Food

Behind that viral video of a vada maker is a common sense idea and a determined Indian

From a kirana store to a Rs 200 crore company, PC Mustafa and his iD Freshfood have a come a long way.

In January, a video about a pack of batter for vadas, the traditional South Indian breakfast dish, went viral.

What was unique about the pack was that it not only claimed to have cracked the tricky batter – made of soaked and ground urad dal – but it also came with a stout that shaped the batter into perfectly round snacks, each with a hole in the centre. All one had to do was hold the pack above a pan filled with hot oil and squeeze. As the batter oozed out of the umbrella-shaped nozzle, a cutter punched a hole into it just before it dropped into the pan.

“Now, everybody can vada,” said the advertisement, which instantly got people licking their lips.

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A happy accident

Bengaluru-based iD Freshfood, known for its success in selling packaged idly and dosa batter, had created this video for their latest product: the vada batter.

“What if I told you that this video was never meant to be a commercial?” said PC Mustafa, the head of iD Freshfood, sitting at his office in Whitefield, a neighbourhood in the east of Bengaluru. “We were in the process of launching the product, yes, but this video had actually been created for a talk I was invited to give at Harvard [University] in February. The video got leaked through a family WhatsApp group and it was suddenly all over the internet.”

Mustafa then rescheduled the launch date of iD’s Vada Batter, which was nearly four years in the making, and set it to February 3. Looking still quite pleased with the response that the video had garnered, he said that it was perhaps the sort of validation he and his company needed after all.

“Cracking the vada recipe was still easy,” said Mustafa. “Our dream was to come up with a pack that lets a homemaker make vadas untouched by hand. And we used common sense to arrive at the solution. Now, looking at the response the video has got, I realise this is the power of a good idea. I spent nothing on marketing this product. The leaked video did it for me.”

From a kirana store

The South Indian breakfast menu is taken very seriously at iD Freshfood.

It all began in 2005 when Mustafa and his cousins – who are from Kerala and had settled in Bengaluru over the years – first toyed with the idea of branding and packaging idly and dosa batter. Mustafa, who had just quit his job at a multinational company in Dubai and returned to Bengaluru, used to hang out at his cousins’ general stores in Indiranagar. The business idea that eventually grew into iD Freshfood struck him when he saw how batter was sold at stores like his cousins’.

“Batter was sold in a plain pouch with a rubber band on top and it had all sorts of quality and hygiene issues,” explained Mustafa, a software engineer and an MBA graduate. “We found an opportunity to brand it but that was just the beginning. Our real journey started after that, when we got customers to trust that a traditionally homemade item such as idly and dosa batter too can be bought in a branded packet. Especially, since any packaged product comes with a lot of baggage – preservatives being one.”

Getting the recipe right was key, considering that people’s preferences in terms of the textures and taste of idlis and dosas is different in each state in the South. “Some prefer the idlis more salty, some like it drier,” he explained. “So, I wanted to ensure that our batter is just the base. People should be able to customise by adding whatever other ingredients to it after they buy it.”

Not as easy as it looks

Onions and coriander leaves, for instance, are common additions to the dosa batter. Mustafa decided to leave those ingredients – including salt – to the consumer. When asked who helped the cousins to figure out the right recipe, Mustafa simply said, “Grandmas.”

That’s not surprising though.

Making batter at home has always been a challenge, particularly for cooks that are ardent lovers or connoisseurs of idlis and dosas but not veterans at the task. Not everyone can get the proportions of the ingredients – rice, urad dal, poha, fenugreek seeds – right. Grinding the soaked mixture and allowing the batter to ferment for the right amount of time is a skill that eludes many.

When ready-made batter became available in the market – iD is not the first – it naturally became hugely popular simply because making these items just became a less time-consuming and harrowing experience, especially if one was not under the able guidance of one’s grandmother.

For the modern consumer

Plus, what iD brought to the already existing market of readymade batter was a further simplification. They began with a pillow pouch that had to be washed and emptied into a container. But that wasn’t good enough, said Mustafa – “We looked at all that she had to do with the pouch. Cut it open, transfer it to a vessel, squeeze the packet, wash the pouch, and the leftovers had to be transferred into another container, etc. That’s when we thought that we should perhaps get rid of the pouch and give her something that resembles a container.”

