I wanted my ice creams to mimic my mother’s cooking, says R S Kamath of Natural's
“I don’t know English,” he says at the outset, adding, “I am a SSC fail and failed in the English language.” It is this honesty that he reveals throughout the interview that is engaging. Kamath's business has grown from Rs 14-15 lakh in 1986 to Rs 72 crore (March 2014) with a 15 percent year on year growth. In the approximately Rs 1,500 crore organized ice cream market, Natural has a 5-10 percent share
Success Quotient is a weekly feature that appears every Friday on Firstpost, which looks at the pains and joys en route to success for a head honcho - whether a CEO, MD or an entrepreneur. The column looks at the ideas that helped launch a company, its highs and lows and future plans.
Natural Ice Cream’s latest award in its burgeoning kitty is the Coco-Cola Golden Spoon Award for the Most Admired Food Service Chain of the Year 2015 in the category of “Icecream & Desserts Parlours”. Looking back on the path that he has traversed, 61-year-old Raghunandan Srinivas Kamath smiles and recalls that he wanted to stand out in the crowded market of ice creams with a unique product-- fruit-based ice creams with no additives, that he named Natural.
“I don’t know English,” he says at the outset, adding, “I am a SSC fail and failed in the English language.” It is this honesty that he reveals throughout the interview that is engaging. Kamath's business has grown from Rs 14-15 lakh in 1986 to Rs 72 crore (March 2014) with a 15 percent year on year growth. In the approximately Rs 1,500 crore organized ice cream market, Natural has a 5-10 percent share. Kamath has had many offers for equity investment and joint ventures. However, he is clear that the company will remain a family-owned business with his two sons—Srinivas, a management graduate and Siddhant, a hospitality graduate — besides nephew, Girish Pai who heads retail and production, pitching in.
Excerpts from the conversation:
What led you to start Natural Ice Cream?
I was working with my brother at his firm, Gokul Ice Cream since 1974. We sold other refreshments as well. But I found customers relishing our fruit-based ice creams and unfailingly sharing it with others who accompanied them to the store. I realized then that this was a good business opportunity. I wanted to be independent and at the age of 30 moved away to start off on my own. My brothers were very encouraging and came to my store opening on February 14, 1984 at Juhu Vile Parle.
What kind of a company did you want Natural to become? How soon were you able to achieve that goal?
My mother was a good cook. Everyone enjoyed what she made. I wanted my ice creams to mimic my mother’s awesome cooking. Natural Ice cream has only 3 ingredients—milk, fruits and sugar. My father had a business in fruits and I had first-hand knowledge of fruits and those that could be used for making pulp. Our ice creams are also called artisan ice creams as there are no artificial flavours or colours in it. We don’t pump air into the product, and hence you will find our ice creams heavier.
What was your initial capital to start the business?
When I left my brother I got Rs one lakh and with my savings and help from friends, I had Rs 5 lakh to start with. I bought a store in Juhu Vile Parle Scheme simply because in 1984 it was only the film stars and affluent people who went out to have an ice cream unlike today. So I knew I would be assured of a clientele there. When I opened the store, my only thought was I should have a sale of Rs 1,400.
So did you make the Rs 1,400 the first day itself?
I made Rs 600-800 on the first day and on the first Sunday after that, I made Rs 1400. I thought if this trend did not change soon, I would have to do away with my 3 workers, and make ice creams in-house. Not just that, I would have to make do with 'aage dukan, pichche makan’ making ice creams with my wife. However, that did not happen and we grew. Today that outlet does an average sale of Rs 2 – to 2.5 lakhs per day. I have some film stars who ask for the store to be opened an hour past midnight so that they can come and enjoy the ice cream. Most of India’s prime ministers have eaten the ice creams and loved it. When the Chinese premier visited India recently and was in Gujarat, we got a request to send the ice cream for the premier. Once K V Kamath,(of ICICI and Infosys-fame) mentioned to me that he gave Natural ice cream to his guests and that his Chinese guests, especially loved it. When he went to China on an official visit, his hosts and counterparts asked him if he had got the ice cream for them! I am glad that our ice creams are loved and appreciated.
How many flavours do you have in Natural today?
I sold 10 flavours initially. Today I have developed 125 flavours but put out 20-22 flavours regularly. We have Friday fun-day flavours when we put out 52 flavours—one each for the 52 weeks in a year. Starting from today, we flag off our berry festival where ice creams from five berries—strawberry, mulberry, gooseberry, blueberry, cranberry—and also black currant are sold across all our outlets. We have put out the tilgul laddoo flavour ice cream for the Makar Sankranti festivities, thandai ice cream during Holi and cherry berry for Christmas. We soon plan to come out with ice creams made from Indian sweets like jilebi, malai korma among others. Gajar halwa ice cream is already out.
Which ice cream has not caught up with the public? Which is your favourite?
We made cucumber ice cream, our first vegetable-based product which won for us the Gold Medal in the Great Indian Ice cream contest held last year. But it did not appeal to the customers. It is like an art movie that wins the National award and no one goes to watch it! We plan to rework it. Our banana ice cream is a very good product but people don’t buy it, perhaps thinking a fruit available for Rs 1 or 2 is not exotic for an ice cream. So we have caramelized the banana and added nuts to it. But I still don’t see many takers for it perhaps because of the association with the fruit. Personally, I love jackfruit ice cream.
Has the diet-conscious fad eroded your market by any chance?
Thankfully, ice cream has not been named a junk product yet! People who love desserts will eat ice creams even if they are on a diet. They will keep room for ice creams in their diet.
What are your future plans?
I am glad that people who were with me when I started have grown as well. I had a supplier of buffalo milk from Nashik with me during my initial days and he has modernized his tabela and remains my only supplier till date. I have 120 franchisees across India and plan to go to states like West Bengal, north east and Delhi too. I plan to have 150 franchisees in India and then move to countries in Asia which have a large Indian population. I dream of the day my ice cream will be known globally.
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