How to build a business with your gut instinct
Blank sisters may have followed different career paths but their love for clean eating brought them together to launch Atmosphere Kombucha
Sisters Rebekah, 28, and Ariella Blank, 24, may have followed different career paths but their love for clean eating brought them together to launch Atmosphere Kombucha in April 2018. Made from fermented sweetened tea, kombucha is beneficial for gut health due to its probiotic component.
Born to American parents, the Blank sisters grew up in Mussoorie, Uttarakhand, after their father, who worked as a professor of mechanical engineering at two Indian Institute of Technologies (Kanpur and Kharagpur) stayed on in India in 1990s. Growing up, Ariella says, their mother, who was a marathon runner, banned refined white foods at home. Not surprisingly, both sisters imbibed a sense of healthy eating early on. In 2008, when Rebekah left for the US to pursue a degree in computer engineering, she came across kombucha, which was emerging as a health fad back then. “As a competitive athlete, I was always looking for ways in which to improve my health. But since kombucha was expensive to buy, I learnt to brew it myself from a friend, who had interned with a kombucha company,” says Rebekah. She, in turn, taught the skill to her sister, who was studying at Woodstock School in Mussoorie then. “I would brew kombucha in my dorm room and everyone would line up for the ‘magic tea’ whenever they were feeling unwell,” says Ariella, who went on to study nutrition at the Nutritional Therapy Association in Washington.
It was in 2016 that the sisters first thought about turning their passion for kombucha into a business idea. They entered a competition in the US and though they were shortlisted, they didn’t win any money. But it gave them the impetus to think of it as a business idea.
Engineer to entrepreneur
While Ariella has always been clear about pursuing a career in nutrition and health, it took Rebekah a while to figure out what she really wanted to do. “Since my father was a professor at the IITs, he always wanted us to pursue engineering,” says Rebekah, who went on to work as a systems manager for an American furniture trading company based in Tibet after college. During her free time, Rebekah would experiment with different Chinese and Tibetan teas while brewing kombucha. Over time, she realised she was enjoying her job less and less and decided to move back to India in 2015. Soon after, she became part of the founding team of Fab Café in Delhi, which opened doors in the summer of 2016.
Ariella, who was working as a nutritional consultant for Organic India, which produces health products, recalls bringing a bottle of kombucha to Fab Café one day. “The chef tried it and liked it. He suggested that we sell our kombucha at the café,” she adds.
While they had started supplying kombucha in smaller quantities to a handful of cafes in 2017, the turning point came in April. The sisters participated at a fitness fest held at a mall in New Delhi. “We sold out our entire stock of about 200 bottles. Until then, we thought that only health nuts would buy it. But we realised there’s greater potential; we just needed to brand it well,” Rebekah reveals. Today, Atmosphere Kombucha is available at about 20 retail outlets and seven cafes in Delhi; they also do home deliveries. They have a small manufacturing unit near their home in south Delhi, where they produce close to 1,000 bottles a week.
Even though they took a year to launch Atmosphere Kombucha after they first started supplying it to Fab Café, the sisters don’t regret the slow pace. “We used this time to experiment with different teas, herbs, sugars and fruits to develop a range of kombuchas and that has paid off because people tell us that they love our product,” says Rebekah.
They also used this time to build other verticals of their business—conducting health workshops at yoga studios. According to Ariella, educating people about the benefits of kombucha through such events has helped build return customers.
Given that the sisters have used their personal savings of a few lakhs to build their business from scratch, they couldn’t afford to place orders for a very large number of bottles or labels. “I had approached this supplier for 15,000 metal caps for our bottles, which I thought was a big order, but he delayed our order because they are used to supplying in lakhs,” says Ariella.
Before they decided to officially launch Atmosphere Kombucha, Rebekah and Ariella had consulted with friends in the F&B space for all the prerequisites required for launching their brand. “We had applied for the FSSAI license in advance because we knew it would require some time,” says Ariella. Since they get a lot of home delivery orders through their Instagram page, figuring out the logistics was a hassle. Eventually, they hired three delivery persons (two of whom work part-time). They have also developed a schedule to follow up with stores on a rotational basis to check on stock as many shops wouldn’t inform them when they ran out of the kombucha.
Chasing the millennial dream
Ariella believes that having a plan B is wise. She kept her full-time job with Organic India until June this year, while also developing their kombucha business. “I quit only when I realised that the business was growing fast and one of us had to be involved full-time,” she adds. Rebekah continues to work with Fab Café.
Cheers To That is a series which looks at beverage start-ups set up by millennials and how they dealing with trials and triumphs.