Corporate File

Spotting a sea of opportunity

Vinson Kurian | Updated on September 26, 2021

Mathew Joseph, COO, and Shan Kadavil, CEO, FreshToHome

Mathew Joseph, COO of FreshToHome, has honed the art of fishmongering

Fish mongering, says Mathew Joseph, Chief Operating Officer, FreshToHome, is not for the faint-hearted. To wake up in the wee hours of the morning and get excited at the sight of fresh fish may not sound appealing. But from a young age, Joseph would dream of, and even breathe fish, no matter the smell!

When in his twenties, the Kerala-born, Bangalore-based Joseph took a train to Chorwad in Gujarat, armed only with a smattering of Hindi and oodles of chutzpah, to meet Dhirubhai Ambani as he wanted to emulate him. A wayside vendor in Chorwad told him the entire Ambani family had shifted to Mumbai.

He may not have met Ambani then, but the founder of the country’s first and reputedly largest online supplier of fresh fish and meat, combined his two passions – that for fish and for enterprise – with great verve to scale his start-up to a ₹650 crore outfit with presence across over 30 cities in India. The pandemic, with its accelerated pace of digitisation opened an ocean of opportunity for FreshToHome, which clocked growth of 35 per cent in India and is eyeing an ambitious ₹1,200 crore by March 31, 2022. In UAE, where it has a processing factory of its own, the growth has been more than 80 per cent this year.

Taking the plunge

Joseph attributes his enduring passion to his upbringing in his ancestral house that stands by the banks of the scenic Kaithappuzha Kayal (backwater), an extension of the Vembanad Kayal, 20 kms from Kochi.

When the college drop-out took the plunge into fish exporting, it was not easy, but egged on by three siblings, and his wife and two kids, his Atlair Exports was doing well until 2008 when the meltdown happened with mega banks in the US failing. “In 2010, the blues caught up with my export destinations, marked by huge fluctuations in the forex market. And it began to adversely affect my business,” he says.

After suffering reverses in exports to the Middle East, Singapore, Taipei and even Australia, he thought he was broke. “I admitted as much at the dinner table,” Joseph says. But his wife’s response set him sailing on a new course. “Why should we procure stuff at a high price and sell in a low-priced market? Why don’t we sell it in our own backyard with guaranteed high prices?” she queried.

When Joseph fished around, he learnt the domestic seafood market was worth around $50 billion at that time (now it is worth $70-$75 billion, he estimates). So Atlair Exports morphed to SeaToHome in 2013-14, and in next to no time, he had picked up scale.

But the rudimentary SeaToHome website hosted by a software team in Kochi and interns from the Panangad Fisheries College could not handle the heavy demand and crashed repeatedly. That’s when tech wizard Shan Kadavil entered the picture. The country head of gaming major, Zynga India, joined him as CEO – a big catch.

The company changed its name to FreshToHome in 2015 after Joseph and Kadavil decided to enter the fresh meat market as well. Ask about competition Licious, and Joseph says that while FreshToHome deals mainly in fish, Licious is essentially a meats player. Though of late, it is tweaking its fish and meat ratio to 50:50 to compete head on with FreshToHome.

Of course, cold chain logistics plays a big part in the start-up’s growth.

“All our products are fresh, and are stored under a temperature regime of 0-4 degree Celsius. Right from source, this is rigidly enforced. In fact, the puffed insulated boxes, costing ₹4,000-₹6,000 that the fresh fish is transferred into no sooner than it lands ashore, is just about as efficient as the chill rooms in our factories,” says Joseph. The boxes are ferried on insulated and temperature-controlled carriers (reefer trucks) to factories where it is sent to chill rooms. Delivery is again through reefer trucks. “We have more than 300 reefer trucks operating across the country of which 100 trucks are our own while the rest are outsourced to different logistics players.”

Casting the net wider

The purely online player is now beginning to venture offline also. “We will start with four to five outlets, each in Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, and Delhi. We are basically looking beyond just sales and trying to create brand awareness in the offline market,” says Joseph.

Online too, it is expanding. FreshToHome currently serves Delhi and the NCR, Jaipur, Chandigarh, Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad, Chennai, Bengaluru, but will soon open in Nashik. Within Kerala, it serves Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram, Kozhikode and Thrissur. This apart, it has a presence in 23 tier-2 cities across India. Its number one market is Bengaluru, followed by Delhi. Kerala comes only next due to lag in embracing the online marketplace. For instance, more than 90-95 per cent of the market in Bengaluru is online. Kerala is slowly catching up, and FreshToHome may have just expedited this process.

Published on September 26, 2021

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