The traditional idli gets a makeover
The Traditional Idli Gets A Makeover. The good old idli that has been around for generations gets a totally new makeover by Chennai entrepreneurs, RU Srinivas and Rajan Ramaswamy.
The good old idli that has been around for generations gets a totally new makeover by Chennai entrepreneurs, RU Srinivas and Rajan Ramaswamy. Catering to the new-age mantra of ‘everything on the go’, the two have transformed the humble idli into a quick healthy snack, compactly packaged to fit into a handbag.
The idlis resemble mini rolls, and have been marinated in generous helpings of molagai podi (a coarse mixture of roasted dal and chillies) and packed appealingly in a bright yellow wrapper. The venture was launched four months ago. They are already a huge hit in Chennai. R U Srinivas took some time off from his busy schedule to talk about his culinary adventure that began a year ago.
How did it all start?
I worked in the service industry for 20 years, primarily in the IT and BPO sector. My last position was CEO of Caliber Point, the BPO arm of Hexaware Technologies. Rajan was my friend and colleague. He managed a very large part of the operations. We were getting tired of our heavy travel-oriented jobs. After years of working extremely hard, we had reached a stage where we had stopped enjoying what we did. We decided it was time to quit and move on. We arrived at this conclusion independently, but decided to join hands when we realised that we had similar ideas. I quit my job in August last year, and Rajan joined me in October.
Why did you choose the food industry?
Food is a passion for both of us. But primarily the idea of food came up because we were travelling so much. On an average, I was on a plane every three days. I was tired of all the outside food. Being a vegetarian makes it more complicated. Our initial plan was to target travellers, bring out something that they would be happy with.
Why did you choose the humble idli as your flagship product?
With my mother and grandmother, no journey was ever complete without the idli. The idli was marinated in molagai podi mixed with a generous helping of sesame oil. The oil and masala soaked through and this not only improved the shelf life, but made the idli even tastier. It was a big hit with adults and children. The idli has been around forever and its popularity has never diminished. It need not be hot and is yet very tasty and healthy.
What challenges did you face?
Initially people were skeptical; they wondered if it was a good plan to launch a product like the idli in Chennai. Here, almost every household prepares it daily and every road has at least four eateries that serve it. We knew it would be a challenge and accepted it. We worked at giving the classic idli a distinct shape, flavour and packaging. We attempted to be different and today we have proved that there is still scope for innovation.
Were you discouraged by any failures?
There was the initial struggle to find the perfect idli. A lot of research was involved, but we eventually created a world-class dish. We experimented with more than 300 combinations of rice and dal before we arrived at what we felt was the perfect idli, one that remained soft for 24 hours. For the molagai podi, we have used the recipe that has been in my family for over 200 years. My grandmother got the recipe from her grandmother and we stuck to it faithfully. Idlis have always been round in shape. We decided to give it a totally new avatar. Moulds are available in the market only for the round ones; we had to work with vendors to create the mould for a bar-shaped idli. We did away with the old-fashioned packaging; we designed a compact travel-size pack that could easily fit into a lady's handbag.
What about financing for the project?
The Idli Factory is a self-funded project. We were very clear as to what we wanted, so we did not waste our time and money in unnecessary complications. It is still a very small operation. We are extremely focused in terms of what we want and what we need to do.
How did you market the product?
It was mainly through word of mouth, family, friends and Facebook that our product came to be known. We are enjoying the immense power of the social media. We have a very solid marketing partner by the name of Firebrand Labs. I am also indebted to the media, who have found our product interesting enough to write about.
What was the initial reaction from customers?
The reaction has been simply overwhelming. Our idlis have become a popular snack for kids. It is rapidly replacing puffs and samosas at office meetings. It is also becoming a favoured party food. We finally have a vegetarian snack that is not fried -- chips, french fries, pakoda, bhajji, bonda, samosa, almost every Indian snack is fried. People finally have a healthier option that is equally tempting.
What varieties are available?
The Madras Bar is encased with the standard molagai podi and is available in a pack of six. The Madras Rountana is a pack of 10 bite-sized idlis in garlic and curry leaf flavour. We are also making something called the Kanchivaram idli, which is an outstanding delicacy made with pure ghee, pepper and nuts. It is an absolutely world-class product. We have worked very hard to make sure all our products are absolutely hygienic. No hands touch it. No chemicals and preservatives are used in our food. That is our commitment to the customer. But what I am most proud of is that we have priced it with integrity. We also have a drink called Paanagam, a popular traditional beverage that is made with jaggery and lemon. This is also slowly becoming popular. In time, we want to bring back the traditional food from every part of the country.
What are your plans for the future?
We have some very interesting plans. I believe there are hidden treasures in the mind of every grandmother. In time we want to bring back these treasures. It is unfortunate that today, people are genuinely busy and do not have much time to spend in the kitchen. I want to make sure that these lovely treasures are not lost. My biggest problem is distribution. With the increasing demand, it is becoming very difficult to handle the distribution ourselves. We are looking for someone to take on the entire responsibility of distribution.There are tentative plans to expand to Bangalore city soon. It has only been four months and already people are talking about franchising and putting money into the venture. We did not expect so much so soon. It is a nice feeling, but puts a lot of responsibility on us to live up to those expectations.
We plan to achieve all our goals, but without taking any shortcuts.
Your success mantra?
Daring to be different and going after it with dedication and integrity. I strongly believe that when tradition meets innovation, magic happens.
What’s your advice to young start-ups?
If you have an idea, go for it. Being committed is most important. Do not worry too much about whether it is good or bad. And especially don't expect the world to approve of it. You just have to take it one step at a time. You don't have to be able to see the entire journey, as long as you know where you are going.