Mysore is seeing a spurt in organic food stores, finds Roshna Chandran, as she talks with several organic food specialty store owners, who share their challenges in production, supply and retailing of organic products, and their philosophy of giving back to Mother Earth
Earth Loaf Artisan & Raw Food Pvt Ltd (India)
David Belo and Angelika Anagnostou decided to leave behind their bar tending and cocktail mixing vocations for a healthier life of yoga and healthy food. The duo started out with their handmade organic artisan country bread in London. As demand for the bread grew, David Belo (who is from South Africa), and Angelika Anagnostou (who is from Greece), decided to focus on the premium ingredient cacao. They headed to India where they discovered that cacao was being grown in Mysore since the 1920s.
They came to Mysore and set up retail brand Earth Loaf in 2010 with an initial investment of ~Rs 4 lakh. As the name indicates, the brand brings together a blend of cacao-infused tea and organic food commodities grown locally. They operate from a 750 sqft feet production unit, situated behind a polymer factory at Mysore’s Metagalli area; the unit currently produces 20 kg of cacao monthly, but plans are to increase capacity to 80-100 kg in the next few months “with help from investors in the U.S.” according to Belo.
Most of the equipment has been assembled or built by Belo, who is also a chocolatier and mechanical engineer, while Anagnostou is the master blender of the cacao tea. The cacao beans are sourced from a cooperative based outside of Mangalore, which works closely with farmers in Mangalore and Kerala. Earth Loaf’s products include 72% Dark Bar (72gm costs Rs 270); 72% Cacao Nib and Coconut Sugar Bar (72gm costs Rs 270): Chai Masala Bon-Bons (54gm/6 pieces per box – Rs190): Raw Cacao Nibs (200gm – Rs 250): Cacao & Assam Tea (100gm – Rs 220); and 100% Cacao Infusion (100gm – Rs 190).
Explains Belo, “Our 72% Dark Bar made from the 72% single origin, raw, organic South Indian cacao, and South Indian coconut sugar that has a glycemic index level of 35 and is suitable for type 2 diabetics. The Cacao Nib & Coconut Sugar Bar is another 72% classic bar; Masala Chai Bon-Bon is a blend of Indian spices and real vanilla in 72% dark chocolate; Tiramisu Bob-Bon is a combination of Coorg’s Golden Mist Arabica A grade organic coffee with vanilla and nutmeg and 72% chocolate.
Belo informs that they produce 20 kg of chocolate, and manage to sell products worth 10-15 kg every month. He says, “We have just ventured outside of Mysore. We are breaking even every year, but we like to keep things small. In the next few months we plan to start supplying to South Africa, USA, and to some European countries. I would be happy to see our chocolates in London’s high-end boutiques. Our products are always fresh because everything we make is supplied immediately. When we start making 100 kilos a week, we will extend our storage space and even have a walk-in fridge.”
Earth Loaf products are available in other organic stores, namely, Nesara Organic Store, Namaste Gourmet Store, and Dhatu in Mysore, and The Ants Store & Cafe in Bangalore. The brand markets its products through events like tea and chocolate tasting. Adds Belo, “There aren’t any premium organic chocolates being made in India (as far as I know), and there is an emerging market for chocolates, including the organic variety. We plan to do many more tasting events and be more active on social media, however, my favourite way of marketing is through personal interactions with the consumers.”
The brand’s second category of teas and infusions include the Raw Cacao & Assam Loose Leaf Tea and the Raw Cacao Infusion. Another category called Life Foods consists of Raw Cacao Nibs that can be used in smoothies, salads, honey and cereals. Says Anagnostou, “We started with making raw chocolate dessert with coconut and it was something that we enjoyed. I am also a healer and a yoga teacher; this is why we talk about energy foods and what you put inside them. I too worked in a cocktail bar in London for many years, so both David and I have a background in flavouring, balancing, and creating new recipes. Nowadays, people are aware of what they are eating, and this awareness is happening very fast. The trend is visible across the world, including India.”
The major challenge, according to Belo, was to convince people about their expertise as chocolatiers, especially in a society like India’s where chocolatiers do not exist. Documentation and acquiring licenses was a tedious task. But Anagnostou is grateful for many things. “Our main supplier is super organised, and we can order everything online. We just have to be grateful to the people we work with. It took a couple of months to train the two women who work with us, and we are learning too.”
The partners also observed that consumers in India, like the Westerners, are becoming aware of organically cultivated products and food ingredients, and the art of craftsmanship in specialised foods. “Mysore has certainly changed a lot since 2008. Maybe in another 10 years we would completely reject fast food. I see a lot of people taking up yoga, and we have Indian students as well as people in their late 30s buying products from us. The mindset of these consumers is very different. In fact, yoga students are our main buyers,” say the duo and inform that they have plans to expand their brand’s presence in Bangalore, Chennai, Mumbai and Goa.
Nesara Organics Store
The Nesara Organics Store officially opened in 1998: from functioning in a small garage, it is now housed in an old house fitted out as a store. It is run by a committee of members who believe in promoting and supporting indigenous food sourced from farmers.
The 800 sqft store has around 550 skus. Farmers bring their produce directly to the store, where they are packaged. Every Friday the store holds a Nesara Farmers Market sale that attracts people from the city and huge groups of yoga learning tourists. Nesara also keeps cows that are tended to by an in-house farmer who supplies fresh milk to families living nearby.
Popular products at Nesara are millets, jaggery, rice and ready to eat snacks. Sales of cereals and snacks are 30 to 35 percent of overall sales; vegetables and fruits 20 to 25 percent; milk and dairy products (such as ghee) 10 to 15 percent; and honey 10 percent. Proper packaging is a concern as organic products have a very short shelf life.
