India’s love for anything sweet dates back centuries. One epic creation rightfully credited to South Asia, which is the Kulfi, India’s beloved dessert, is made up of fresh milk and mildly blended flavours to create a taste that defines perfection. Although popular in the sub–continent, the Kulfi could not reach the height of popularity like other desserts to reach the list of world favourites.
I pondered about this weary dessert situation. Thus, the creation of a sensational combination of Kulfi and ice cream came about. I wanted to share this creation with the rest of the world and started Natural Ice Cream at a small parlour in Juhu, Mumbai. This is how it started.
The First Cut
Kamaths Ourtimes Ice Creams, better known as Natural Ice Cream, has come a long way from the time I started it nearly 30 years ago. Perhaps my real journey began in school when I assisted my father in selling fruit and developed a fondness for fruit. I wasn’t a bright student. I barely managed to clear the 10th standard from a Kannada-medium school in Mumbai. So when I turned 19, my family decided that I would help out my elder brother, who operated a South Indian restaurant in the city.
It was here that I first thought of serving something unique as a dessert and a blend of fruits in ice cream. Being the youngest in the family, my suggestions were often turned down, and so was this one. But I was convinced about the concept; so when I parted ways with my brother 10 years later, I decided to open my own ice cream parlour. The timing was not entirely favourable.
I had just got married and did not have the money to start a business. But my wife Annapurna supported and encouraged me, so I borrowed around `4 lakh from friends and relatives. With this, I bought and refurbished a 250 sq.ft. outlet at Juhu, where most of the Bollywood and small-screen celebs reside. That’s how the first outlet of Natural Ice Cream was launched in 1984.
There were no ice-cream outlets in those days and, unlike today, ordinary people didn’t go out to have desserts; only the rich did. To form a broader customer base, I decided to serve pav-bhaji and follow it up with my special ice creams. The place was very small and most of the cooking had to be done at my home. My wife managed the tedious task of grinding the masalas and making the curry. We also started blending fruits such as mangoes, custard apple, jackfruit and tender coconut. The customers lapped it up.
A year later, I stopped serving pav bhaji and dedicated all the resources to the ice cream business. The turn over in the first year was just around ` 1 lakh, but we did not lose hope. I employed five or six people to make ice cream in the traditional way and these staffers doubled as waiters. What worked in our favour was the word-of-mouth publicity.
Within two years, we had the top movie and television celebrities as our clients.
The Second Cut
In 1986, I was watching The Sunny Days, a TV programme anchored by cricketer Sunil Gavaskar. During the interview, Vivian Richards, the former West Indian cricket captain, mentioned that he had been to the Natural Ice Cream outlet and liked the Sapodilla (chikoo) and custard apple ice cream. It was such a thrill, such an unexpected back-thumping for us.
However, we have faced enough challenges, too. In 1994, a key staff member decided to quit and set up an ice cream unit in the same area.
I realised that unless I expanded and made my brand’s presence felt, my business would end. So I took a loan of around Rs 65 lakh from Sarasswat Bank and bought a 5,000-sq-ft space at Mira Road – a western suburb in Mumbai. This acted as my factory unit. I then employed 15-20 people and started making ice cream on a larger scale. I also decided to distribute five franchises in Mumbai. My turnover in 1994 grew from a few lakhs to around Rs 3 crore. Today, we serve around 100 varieties of ice cream. We travel frequently, constantly seeking new recipes, and many of them are developed in my kitchen. Some have even been suggested by our customers.
Innovations in Flavours
Natural is all about flavour and people. This is the way it was when we began way back in 1984 in a 300 sq.ft. store in Juhu, Mumbai, and this is the way it will always be. We believe that all we need to create luxuriantly rich ice cream is honesty and passion. Our ice creams are bursting with goodness because we churn them fresh and make them as wholesome and delicious as they can be. We invent our own wonderful flavours, and only with real good ingredients – nothing artificial. Natural Ice Cream is known for its fruit ice creams; we take pride in introducing some unique flavours like tender coconut, muskmelon, kala jamun, jack fruit and many more. In fact our best selling flavour –sitaphal – is more popular as an ice cream than the fruit itself.
Great ingredients, specialist equipment, deep understanding and lots of heart – this is all that lies behind the science of making ice creams that set us apart. So even when other brands tried to emulate us, the above (distinguishing) factor made us excel.
All our stores are franchised, our SOPs are uniform and applicable for all our franchised stores. We conduct regular visits to not only ensure that standards are maintained but also take feedback from store managers and owners.
Customers at the Helm
It’s important to know your customers and your target audience. Currently, Natural caters to a family audience and it’s important to understand the role that women – as a wife or mother – play on deciding what’s best for their families and Natural caters to that specific category by providing consistently good ice creams – both healthy (and hygienic) and tasty.
It’s also important not to move away from the core philosophy of your business; for instance many customers who have now become health or diet conscious have started demanding ‘sugar free’ or no sugar added ice creams. We know what kind chemicals or flavouring agents go on to make such ice cream and Natural’s philosophy has always been to avoid such additives. I believe that customers are your best teachers, the product speaks for itself, and you cannot fool the customers by compromising on quality.
We treat our employees as a part of our family; the nurturing and the work environment allows them to pursue their goals in life, in turn this shows in our customer service thus providing a family-friendly environment at our outlets.
We currently have 111 outlets (predominantly around West and South-West region) all through franchise route. Within 2 years we plan to expand to North and East India predominantly through the franchise route and few stores will be company owned. We have recently shifted to a 25,000 sq.ft. factory in Kandivali, Mumbai with a state-of-the-art facility where we plan to double our production in order to cater to the demand for our ice creams.
The ice cream sector has made great progress in the last couple of years; however, the unorganised sector still rules the market. The organised market is around ` 2000 crore growing at 20 percent per annum. Natural wants to be part of this growth story or India story. We aspire to not just be India’s leading premium brand of ice creams but also become India’s premium “food” brand to go global.
External Fund Infusions
As of now, we aren’t looking at external fund infusions. We are managing through internal accruals. But we don’t rule out the possibility of a strategic tie when the requirement arises. In fact a lot of private equity houses have already shown great interest in us, which is very encouraging and shows that we are on the right track. However, we aren’t considering any.
The future certainly looks sweet for Kamath. In the next 2 years we plan to achieve a target of ` 100 crore and increase the number of outlets to 250. In the second phase, we want to extend our footprint to the overseas market, primarily Singapore and Dubai, keeping the Indian population in mind.