move to Goa. What surprised her, though, was the warmth with which Goa welcomed her, and her business. A few months after shifting base, in May 2013, Manchanda founded Tea Trunk, a line of fine hand-blended teas that is today shipped to 20 countries across the globe, besides being served in leading restaurants across the country.

“Dealing with the Panaji city corporation and the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India was super fast. I had all my trade and food licences within two-three weeks, all without paying a single rupee in bribes,” she says. “The paperwork was a breeze.”

Manchanda’s experiences may be contrary to the laid-back energy usually associated with the holiday destination, but they are not the exception. With its upwardly mobile, well-travelled and increasingly cosmopolitan society, Goa has tasted the global lifestyle. Add to it the huge floating population of tourists with a keen palate and an eye for new ideas in living, and you have the perfect climate for experiments in the food and drink space.

Jeetu Melwani with his Sattvic range at a farmers’ market
Noticing the potential for healthy lifestyle products, Jeetu Melwani, 32, founded Sattvic Innovations—a range of healthy food, snacks and supplements—last year. Goan by birth, Melwani chose to go back home for his entrepreneurial debut after several years travelling and working abroad “because it just made sense,” he says. “The costs of setting up operations are low, basic amenities are available. For a new business, these are vital. The quality of life in Goa is an add-on.”

Melwani sources the ingredients for his products—breakfast mixes, granola, dehydrated berries, seeds and nuts, natural health supplements in gluten-free, paleo, vegan and other segments—from across the country, and packages them in Mapusa, where his business is headquartered.

“The concept of ‘season’ exists here,” Melwani says, referring to the December-March period when tourists throng Goa. “Come March, and if your business has not successfully grown locally, you have to look across the country. The domestic Goan population doesn’t crave the healthy lifestyle as much as my target clientele (read foreigners and non-Goan settlers). But I don’t see this as a challenge, it’s an opportunity.”

Despite the pain points of labour and logistics, like Manchanda, Melwani too benefited from the ease of setting up operations. “It’s been just three months since I began, but I’ve started delivering to Mumbai and Pune too,” he says. Melwani has also tapped into a robust selling chain that spans supermarkets across north Goa, a few key ones in south Goa, and regular bulk orders from restaurants like the salad bar and soy station Bean Me Up in Vagator, and all-day-dining Café Bodega in Panaji, which buy into the healthy food ideology.

A number of restaurants, actually, are experimenting boldly with niche and sometimes esoteric concepts and finding pockets of loyalists. Mustard, a new restaurant slated to open doors mid-March in Sangolda, works on the zero-mile, farm-to-fork diet. “Goa has experienced the scope of Continental cuisines already, and the idea of regional food is a new one,” says Pritha Sen, who curated their regional cuisine menu.

But Mustard is not the only restaurant to confidently experiment with cuisine. In his bid to make fine dining affordable, Prahlad Sukhtankar, owner of the very hip Black Sheep Bistro, uses ingredients available within 100 miles of his restaurant in Panaji. The result is a frequently changing seasonal menu that uses a host of locally sourced ingredients like Goan peri peri chillies, desi groundnuts, vegetables and greens.

“I like to revisit unusual flavour combinations, revive forgotten traditions and methods of cooking,” says Sukhtankar, who replaces black cod and smoked salmon with local varieties of fish like modso and diana. Within 10 months, Black Sheep Bistro has become a magnet for those craving the “locally global” contemporary dining experience. Loyalists are also the mainstay for Bean Me Up, coming back for silky home-made tofu, wholewheat pizzas and vegetarian and vegan dishes that use only organically grown produce.

Keenly aware of the growing number of takers for healthy eating, marketing consultant Karan Manral, 38, made room for himself in the agriculture space. “The conducive environment for small businesses is fairly new in Goa. Single entrepreneurial entities didn’t exist earlier simply because the market didn’t exist. But we recognized that a lot of people have an interest in eating better,” says Manral. “In Goa we have the advantage of space to indulge in farming on a larger scale. My wife and I began growing our food as a hobby and it grew every year.”

Today, Manral and his wife Yogita Mehra run Green Essentials, an eco-shop, and Yogi Farms, an organic farming venture.

Desmond Nazareth’s cocktail mixes
Like several of the other entrepreneurs, Desmond Nazareth, 57, founder of DesmondJi spirits, cocktail mixes and liqueurs, came to Goa in late 2003 to explore unconventional business ideas and a creative life. “Goa is a good base. It’s well-connected, has an interesting starter group of creative people, a great environment to incubate new ideas like this,” he says.

Happily for him, Goa has an alcohol-friendly environment, with its relatively relaxed taxes and a wide consumer base. The DesmondJi line includes agave spirits and some fascinating spirit blends that use sugar cane and Nagpur oranges, all of which are blended, bottled and packaged in Goa. Based in a tourist destination, the brand has been able to access a potential profile of consumers in Mumbai, Pune, Bengaluru and Hyderabad, without having to go there physically. Now available in major Indian metros, DesmondJi has seen sales increase by over 75% year on year, between just the last financial year and the present one.

For Hansel Vaz, who likes to describe himself as a son of the soil, the desire to revive the Goan heritage of home-made feni was the inspiration for launching Cazulo Premium Feni, the contemporary label of a family owned bottling unit. In 2012, Vaz began to work closely with distillers, reviving traditional procedures and recipes to produce feni by distilling it in small quantities, intent on retaining maximum flavour.

“People were looking for good- quality feni from a brand they could trust. Because it is considered a mass-produced, cheap peasant’s drink, I worked with a leading designer from New Zealand to develop premium packaging and branding to build an image that matched the premium quality of the feni we make,” says Vaz.

Far away from the madding crowds, Goa perhaps represents a business space and ideology whose time has come. “You don’t need to go to the big cities to make money anymore. Goa is cosmopolitan, people are well-educated and have no aversion to experiments. Markets are relatively smaller but it’s enough for me right now,” says Vaz, who plans to export his premium feni.

After all, when the world comes to you, why hustle to go out into the world?

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