Nesara’s Facilitator and Community Worker, C. Balachandran, an architect, has earlier worked in the IT industry. He moved to Mysore fours years ago. He expanded the product range and opened a second outlet called Prakriti Food three years ago. The 300 sqft store has 400 to 500 skus, and operates out of a garage. As Balachandran says: “We do not want to be seen as a retail unit, but as an organic community that brings together farmers and the consumers. If, in the next five years, we have an extended organic community, it would be an achievement for us.”
He is eager to tie up with other organic suppliers and retailers to host events that bridge the gap between the farmer and the consumer. As he says, “An individual cannot move anything, it requires a collaborative effort.” His philosophy: the health of an individual reflects in his family; whose health reflects the health of the neighbourhood, which reflects that of the community, which, in turn, reflects the health of the nation, which reflects the health of the world. It is about creating a ripple effect. According to him, awareness about organic products is growing largely amongst the middle class, but people are still cautious when buying them. In his view, the Organic Movement stands (or should stand) for Individual Health – better nutrition and holistic food; Local Economy – Inclusive growth and better social development; and Environment – sustainable agriculture methods.
Balachandran is concerned about the lowering ground water level, the farmers’ despair as their lands dry up, and shortage of labour. “I see labourers, who come to till the land, getting tired in an hour or so as they have to toil under the hot sun; plus in the last 20 years the health index has come down drastically. Their food intake is very limited and very poor. It’s just bun and tea in the morning! The new generation of farmers are looking at how urban people live and eat.”
Dhatu Organics & Naturals
The 1,200 sqft well-lit, modern Dhatu Organics & Naturals store located on Adipampa Road in Mysore, breaks one’s perception of a typical organic food store. Owned by managing partners, Hemanth Kumar Srinivas and Dr. Mohan Kumar RK (Rampura Krishnagowda), the store and an adjoining restaurant, Rasa Dhatu, was set up with an initial investment of Rs 35 lakh.
Over 2,700 skus, that besides food products, include organic clothing and cosmetics (all certified by USDA), attractive packaging, and nice interiors, set this store apart from many others in the organic retail space. Buyers comprise pregnant women, old people and the health conscious who come looking for sugar alternatives such as coconut sugar and palm sugar, and for rice other than white, such as red, brown, black and purple rice.
Srinivas informs that footfalls have increased from around 20 to 80 -100, and business is growing at 250 percent year on year. “Our online portal is receiving orders from far off places like Egypt and Costa Rica,” he informs. Adds Mohan, “Most of the companies that we represent are into contract farming. It takes time for them to introduce their own products and packaging. We have set a 20 percent margin for food products; for clothes and cosmetics it is 22 to 30 percent.
At the 50-seater Rasa Dhatu restaurant, freshly cooked food encourages consumers to try the food before buying ingredients from the store. Informs Srinivas, “The food cooked here is vegetarian, and is prepared without using milk or ghee, and is free from lactose, wheat, gluten, and eggs. In our salads we use only cold pressed coconut oil.
The partners have spent a lot of time devising the menu, and after taking feedback from friends and relatives. They also trained their kitchen staff on using the right ingredients. A bio-gas tank installed on top of the building converts garbage and leftover foods to provide 3 hours of bio-gas for the kitchen.
More Dhatu outlets are being planned for Bangalore, Goa and Cochin – cities which get a substantial number of tourists. “It’s the Westerners who have helped us grow and sustain business, and seeing the trend Indian consumers are also flocking to our store,” says Dr. Mohan,”Our products are good gift items too, especially for people living abroad.” He informs that 50 percent of the sales come from food including fresh produce and spices; 30 percent from cosmetics; and 20 percent from clothes and gifts.
Swadheshi Bazaar, located at Jayalakshmi Vilas Road, sells Ayurvedic, Natural, Herbal and Organic products. Of the 1,000 skus, 150 are organic. Owners Jayashree and Bharath Ranka have followed the principle of well-known IISC Scientist, Rajiv Dixit, who believed in using products only of Indian origin. The store was inaugurated on Independence Day by a freedom fighter.
Bharath, who also runs an outdoor advertising and digital printing business, started the store along with his wife. Initially, the 200 sqft store had mostly herbal cosmetics. Following good response from the consumers, the Rankas expanded the business by taking up the adjacent space. Bharath sources products from all over India, but only the certified ones, as he believes that products sourced directly from farmers can be risky as they are not always legally certified.
Cosmetics are the fastest moving products at the store, followed by millets and jaggery. Products are sourced directly from manufacturers and sold at a 20 percent margin. Says Bharath,” We stock genuine products, not simply the branded ones. Some of our suppliery companies are 30 to 75 years old. We also have our own private label called Shudh Brand under which we sell pure, safe products from all over india.”
Shudh Brand that was launched six months ago, currently has 15 varieties of products including shampoos, glycerin and cow ghee. The store gets 100 consumers daily most of whom are 40 to 45 years – an age group that has seen changes in trends and can relate to how things were in a village before imported products started coming in. Once in a year, the store does a ‘Freedom from Junk Food’ campaign during which it offers discounts to customers.
Swadeshi Bazaar is set to expand through a franchise model across Karnataka and will open 5 to 8 outlets in Bangalore in the next 6 months. “These will be 2,000 sqft outlets, with great ambience, and large shelf space for the products,” says Bharath, and adds, “We will select the locations for the franchisees and give them full support.”