With renewed interest in healthy eating, and more folks finding comfort in food – small-batch food brands say they are doing well in spite of the pandemic.

not just hotnot just hot
Features FOOD Friday, July 30, 2021 - 13:34

In a busy kitchen in Bengaluru, sauces are bubbling away on stoves, bottles are being filled with red hot chilli sauce and crispy chilli oil. The phone beeps, intermittently, signalling that delivery agents are waiting to collect the packaged bottles to deliver to houses across the city. In one corner, spice mixes are being packed to be couriered to other cities. The place is bustling and it is hard to believe that 'not just hot', only a little over a year old, started during the first lockdown.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country in March 2020, it brought everything to a standstill. A little over a year later, we are just coming out of the second wave and things look rather grim, with layoffs, closures, and more. If this is anything to go by, the pandemic doesn’t seem like the apt time to start and sustain a new venture. But some would disagree. Not only has there been a spurt of new food brands during the pandemic, but some that started before 2020 have also found new ways to thrive. 

not just hot, Bengaluru

The brainchild of Saritha Hegde, not just hot was a culmination of her favourite things – food, travel and spice. From sauces inspired by her trips to Thailand and Italy to the Mangalorean spice mix created by her mother, she started making and selling hot sauces, wok sauces, chilli oils, spice mixes and more last year.

“The timing was perfect,” says Saritha Hegde, who worked in the fashion industry on the corporate side for decades. “The noise on social media disappeared and the pause allowed us to start.” She used social media, especially Instagram, to build exposure. “It gave us reach and traction and it helped that we were selling products needed for the time,” she adds.

From the beginning, Saritha was confident about the business. “I ordered 700 glass bottles with the name not just hot printed on them even before selling one!” she says. With most folks stuck at home and craving dishes they couldn’t easily access, the products quickly gained popularity as they could be used to make everything from Thai green curry to prawn ghee roast.

not just hot

“The way we produce and sell, it wouldn't have been different even if the pandemic wasn’t there,” says Saritha. The cooking process will stay the same and everything will always be handmade, though she says some minor automation might take place in the future. “We are a smaller business, so every penny counts,” she adds. 

Having started the brand during the first wave of the pandemic, Saritha was prepared for the second one and adds that her corporate background helped when it came to taking calculated risks, especially having a background in supply chain. Prior to the second wave, she had bought more bottles and stocked up on labels. It also helped that the produce she needed to make the condiments and sauces were all locally available.

And what if she couldn’t access the ingredients she needed for her recipes? Saritha wasn’t too fazed by that possibility. “I am the owner and creator of the intelligence property,” she says. “I have the confidence to create new recipes based on what is available in the market and change the menu and sell.” 

Saritha says the company is making a profit, and she believes that what is in the bottle is most important, and that's what keeps the customers coming back.

The Manduva Project, Hyderabad

Specialising in pickles and podis from Andhra, The Manduva Project, in Hyderabad had been selling via word-of-mouth for about a year, though Founder Neha Alluri officially launched only a few months ago, just before the second wave hit India.

“The lead up to the actual launch was exciting because we had delayed it for so long till we could get the packaging just right. We allowed folks to pre-order on WhatApp, and we shipped out 30-40 orders within Hyderabad and to other cities on the first day,” says Neha. 

The Manduva Project

Sun dried mango pickle, sesame podi, peanut podi, ginger pickle and of course the quintessential Andhra avakaya pickle are all part of the menu. “All the recipes belong to an aunt, Uma Alluri, who is famous in the family for her pickles and podis, especially her sweet avakaya,” says Neha. The idea behind the business is to revive homemade recipes. “We wanted to bring ancestral food back from the villages to the cities,” she adds.

All the products are handmade in the western Godavari region of Andhra and then sent to Hyderabad for the final layer of packaging and shipping. “The family’s business is in rural Andhra so access to farmers allows us to source fresh, clean ingredients,” says Neha. They employ around 15 women, most of them wives of the farmers to make the pickles and roast and grind the podis. 

“We curated the pickles and podis based on diverse tastes. We wanted to cater to people across the country,” says Neha. With that in mind, the podis can be used to coat on fish and fry, the pickle can be used to marinate meats in, she adds.

The chillies used come from different parts of Andhra, and the gingelly oil for the pickles is sourced locally too. All the products are preservative and additive-free, and Neha says that the shelf life is anywhere from six months to a year depending on the product.

Sun dried mango pickle from The Manduva Project

Though priced as a premium food product, Neha says the fact that the food products are staples, and not luxury items helped with sales. “And during the pandemic, there has been renewed importance in health and eating for many,” she adds.

“Those far from home are seeking comfort in food and these items remind them of home,” says Neha.

Would the brand have been marketed and sold differently if there was no pandemic? No, says Neha. “We are taking it slow. We plan to distribute and stock in stores only next year (2022) after seeing how our products sell,” she adds. For now, they deliver across the country. “We were able to access ingredients with ease since everything comes from within the Telugu states - we are shipping our products all over the country,” Neha says.

Käse, Chennai 

Cheddar crusted with milagai podi, Halloumi with mint, Labneh with chilli garlic oil, Chennai-based Käse has made a name for itself with its unique and delicious cheeses.

In 2016, Anuradha Krishnamoorthy wanted to start a business that would give employment to women who were hearing impaired. She met with Namrata Sundaresan, a friend of her husband’s, to get ideas on how to go about it. Namrata, who had just got back from a holiday in Coonoor where she was introduced to cheesemaking, suggested why not do something with that. And so Käse began.

While Käse started by making quark, a Bavarian yoghurt cheese, they now make nearly 30 different varieties. “My first professional course was at the School of the New American Farmstead, where we covered a whole bunch of cheeses,” says Namrata. From Vermont to London, she has done courses on everything from how to describe and pair cheeses to how terroir affects cheese. “When I travel I try to connect with cheesemakers and small creameries, and learn and work with them,” she says.

Cheeses from Käse 

The small food brand took a slow and conservative approach. “We started by selling at pop-ups in Chennai in 2017, by the end of 2018 we began supplying to stores and only in 2019 did we start retailing in cities like Bengaluru and Hyderabad,” says Namrata. 

But soon after the fromagerie started retailing in other cities the pandemic hit. “COVID-19 changed everything, but it also pushed us to start a website and ship pan-India,” says Namrata.

While sourcing the materials needed to make the cheese wasn’t an issue– milk, salt and water was available during the lockdown and they had already bought Rennet, a vital ingredient in cheese making, in bulk, they faced other issues. The seven-member, all-women team found it hard to get to work during the lockdown and they had to cut down on how much they produced. Logistics was also affected as they ran out of labels and tags and had to make do with makeshift ones. 

“But going into lockdown having a strong delivery partner helped,” says Namrata. “We are also able to scale down or up according to the demand. So we were able to gauge and plan. We would make only what we have to send out,” she adds. Not that they were hassled if there was extra cheese produced. As Namrata says “Cheese is grown up milk, it matures and only gets better. “

Käse 

Talking about the cheeses Käse makes, Namrata says, “The Feta, Haloumi are very popular as well as the mozzarella (we don’t do the stretchy version, so it has a longer shelf life) pepper jack, and cheddar.” And earlier this year they started a cheese subscription box.

Namrata adds that they ship their products across the country and have sent cheeses to Goa, Kashmir, Uttarakhand and Kerala, and more. 

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