CHICAGO — Quality Indian cuisine has been slow to emerge in the United States, said Anshu Dua, founder and chief executive officer of The Chaat Co., New York. He believes the time is right to put authentic Indian dishes on the menu, and in the retail grab-and-go departments of supermarkets, as Indian foods offer much of what the evolving American palate craves, including fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, bold flavors and whole milk dairy products.
The company introduced a Savory Yogurt Snack, a line of dome-style single-serve cups of whole milk probiotic savory yogurt with lentil puff topping about two years ago. It was designed to resemble the classic flavors of chaat, the Indian term for street food.
The product immediately got the attention of buyers with Whole Foods Market and was distributed across the Eastern region. For about a year, Mr. Dua and his team sampled the product in stores, learning from consumer reactions, its branding and its positioning, which at that time was always in the yogurt/dairy department. While consumers enjoyed the taste and purchased product during the demos, in many locations, purchases stopped when the sampling ended.
With limited capital resources, the company decided to take the lessons learned from these consumer interactions and regrouped. After researching the retail landscape, Mr. Dua and his team decided the brand needed to be in the prepared foods/grab-and-go-aisle.
“This is where consumers are exploring,” Mr. Dua said at the American Food Innovate Summit held in Chicago Feb. 4-5. “They are less price sensitive and it’s an area where many retailers are investing. Grocers are already successful with ethnic offerings in this space, which is geared toward lunch, dinner and snacking.”
The company now is reinventing itself with freshly prepared Indian street foods that function as convenient mini-meals and hearty portable snacks. Instead of focusing on what Americans have come to think of Indian food, the company is bringing to light the street snacks known as chaat.
Food Business News spoke with Mr. Dua regarding the lessons the company learned in its efforts to take authentic ethnic food mainstream.
Food Business News: Taking authentic Indian food mainstream is quite an ambition. Why do you believe the time is right to do so?
Mr. Dua: Indian cuisine has been underrepresented in the U.S. market for quite some time. Most Americans experience Indian food in poorly branded, Taj Mahal-themed restaurants with all-you-can-eat buffets featuring mysterious curries, rice and naan. While delicious, that experience hasn’t evolved in most cities for at least the past 30 years.
Sure, there are pockets of innovation, but there’s so much more opportunity to increase accessibility to Indian cuisine. We decided to focus our brand and build a company around a category of Indian snacks called chaat. Think of them like Indian tapas. Served in roadside carts all across India, chaat is not curry. It’s made with fresh fruits and vegetables combined with chutneys, legumes and, of course, tangy masala.
With Americans snacking more than ever and looking for fresh alternatives to packaged products, as well as open to exploring global flavors, we believe our products and brand have an opportunity to take Indian food mainstream.
The Savory Yogurt Snack was a first-of-its kind for the U.S. market. And obviously, Whole Foods was impressed. How come Whole Foods was not willing to merchandise it somewhere else, say maybe with hummus snack packs?
Mr. Dua: I can’t say enough about how Whole Foods has been a great partner for us and continues to be. It became apparent fairly quickly that the yogurt aisle is a tough spot to launch a new snack brand. Consumers are buying a pre-determined inventory product for their week, mostly for a breakfast day-part and are highly price sensitive. Our products were more of an impulse purchase for later in the day snacking and it was premium priced. We approached local Whole Foods store managers who believed in our brand and they gave us the green light to merchandise our products in the prepared foods aisle, next to sushi and other grab-and-go Indian meal kits and sandwiches. The impact was immediate, and our product would sell three to four times more units than in the dairy aisle. But since our product was technically part of a different department, this merchandising wasn’t permanent.
So, you decided to start from scratch and develop more upscale grab-and-go items. How come?
Mr. Dua: Yes, some call it a pivot! We knew going into the initial product launch that we would get some things right and many things wrong. But we set up a system to really test our theories in retail locations with actual customers. We took a very methodical approach.
We knew we were onto something when we saw consumers’ reactions to the flavors of the Savory Yogurt Snack. They were loving them and would constantly tell us about how they “love Indian food,” “have been to India” or “attended an Indian wedding.” But we also realized that yogurt wasn’t the right medium to launch a snack brand given that most Americans believe yogurt should be sweet, or fruit flavored and eaten for breakfast. That’s when we decided to build products that would allow our consumers to experience a little bit of India in a convenient snacking form.
What are the three items that are part of your initial roll-out?
Mr. Dua: The first product is New Delhi Nachos, which is known as Papri Chaat in India. This build-your-own snack kit comes with crunchy gluten-free chickpea chips that you top with fresh chopped fruits and veggies and a spiced tamarind yogurt. That’s a nod to the Savory Yogurt Snack. There’s also Punjabi Puffs. Known as Dahi Puri in India, this mini-meal comes with puffed crackers you pop open and fill with garam masala spiced chickpeas, spiced yogurt and chutney. The third item is vegan and gluten-free and we call it Mumbai Mix, also known as Bhel Puri. This grab-and-go cup comes with a crunchy mixture of puffed brown rice, organic quinoa, lentils, cornflakes and peanuts, fresh chopped fruits and veggies, and a sweet and spicy tamarind chutney. All three of these products were developed and fine-tuned through the help of our Chaat Live service.
What is Chaat Live?
Mr. Dua: Chaat Live is our branded, immersive experience of the streets of India with a focus on freshly prepared Indian street snacks. We make it a cultural experience with music, games and give-a-ways. It’s a way for us to build our brand directly with our target audience in a way they enjoy engaging, through a festive street food atmosphere, all while generating revenue and getting active consumer feedback on our products.
You’ve said the brand story is as important as the product. So, what is the story you communicate to consumers?
Mr. Dua: I may even argue that brand story is more important than the product. From the hundreds of demos that we did at Whole Foods and other retailers, we realized that our initial brand was too shy of its ethnic roots. We had India in the background, as we thought that would help us get more mainstream adoption. That was a mistake.
Shoppers wanted to know about our brand roots. They would constantly ask us to explain chaat. We also recognized that consumers didn’t have an Indian snack brand they could really resonate with yet were constantly telling us of their love of the food or country. We saw this as a big opportunity. We set out to be the first Indian snack brand they could fall in love with.
So, we went through an extensive re-brand process last year that really brings out a fun, edgy Indian-theme geared towards our target audience. And I have to say, it made me happy to see this evolution. A big part of our brand story is comes from one of our strategic investors, Jain Farm Fresh, which works directly with millions of farmers in India helping them practice more efficient, sustainable agricultural processes.
We are working with Jain in developing new products and in sourcing authentic ingredients directly from the Indian farmer. That’s an important story we are looking forward to sharing with our consumers. That’s why we have the tagline of “You’ve never had Indian food like this before.”
Who is your target shopper?
Mr. Dua: Millennials and Gen Z, that’s who we believe will gravitate toward The Chaat Co. They are driving the snacking culture in this country. They crave flavor adventure and are willing to explore new global cuisines. They are looking for simple, healthy ingredients and are looking for fresh foods. Our chaat hits on multiple points: fresh, global and snack.
What are your plans for growing distribution and product offerings?
Mr. Dua: Right now we continue to build out our Chaat Live service to various corporate locations throughout the Northeast region. We are also beginning to distribute to retail and grab-and-go food service locations. Think corporate cafeterias, colleges, transportation hubs, etc. These are the places our target audience frequents daily. We are in conversations with several grocery stores interested in a larger and more diverse prepared foods menu. We will initially focus on building out these channels in the Northeast and then expand into other key U.S. markets in 2019.