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Vision India 2020: Thakur

Posted on Sunday, Jul 6th 2008

In June 2008, I was in Kolkata for my aunt’s funeral. As ever, our (very large) family congregated over several meals. Whether it was birth or death, or any other family event, these meals had always acted as catalyst for our bonding, and held for us a place of supreme importance.

The meals were mostly cooked by an Oriya chef, Shankar Thakur, who had first come to our family some 40 years ago. He stayed with us as the family cook for many years, but later developed his own catering practice. He always returned to shower us with his lavish culinary talents on major occasions.

As I watched Shankar Thakur serve up plate after plate of Bengali delicacies, I could not help but think about the dreadful packaged food products that populate the shelves of American grocery stores. My entrepreneur mind had always wondered why the great cuisines of the world are not marketed as packaged food in the same way that, for example, Campbell’s soup is.

Just to give you some context, the Campbell Soup Company manufactures soups, beverages, confectionery, and prepared food products. In 2008 the company was 136 years old, with over $7 billion in annual sales and a portfolio of more than 20 market-leading brands including Campbell’s soups, Swanson broths, Pepperidge Farm cookies, Pace Mexican sauces, Prego pasta sauces, and Godiva chocolates, as well as Arnott’s biscuits in Australia. It had even acquired the Wolfgang Puck soup business from Country Gourmet Foods – a line of products that was actually quite tasty.

Campbell had just announced its plans to expand into emerging markets, starting with China and Russia. Could India be far behind? In 2007, the Indian packaged food industry grew 15%. They must have noticed.

Clearly, packaged food was an enormous market opportunity, globally, and a market in which India should have been playing a significant role. It wasn’t. Not in 2008.

This is the backdrop of our venture, Thakur.

With this company, we wanted to tackle a few key opportunities. First, the market for good quality packaged food was global, and under-served. I had a fair bit of exposure to dual-career middle-class families in the US who struggled to put hot food on the table for dinner. Junk food had swamped the market. Obesity was a national problem.

Second, packaged food still suffered from the problem of taste degradation, unless it was marketed as frozen food. Frozen food, however, had limited shelf space, was difficult and expensive to transport, and was overall not the most promising segment to go after.

Now, the challenge this analysis posed was that we needed food processing technology that could preserve food for extended shelf life on normal shelves, without any taste degradation. So, at the genesis of our venture, we focused on acquiring this technology. We collaborated with Cornell University’s Institute of Food Science and Technology, and our team did primary research, especially in the domain of flavor preservation.

In 2010, once we had the technology, we launched our first line of delicious, reasonably priced, healthy packaged food products in collaboration with Tesco, the UK’s premier grocery retailer. Tesco was already working on entering the US market at the time, and we invited them to invest in Thakur. In effect, we became Tesco’s private label packaged food brand, which gave us access to not only their UK stores, but also the US stores.

We marketed Indian only cuisine under the Thakur brand, although we had a wide spectrum of products within that segment, from the more widely known North Indian cuisine to the lesser-known Gujarati, Bengali, and Goan cuisines.

In 2012, once the operational details of the venture were ironed out, we launched a line-up of Chinese cuisine. The recipes of the Chinese products came from cooks we hired from Tangra, Kolkata’s Chinatown. It was a cuisine that I loved, but of which the world knew nothing. American chop suey from our Tangra brand became a hit product with kids in the US and the UK, steering them away from the treacherous McDonald’s hamburger.

In 2014, we launched product lines based on Italian, French, Thai, and Vietnamese cuisines. For French cuisine, we turned to the bistro style of cooking, and created a line of products including coq au vin, boeuf bourguignon and cassoulet. We also included Belgian bistro dishes like Waterzooi.

Our factories were all in rural India, taking advantage of the low cost of labor. We hired chefs from Italy, France, Thailand and Vietnam, who trained the Indian team, led them through the process, and with some of them, we created entire new lines of products.

Our products are now being marketed throughout the world, including China, India, Latin America and Russia.

We wanted the world to eat well. Like in my family, we wanted meals to be important bonding rituals.

In the process, we built a $7 billion global enterprise. What Campbell took 136 years to build, we built in a decade.

Note: Vision India 2020 was subsequently published as a book. You can order it from AmazonKindleAmazon.in, etc.

A call to Indian entrepreneurs everywhere, Vision India 2020 challenges and inspires readers to build the future now. In this “futuristic retrospective,” author Sramana Mitra shows how over the next decade, start-up companies in India could be turned into billion-dollar enterprises. Vision India 2020, which encompasses a wide range of sectors from technology to infrastructure, healthcare to education, environmental issues to entertainment, proves how even the most sizeable problems can be solved by exercising bold, ambitious measures. Renowned in the business world, author Sramana Mitra conceived Vision India 2020 from her years of experience as a Silicon Valley strategy consultant and entrepreneur. Well aware of the challenges facing today’s aspiring entrepreneurs, Mitra provides strategies, business models, references, and comparables as a guide to help entrepreneurs manifest their own world-changing ideas. 

This segment is a part in the series : Vision India 2020

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Mouth watering proposal me being from Bengal and love eating….

I am sure people will be less hesitant to buy packaged food in this part of the world too as more of more companies get into the market.

However, currently I don’t buy packaged ‘heat it and eat it’ food and rather like to have at least some remote semblance of ‘fresh’ cooking before eating. The concern is not taste and more the freshness of the food.

I see a lot of chain in South India including famous Hyderabad House Biriyani where they cook the food centrally, maintaining their receipe confidential as well as maintain the quality, and early in the day distribute it to several small outlets all over the city and people can buy fresh food on everyday basis.

A big volume of these sale are take aways in a ‘packaged’ manner. Though these packages get shelf value of 2-3 days in the refrigerators of individual people if required.

So if the model can be tweaked a bit I believe even while the research is on for perserving the flavour this is a very viable business model and will provide a lot of job to people as well as delight people like me who likes to eat ‘fresh’ food but all the good tastes available in all parts of India.

Santanu Wednesday, July 9, 2008 at 12:37 AM PT

Santanu, what you are suggesting is a somewhat different venture, but possibly also viable. You want a network of “outsourced” cooks. It’s a very different business model with different margin and scalability structures.

Sramana Mitra Wednesday, July 9, 2008 at 2:13 PM PT

Btw, is this article a confirmation of my doubt?

Oriyas cook and Bengalis eat, though Bengalis take (or try to take) all the credit for making good food!

Omkar Sunday, July 13, 2008 at 2:10 PM PT

Oriya cooks were a traditional phenomenon in Bengal at one time, yes. But there are plenty of great cooks among Bengali’s as well. At least in my family, we’ve seen an abundance of both.

Sramana Mitra Sunday, July 13, 2008 at 11:17 PM PT

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