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  • Writer's pictureJyoti Pande

Flavour Labs: Why the boutique food & hospitality company is betting on food trucks

Apr 5, 2015, 03.50AM IST

Those of us who ever lived in a small town will remember the sonorous sound of metal ladle striking iron skillet of the local tikki-wallah trying to attract customers. Or the melodious tinkle of the ice-cream cart bell or the chuski-seller's raucous cry calling out to buy his wares.

Street food has always been a part of our culture – even more so in smaller towns like Ahmedabad Bhopal, Lucknow and Indore, where entire markets transform nightly into charming food bazaars and feasts. Even a megapolis like Mumbai has bhelpuri stalls mushrooming on Chowpatty.

The equivalent of this in western societies is the food truck – defined as a large vehicle equipped to cook and sell food - though a more contemporary definition would be a mobile restaurant or canteen.

Although food trucks began as a need – a Texan rancher devised the chuckwagon for his cattleherders for their long cross-country trails – they have become a gourmet addition to streetfood staples. And now they are becoming an important part of the Indian landscape, at a time when innovative concepts in food and dining are disrupting traditional markets.

From pop-up restaurants, standalone palate-centric food festivals, chai bars and artisan beer pubs to experimental molecular cuisine, there is a quiet revolution sweeping the country. So it isn't as if Nandita Shetty, Rohan Rajgarhia, Ankur Agarwal and Vasanth Kamath are doing anything that hasn't been done before. Its just that they are doing it differently.

The four engineers founded Flavour Labs as a boutique food and hospitality company, but their focus is food trucks - designed and custom-fitted with state-of-art stainless steel kitchen equipment. “Building the food truck was a huge challenge in functionality, practicality compliance and safety needs,” says Shetty.

It was she who concieved the idea of a food truck during Stanford Ignite, a certificate programme in innovation and entrepreneurship offered by the Stanford Graduate School of Business School in Bangalore in 2013. “Food is a passion,” says Shetty.

Her background is in healthcare, although she started out as a software engineer in Bangalore. After a post-graduate degree in biomedical engineering, she worked as a neuroimaging researcher at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston before moving back to India. But it was volunteering with a non-profit, Pardada Pardadi Educational society, in rural Uttar Pradesh that was life-altering. In 2012, Shetty joined a biotech startup as as business development manager. “At Invictus Oncology, I really enjoyed working in a non-scientific role, and being part of a team that was translating a medical break-through into a usable product. But when the opportunity (at Ignite) came up, I was ready for it. And I'm so glad with the way things panned out. The best part is that two of Flavour Lab's co-founders are people I met at the program: Rohan Rajgarhia, a Stanford alumnus, who was a mentor on our team project, and Vasanth Kamath, a team member at the program,” says Shetty.

The company's first investment was in a food truck which served a very unique cuisine. “Kobri – which means dessicated coconut - takes its inspiration from South Indian cuisine and fuses it with global flavours,” says Shetty. According to their website, Kobri “ brings to you where you are...a 'food truck' fun-dining experience,” with introductory signature dishes like idliwiches (idli sandwiches) and dosa wraps. The same truck can transforms to another avatar – Hoppers, for casual comfort food. “We can dress up the truck any way we want!” says Shetty.

“Apart from regular lunch services, we do private, corporate, sporting events and festive celebrations – you name it,” says Shetty.“This is not a hobby or a pet project. We mean business.” Some of their events include the Puma Urban Stampede, SERCO trail-a-thon, services at the Heritage Transport museum, business parks and residential complexes.

Currently, the food truck is doing roaring business by just word of mouth. Last week, they launched their Facebook page and have planned a public portal.“We are figuring out how to make use of technology in this space,” she says. “Once we get the food right, the process right and build a trusted brand, we will market aggressively,” she said.

The team's idea was to start small and evaluate the market response before investing further.“This was our pilot. Gurgaon was a good place to begin our experiment – our customers understand us. There was a young, fun aspect to it that worked well here,” says Shetty. “We are ready for bigger and better now – we plan to saturate Delhi-NCR first, with 4-5 trucks,” she said. They already have a base-kitchen located out of Gurgaon that can service upto 3 food trucks and are looking for funding in order to scale. The company is close to finalising with an angel group but being “a bit picky. We don't want just money. We want skillsets...associate with the right people,” Shetty said. “After scaling, franchising the brand will be the way to go.”

“Our food is simple but elevated. Our differentiator - hygienic, gourmet food at an affordable price. We remove the location aspect to food, but want to maintain high standards of quality and consistency,” she says. All the right noises there. But food is a tricky, demanding business. And the lack of clear guidelines, laws and licensing rules for such moving kitchens keeps it even more challenging and edgy. Hopefully, a founding team that comprises engineers with backgrounds in hospitality, healthcare, corporate strategy, analytics, customer service - and affiliations with Stanford, Cambridge, Harvard and IIT will be able to overcome the difficulties that such ventures usually face.

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