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Foodbox a viable business venture

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What is the concept behind Atchayam Foodbox?

Atchayam in Tamil implies abundance and nourishment much like the word cornucopia (horn of plenty). Atchayam Foodbox aggregates fresh food from multiple (trusted) brands from within a city and retails it through fully automated outlets located at convenient places. It is the ultimate in convenience for consumers on the move.

One of the biggest issues we have while traveling by train is the unavailability of food from trusted sources. In 2009, during my visit to India (I was living overseas then) I had a Eureka moment when I thought how wonderful it would be for travellers to get off a train when it stops at a platform, go to a machine, press a button, and get fresh, hot food. When the idea continued to stay in my head, we decided to build on it. It has taken us over three years of sweat equity and sacrifices, and close to Rs 4 crores in capital to develop Foodbox as a viable business venture.

What do the operational processes entail?

The store orders the dishes for every meal time on the ERP system based on a predetermined volume. Once the order is entered, the restaurants are notified via the network. Ahead of the designated pick up time, the restaurants pack the food, which is then picked up by our trucks and delivered to Foodbox outlets. Each sale is monitored (via the ERP system) by the store and by the back office support staff. For reordering, the store releases a refill request to the restaurants.

Every meal is freshly prepared and packaged just hours ahead of the meal time. Our proprietary packaging process ensures an airtight seal, and every pack is tagged with a product identification code that includes packaging date and time. At the outlets, the packs are stored in our patented climate controlled Automated Retrieval System (ARS). We use 100 percent virgin food grade polypropylene for our packaging materials, and the ARS is designed using food grade stainless steel.  From the kitchen till the consumer opens the package, the food is not touched by anyone. All these measures and processes  ensure  freshness of the packaged meals for 8 hours minimum. In fact, the ARS is intelligently designed to not dispense any product that is 6 hours old from the time of packaging.

The ARS was developed by Synetics Automation, Coimbatore. The entire network including the partnering restaurants are on GoFrugal ERP network. The front-end and the ERP integration was done by Shlok Labs in Coimbatore. Well-known local restaurants like Adyar Ananda Bhavan, Aasife and Brothers Biriyani, Moti Mahal, Amaravathi, Kaaraikudi and Mr. Chows are associated with us.

What’s on the menu and how do you forecast orders for a day?

Unlike other traditional restaurants or fast food chains, our menu runs steep. Currently, we are serving over 150 different menu items, and we offer about 20 to 25 dishes during a meal time. The menu changes between meal times and between days. The best seller is the biryani. We serve South Indian vegetarian (from A2B), biriyanis (from Aasife Biriyani Center and Biryani Hundi), Chettinadu veg and non-veg (from Madurai Appu, Southern Spice), north indian veg and non-veg (from Moti Mahal Deluxe), Chinese (from Mr Chow’s) and some specialty indian food (from TeaFun). We are working on bringing in Andhra specialties and Continental dishes as well.

Forecasting the number of orders is purely based on history. As per the trend in our stores, for every new store we predict a starting volume. And as the days go by, we build our business intelligence based on the data the we gather from our ERP system. Keeping wastage to a minimum is the biggest job of the business intelligence we are building. We tell the restaurants what sells when and at what time (with some limited accuracy), and the restaurants work accordingly.

We use menu boards and other applicable communications to announce to consumers what is available at the stores. At the time of purchase, consumers can check product availability on the touch screens, or through their app and online ordering system. When the customer walks in, he/she places the order on a self-service touch screen. The chosen product is picked by the ARS, reheated, and served to the customer at the delivery lane without any human intervention. The process takes only 90 seconds. Food items are priced between Rs 75 and Rs 149. The customer can pay by cash, credit, debit card, and net banking. We also offer cash cards/loyalty cards.

What challenges have you faced in this business?

We have had to deal with a lot of technical difficulties because every single aspect of our business is heavily customized and a proprietary design. From the automated dispensers and packaging, to the money transactions, there is a lot of innovativeness involved, and we have had to jump many hurdles to get where we are. Surprisingly, what we thought would be a huge challenge, that is, signing up branded restaurants, didn’t prove to be as big as feared. In fact, they have been very receptive and supportive to our Foodbox concept since the beginning.

We are currently following the BTL advertising strategy, but we believe more in building a personal relationship with our customers. Our stores operate with only one or two persons; this makes it easy for our customers to interact with the brand on a personal level. Even though the purchasing process is fully automated, our customer service executives in the stores ensure good service and directly address any complaint.

What is your current store count?

We have three stores in Chennai (DLF IT park, Koyambedu omnibus stand area, and at SRM University). The next store will be in Chennai Central Railway station. We want to be present at airports, railway stations and bus stands), retail streets, large IT parks, hospitals, universities and small office complexes –  where you don’t get good food consistently. We are in talks with some large entities to set up Foodbox stores on major highways. You will see us all over India in the next couple of years.

What drives you?

I think the opportunity to touch many souls with great food and the wide variety that we can bring to the market are the two biggest drivers for me. My attraction to food was innate, but my attraction to food as a business was accidental. It happened because we had a great concept and the right opportunity.

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