Giving the humble idli tray a design makeover 

Vinay Kamath | Updated on: Feb 20, 2022

Foley Designs has redesigned the idli tray and made it easy to dismantle and store. It’s the second of many kitchen innovations it is planning 

An idli is an idli, right? White, soft and fluffy, a well-made idli with spicy coconut chutney makes for a satisfying south Indian breakfast. And, the trays to make the idlis are standard stuff; small round plates with perforations that are stacked up with the batter and steamed in a pressure cooker. The formula has been settled for years. Till ace designer Michael Foley and his outfit, Foley Designs, decided to do something about it. 

Sculpt, Foley’s kitchenware brand, has launched a redesigned modular idli tray in steel that just clamps on in stacks and once dismantled, can easily be stashed away in a drawer. Depending on the size of the cooker, a stack can be added on or taken off. Each tray clips onto a small base, which is the holder for the entire stack; the base gives the water level indicator as well. “Cooking utensils to homeware; we looked at the whole range. We wanted to innovate on south Indian utensils and looked at the idli tray that has not evolved much, apart from inclusion of silicon and may be the shapes of idlis; otherwise, nothing else much has changed,” elaborates Foley. 

Foley Designs is among the top design houses in the country, working with a variety of top brands in areas of brand identity to design and product innovations. Foley, an award winning, NID-trained designer, worked earlier for several years in Titan Co. Ltd, and had also designed its iconic Titan Edge watch.

Innovation in design

“We are hopeful we can create a space for ourselves with our Sculpt brand. The idea is to take good design to the masses, not purely based on price benchmarks but look at what innovations we can offer at a good price point. Bigger brands have just universalised existing trays,” says Foley. 

The design house has been working on innovations around the kitchen for a while, and has even built a complete kitchen for its experiments and to showcase what it can come up with. In 2019 it won an award for its innovations on ladles for south Indian cooking. “We looked at the culinary diversity around us and we’re looking to re-invent traditional cookware,” explains Foley. 

Idli trays as they exist now, can only be used with certain sizes of cookers, given the fixed stack one has to use. “Then we saw there were issues of storage, of cleaning, and in the way it’s put together. Next, we want to look at the steamer as well, which can be used for any steam cooking, not just for idlis,” he elaborates. 

Foley says the Sculpt idli trays aid better steaming. The stacked pairs of trays are at 90 degrees to each other and this enhances the spread of steam on the batter. “We have a lot more of steaming area with our trays; we don’t need the perforations. Later we are looking at Teflon coated trays for better peeling off of idlis. We’re also looking at button idlis; users can stack up a combination of trays to make different idli shapes. For a flattish cooker, a stack or two can be removed.” 

Mumbai-based Swetha Anand, a user who has purchased the trays, says, “Sometimes great product design falters during execution. Not the case with the Foley idli tray. I must compliment the firm in reimagining an item of daily use so well. It’s not usual for Indian product designers to rethink a standard product. For that alone, they should be encouraged.”

Says Geetika Kambli, Managing Partner of design house, Future Factory, on the Foley innovation, “It’s heartening to see more and more designers making their own products. By training, designers are inherently empathetic to user needs and design has the power to help make life incredibly better for everyday living. But to succeed in the market, a good idea also needs a powerful ecosystem to support it. Otherwise, costs can escalate fast and scale can be difficult to achieve. Also, designers are usually not trained to think business and we need to change that, so we can have successful design-entrepreneurs.”

Kambli says at Future Factory, they had launched their  own patented product, and it had won the prestigious Red Dot award too. “This was as far back as 2008, and while we had amazing consumer traction, we had faced some serious challenges in distribution. Today, however, with gains in e-commerce and digitalisation, I’m hoping things are much easier.”

Commercial plans

After taking inputs from consumers, the Sculpt idli tray has gone commercial. Priced at ₹990 for four trays, the initial price is not cheap. “We’ve invested in dyes to design it, and there’s a capital expenditure on the dyes and prototype, and then multiple rounds of testing; once we scale up, prices will come down,” says Foley. However, he avers that he would not be investing in manufacturing it on a large scale and will look for exclusive partners to make the trays. So far, around 40-50 idli tray sets have been sold through his site and. The trays are now for sale on Amazon, and Foley is looking for on-ground distribution as well.

A patent has been applied for, and Foley is aware that the copy cats can’t be far behind. “The best way is to keep innovating to be ahead of the competition,” he says. 

Foley believes there are certain challenges in the legacy of existing products that deliver continuous revenue for the big brands which make cookers and idli trays, thus creating inertia to shift or change portfolios dramatically. “But the more brands see innovation, I feel it will lead to a cascading effect,” he adds. 

Ladles for south Indian cooking

Ladles for south Indian cooking

More innovations are on the way. Ladles for south Indian cooking, for dosas and making vadas, says Foley. A steamer is being tested too, which will complete the idli trays. Kitchen cleaning articles are being looked at as well as products for making snacks. “We want to completely re-invent what’s available in the market now. We are 50 people strong, mostly on the consulting side, but it’s given us an understanding of consumers. “We all want to build the Sculpt brand, but the development of products will be completely inside out. We have designed kitchen appliances for brands so we understand what it takes from the design elements side.” 

Published on February 20, 2022
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