That idea didn’t really take off because it was getting expensive to transport packs that were like containers.

“We took four years to solve this problem,” he explained. “We realised that ideally, the pack had to be a collapsible pouch during transit and turn into a vessel at the end when in the hands of the homemaker. Like the Transformers story – a car has to become a superman. We used common sense again. Take a boat, for example. It won’t tilt when on water, it doesn’t have a corner. So, what we came up with is not a standard standee pouch, but a boat-shaped pouch. We got a patent for that too.”

iD’s packaging was what set their products apart. From a small kitchen in his cousin’s house, the company, over the course of 10 years, has grown to occupy factories that are 1 lakh sq ft in size. Today, iD Fresh food is a company with six factories across India which generate a turnover of nearly Rs 200 crore.

Apart from idly and dosa batter, it also supplies heat-and-eat parottas, chutney, paneer and curd.

“I don’t actually believe in the traditional economics of the supply-demand curve,” said Mustafa. “Supply actually creates demand and that’s what we did.”

The company has plans of building three more factories. “I want to build world-class kitchens into which we should be able to take school kids and show them how to make batter and parottas,” said Mustafa. “They should know.”

Currently, Mustafa and his cousins work out of a co-working space in Whitefield which is close to the company’s factory-kitchens. Mustafa has a cubicle to himself and he shows off his latest award: a “Vada Man” award given to him just the previous day after a talk he delivered about their latest product.

The final frontier

After idlis and dosas, the temptation to bite into vadas was obvious. “But we realised that even if we give vada batter, she still won’t make vada at home,” he explained. “What is challenging with vada is getting its shape, size and design right. We thought we could sell the vada batter in a tray with vada-shaped designs but we found that the batter was very sticky. Then, we thought of giving her a half-cooked vada that she can fry after buying the pack but the crispiness of the vada was missing.”

Finally, Mustafa and his cousins took empty bottles of Coca-Cola, cut the top and tried to create a piston such that the vada batter comes out of it. But the shape wasn’t right.

“One thing we learnt is that since it is a highly viscous product – like clay – you can make any shape out of it,” he said. “So, we started fixing a stopper kind of thing on the bottle. The stopper would control the shape and even cut a hole. But we still weren’t getting the round shape. See, none of us are mechanical engineers. We just ran kirana stores.”

After being turned down by fabricators who could help with creating a model for the vada maker, Mustafa’s cousin decided to turn into a fabricator himself. He used a hammer and some steel sheets to build what would become the prototype of the final product.

“It was a pipe with a shaper at the bottom, a shaper with a stopper,” said Mustafa. “We figured out that if the batter comes out in the shape of an umbrella, it would work. That was it.

How would he describe the team that has come up with these innovations?

“We are just a bunch of Indians with common sense,” said Mustafa.

Building relationships

Mustafa believes that the biggest success story of his company is in getting homemakers to trust his packaged product in a market that is flooded with readymade batter.

“We had a clean product – no soda and no preservatives – but it was packed which made it hard for customers to trust us,” he said. “What’s the best way to get them to trust us? We should first trust them.”

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In 2010, iD Freshfood launched a trust compaign and set up 40 unmanned shops in four cities. There was no camera or salespeople or vending machines at these shops. “Customers could open the door of the fridge, take the product, deposit the money in the box, go home, make and have breakfast,” said Mustafa. “That campaign did really well for us. Our customers were shaken. It got us great brand mileage and positioned us as a brand that can be trusted.”

His biggest guilt, however, lies in the material – food-safe plastic – that he uses to package his products. “Personally, I feel very happy I’m able to touch people’s lives on a daily basis but I feel guilty about polluting the environment on a daily basis,” he said. “I do not have a solution as of today. But I’ll be the first one to adopt it the day I have one.”

In the coming months, iD Freshfood is set to launch wheat and oat dosa batter along with relaunching some of its other products. And there’s one more item on the breakfast menu that will soon be served: coffee. A pack of coffee decoction with a short shelf life will soon be launched.

“Our goal is to just help homemakers,” said Mustafa.

Is this homemaker a ‘she’ necessarily? “No, not really,” he quickly corrected himself. “It’s just a homemaker. If you notice in the vada video, we made sure it is the voice of a man.”

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