Chicken rice for the soul

In the quick boom and bust of the food tech industry, one start-up’s success story

FreshMenu’s creamy basil chicken.
FreshMenu’s creamy basil chicken.

Jasmine, basmati, arborio and other varieties of rice are all neatly stocked in the larder of FreshMenu’s Domlur kitchen, one of 17 in Bengaluru. Over the past two years, this food delivery start-up (or, in MBA lingo, cloud kitchen business model) has understood that Indians love their chicken and rice, but served differently. So the 100-plus chicken rice dishes featured on their menu during this time have included the words burrito bowl, kung pao, teriyaki, Mongolian, adobo, baharat, Korean, paella, rendang, risotto and nasi goreng. 

As I write this, there’s a Portuguese Chicken Rice Bowl on offer, essentially thyme-marinated chicken mince cooked in a soffritto sauce. The meal-in-a-bowl was launched when FreshMenu got feedback that people wanted to eat at their desk. Thanks to the data analytics backbone of online ordering, the start-up realized shortly after launching 12-inch pizzas that people preferred the 8-inch size. They switched as soon as they could get their hands on smaller boxes.

You know a company must be doing well when it becomes a fuss-free ritual in your life. Take us, for example. It’s date night Friday. The perfect time to go see a late show, drink cold beer and enjoy some Neo soul or the Deep House DJ at blueFROG, right? Or at least be inspired by Babyjaan’s favourite song, Cheap Thrills.

Gotta do my hair, put my make-up on

It’s Friday night and it won’t be long ’til I

Hit the dance floor

Hit the dance floor...

Alas, we lack weekend warrior spirit. So date night usually ends up being the red couch, red wine, Creedence Clearwater Revival and takeout from FreshMenu. It takes 2 minutes to order, the delivery guy never calls to say he’s lost, the food is hot, fresh and competently prepared (“Why just competent? It’s good,” the husband always says. “Better than the other takeout options in our neighbourhood,” I concede). And the menu is always different. For weeks when we want amazing food, there’s The Fatty Bao and old favourite Sunny’s.

Rashmi Daga, the 37-year-old Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad graduate who runs FreshMenu, says on good days her start-up now does 10,500 orders a day. By December, two years after she raised her first $5 million (around Rs33 crore) from Lightspeed Venture Partners (she raised an additional $17 million in January), she expects daily orders to double. As many as 300,000 people have tried FreshMenu and 60% of them have returned for more, she says. The start-up now has 26 commercial kitchens in Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru (the food is prepared after you order; the busiest is Marathahalli in Bengaluru, which has a monthly sale of Rs45 lakh). The 30 or so items listed on the menu change every day (from a repertoire of 1,200 dishes) and the average order value is Rs350, says Daga. 

She may be a rookie in the food industry but she has an impressive résumé from IBM to Ola Cabs, with several gigs in between. You’ll rarely spot her at entrepreneur fora; she says she doesn’t really read business books and is too shy to speak at public events. She’s extremely articulate, though, when we catch up over coffee at Starbucks, and full of insights about the way we eat.

Delhiites expect their food to be spicier and creamier when they order out. Bengaluru customers want restaurant-quality food that looks like low-oil, fresh home food. Mumbaikars opt for pan-Asian over Continental. Yet the most popular dishes across these cities are pretty much the same: Portuguese Chicken Rice Bowl, Grilled Chicken with Walnut Pesto Spaghetti, Vegetables in Hot Garlic Sauce and that perennial favourite, Hakka Noodles.

The food tech industry, as it is called, saw a boom when urban India’s desire to cook began slowing down a few years ago. It went hand-in-hand with our growing need to go beyond traditional cuisine. Using technology to cater to our blossoming palates seemed an obvious short cut to entrepreneurial success.

FreshMenu’s salad.
FreshMenu’s salad.

In 2015 and 2016, investors bet $297 million on this industry, compared to $124 million until 2014, according to a report in Mint which quoted start-up tracker Tracxn. But poor food and poor economics felled many start-ups. FreshMenu is one of those rare companies that managed to get a second round of funding. It’s a success story in an industry that’s now in crisis.

Daga, a Marwari vegetarian, consciously avoids listing beef and pork on her menu (“I don’t want to be panned by Hindus or Muslims”), but she’s happy to experiment with Peking duck, Norwegian salmon, turkey ham and lamb pepperoni. Her team wants her to list frogs’ legs (high protein) but she’s easier with the idea of sourcing rhododendron and chamomile flowers from Uttarakhand to flavour cheesecakes. 

Luckily for us, her business plan going forward is not so much to expand furiously across cities as it is to ensure each existing unit makes more money, i.e. we spend more. So there are lots of additions coming up. A jar of cookie dough butter with a loaf of freshly baked bread. Quinoa upma, an acai bowl and muesli with fruit and yogurt, all weekday breakfast options. Diwali jar fusion desserts (crumble, cheesecake, cranberry and paan topped with pista and varq). Food made with specially created spice mixes featuring rock-star chillies such as bird’s-eye, mayan and the husband’s favourite, bhut jholakia. Date nights will only get hotter. 

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable. She tweets at @priyaramani and posts on Instagram as babyjaanramani.

Also read Priya’s previous Mint Lounge columns

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