Fresh idlis, fair price

Rashmi Pratap | Updated on October 03, 2014

Idli Factory’s Madras Bars with milagai podi and 10 garlic-flavoured mini idlis in the Madras Roundtana packs   -  Bijoy Ghosh

Cracking the low-cost code. Operating partner Rajan Ramaswamy, who oversees day-to-day operations   -  Bijoy Ghosh

Eureka on a plate. CEO-turned entrepreneur RU Srinivas handles marketing and financing   -  Bijoy Ghosh

Chennai’s new Idli Factory, with its low-cost central kitchen, is off to a flying start

It was March 2013. RU Srinivas had ordered a plate of idlis at a leading Udipi chain in Chennai. For the two idlis he was served, he was presented with a bill of ₹77. It was at that moment that Srinivas decided, if, and when, he got into the food business, he won’t price his products unreasonably. Walking out of the restaurant that day, he envisaged a model that would keep real estate costs low by using a central kitchen. Customers could also pick up food on-the-go; cutting costs of air-conditioning and on-table service.

Exactly a year later, Srinivas was ready to serve Chennai fresh idlis at a fair price. At his Idli Factory, a 1,000sqft central kitchen at Nandanam, steam from the idli-makers was now rising at 4:30 am every day.

“The food we put out is what our grandmas used to make — fresh, without preservatives. If it’s not sold within 24 hours, we take it back from the retailers; we don’t want them to push stale food,” says Srinivas, whose travel-heavy job as the CEO of Caliber Point (the BPO arm of Hexaware) had made him realise the importance of fresh home-cooked food. “If you are a traveller in India, it is difficult to get good food, whether you’re travelling by air or by train. And when you’re living out of a suitcase, it can get to you,” he says.

It was this glaring gap combined with the need to spend time with his family in Chennai — he was working out of Mumbai — that prompted Srinivas to quit his job and start Idli Factory. He runs the business with his operating partner Rajan Ramaswamy, who was also his colleague at Caliber Point. While the latter runs day-to-day operations, Srinivas takes care of product positioning and financing.

“Apart from the factory outlet, idlis are sold through 25 retailers across Chennai,” says Srinivas. Twenty-five other outlets are also keen to stock their idlis, but they have not yet found a way to reach them all by 10am. “The day we crack the logistics, we can swarm the city,” he says. They are also in talks with direct-selling agents and self-help groups for marketing.

Meanwhile, customers call the Idli Factory directly for bulk orders for offices and picnics. Chennai’s cocktail circuit too has taken to these spicy vegetarian finger foods, which are not deep fried, to go with their drinks. Several expats and diplomats are regular customers as well. Idli Factory’s growth is faster than expected. But Srinivas ducks all questions on financial performance, merely revealing, “We hope to break even within the first year.” And that’s perhaps, why angel investors and private equity players are already showing interest in this fledgling company.

And while selling idlis to mamis in Chennai is like selling snow cones to Eskimos, idlis from the Factory are flying off the shelves. Mostly because of the recipe — one that was perfected after nearly 300 trials. Idli Factory now uses two types of rice along with urad dal, and steams idlis in packaged water. The first set of hands to touch the idlis is the customer’s. “We pack it in a manner that it can be carried in a laptop bag or handbag without getting crushed.” Moreover, there’s no chutney or sambar, and therefore, no spills. The idlis are smeared with podi (gunpowder) combined with unheated sesame oil, which is considered healthy.

At the moment, there are four variants on offer. Idli Factory’s flagship Madras Bars are a pack of six bar-shaped idlis coated with milagai podi (₹50). Kanjeevaram idlis are also bar-shaped, but the batter is slightly sour and includes pepper, butter, jeera, cashews and ghee (₹120). The third variant is a pack of 10 circular mini idlis, Madras Roundtana, garlic-flavoured (₹30) or curry leaf-flavoured (₹40). Also on the menu is pannagam, a drink traditionally made with elaichi, lemon, jaggery and ginger, and served on Ram Navami (200ml/₹30). At Idli Factory though, one can order it all year round.

To start with, Srinivas and Ramaswamy chose comfort food from South India, but the duo is now experimenting with delicacies from the North and the West as well. “We are working with other communities to develop Marwari, Gujarati and Maharashtrian items,” says Srinivas. But the criterion for the new products remains the same: healthy, authentic recipes of food that need not be served hot (because of the variable travel time from the central kitchen).

Until they perfect other recipes though, Chennai will have to make do with the Madras Bars. And it’s certainly not complaining.

Published on October 03, 2014

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