Yoking an organic health food store to a restaurant might seem like a strange and implausible idea, but a brother-sister duo in Puducherry are leaning on imagination and enterprise to make the concept work, and with wonderful results so far. Arokya Nature Restaurant and Aaraamthinai store in Puducherry are owned by M Nagajothi Venkatesan and her brother M Sundar. The unique thing about the two outlets is that they exist as one unit, complementing each other’s existence and cross leveraging their individual operating strengths.
The restaurant, which is 500 square feet in area, opened its doors in April 2014 and was set up with an initial investment of Rs eight lakh. It initially served only 10 regular traditional south Indian dishes like idlis and dosas, cooked in a very homely kitchen manned by three people. Focused on serving customers with health problems like diabetes or hypertension and other lifestyle related diseases, the restaurant so far has been able to clock a growth rate of 30 per cent month on month.
The growth could have been even more but, as Sundar says, “unfortunately, consumers are more attracted to tasty food with more variety of flavours.” The type of food that people eat today has also undergone a change, says Sundar, adding that he started the organic restaurant and store business because he wanted to create awareness about the harmful effects of the changing food habits of people.
To promote organic cooking and eating, Nagajothi and Sundar also conduct awareness classes at the restaurant on how to use and cook organic products. The classes at Arokya are also publicised through the social media, which promise to give back encouraging results. But Sundar rues the fact that people today tend to think of organic as some new-fangled concept even though it is not. It is the same concept that can be traced to our traditional farming methods when natural manure was used instead of pesticides.
“Today, pesticides are sprayed onto the crops a few hours before reaping the fields. What kills pests can kill us as well. As result, the kind of diseases that are prevalent today is very different. We see that the newer generation has shorter life spans.”
Attributing the reasons for the decrease in longevity to the shift away from traditionally healthy and organic food habits, Sundar says: “Earlier people used groundnut or sesame oil and coconut oil for cooking but nowadays people use sunflower and olive oil, which
are imported from other countries and their purity is suspect.” He says that international brands have created negative images about our own products, which encourage people to buy foreign brands.
“Even oil when boiled once, has good cholesterol, whereas oil boiled
the second time has bad cholesterol. The sunflower oil has been pre-boiled and added with flavours. So our ancient customs are completely destroyed when foreign products are being marketed,” he says. He also points out that even the variety of our produce is getting impacted. “There was a time when India used to produce a wide variety of rice grains but now there are only 10 varieties of rice available.”
Though Sundar and Nagajothi are determined to pull out all the stops to make their business successful, they agree that the going will not be smooth. The restaurant currently does not really bring in a lot of money, mainly due to the exorbitant transport costs involved in bringing the fresh produce directly from the farm, which also seem to affect the price of products at the restaurant as well as the store. But despite the challenges, both look at the business as a long term investment.
First time visitors to the place are surprised at the uniqueness of the format, in finding a restaurant and a food store twinned together by the idea of eating and buying organic food and products. The 300 square feet area Aaraamthinai store attached to the restaurant is an organic health food store, which sells health mixes, herbal tea and quick eats.
Set up with an investment of nearly Rs 10 lakh, the store has around 700 SKUs and also its own private label of six different products, which includes health mixes, herbal tea and quick eats. All produce at the store either come directly from farmers or are branded packaged products. Apart from quinoa, all products are made in India. According to Sundar, the store will soon start sourcing locally produced quinoa as well. “Pretty soon quinoa will also be available in India as its cultivation has begun in Andhra Pradesh; whereas in Tamil Nadu, farmers have just begun to receive training on how to grow the crop as well as chia seeds.”
So far, the fastest moving products at the store are millets, herbal juices, poha and cookies. Most of the people to the store are visitors to the city who prefer and go for ready-to-eat food. According to Sundar, there are consumers who get the products
delivered to their families while they live in another location. These consumers are regular customers and order every 20 days. A majority of the consumers come from Auroville and White Town.
The price of products at the store is slightly higher due to the inherent costs of sourcing them fresh from farmers. Sundar laments that getting the product from farmers has been a great challenge. Fresh organic vegetables are supplied from Ooty, Kodaikanal and Bengaluru, which incur additional transport expenses. But storage and replenishment of stock poses a big challenge. Farmers generally cultivate one variety of crop for a duration of three months and then switch to a different crop. As a result, depending on the availability of the produce, prices of products at the store keep changing.
Sundar says he tries to keep his prices stable for at least three months as crops change every there months. But pricing does get affected on account of such fluctuations. In fact, the products at Aaraamthinai cost around Rs.30-40 higher than the regular grocery shops, which makes it affordable only for upper middle class people. In Puducherry, it is mostly the foreigners who pick up organic products.
Despite the odds, Sundar expects the store to break even in another one to two years time. He has already mapped out an expansion plan into metro cities through a franchise model, mainly to neighbouring cities like Trichi, Madurai, North Chennai, Tiruvelnalai, and Coimbatore. The initial investment for a franchisee would be Rs 5 lakh, where Aaraamthinai will be able to support the store with supplies of their private labels and have other brands co-ordinate with their products. He points out that there are over 100 organic retailers in Chennai alone but all of them are not running successfully.
“Out of the 100 probably 30-40 of them are making profit. What really affects business is the location, arrangements and quality of food,” he avers.
As of now, the franchise model is only for the store, but if franchisees have a bigger space then Aaraamthinai can provide them with a takeaway counter that has a selected menu, which Sundar feels will help in quality control. In the organic retail business, he feels that location and interiors have to be good. “If customers are happy with the quality and location of the store, then you can find buyers coming directly. We are looking at areas that do not have a retail store.
On the whole, Nagajothi and Sundar are very optimistic that organic products have a huge potential, as people in India are gaining awareness on the benefits of its consumption and are slowly willing to learn how to cook using organic products.