Not just joining the organic bandwagon, co-founder of Organic Express Ishit Pilani, tells us about his endeavour to help farmers while feeding healthy food to Indians
Exploring new farms and understanding the food industry better, Ishit Pilani and Chaitanya Varma came up with the idea of Organic Express. Now the organic food that they supply is healthy, tasty and yet priced optimally. Pilani tells us more about their initiative...
A brief about Organic Express?
We have set up an omni-channel approach to reach customers — physical cafes with online delivery. The cafe is vibrant, attractive and warm and celebrates healthy, wholesome, fresh and delicious food made from organic ingredients. The menu is designed to appeal to the taste buds of all age groups, thus giving a tranquil, dining and drinking experience. We mix traditional wholesome dishes and create a healthy fusion of modern cuisine — a whole wheat brown rice millet burger, a Goulash and Ratatouille with brown rice, Amaranth salad. We have created a menu from across the world, with a healthy twist.
We have recently launched packaged value-added products for retail distribution too. These products comprise healthy organic eatables without any chemicals and preservatives — Breakfast Mixes, Dips, Chips, and Millet Pastas etc.
Why did you think of this initiative? What triggered it?
The seed of organic was sown during a course at IIM by Chaitanya Varma who then worked with organic farmers during his stint at Olam in Vietnam. When we later met and brainstormed, the idea of Organic Express took shape. And since then it has been a continuous effort.
When did you begin? How did you undertake your research and finalise the products you wanted to offer?
Our idea was that we had to make money by doing something good for society and thus leave an impact. India has been an agriculture economy for decades. We both have worked abroad and had realised that India is following the Western culture. We wanted to change that by making India healthy again. Plus the increasing farmer suicides was also one of our major concerns. So aligning ourselves with this thought process was easy. We wanted to make organic affordable and accessible. Farming was not an option for us as we don’t have a farming background. We didn’t want to become retailers of just organic grains fruits and veggies etc. We wanted to prove that organic is not a fad.
Initially, we started working with corporates. A team of nutritionists and dieticians worked with farmers to understand supply chain etc. It was all done on a trial and error basis. This gave us the opportunity to design new recipes. We got a stabilised supply chain.
Raw materials were a challenge. But we started a cloud delivery kitchen. People wanted everything in 30 minutes. Food won’t even leave our kitchen before 30 minutes since we would start the preparation from scratch. No old stuff or preservatives are used. We learnt from customers’ feedback and opened our first retail café in Gurugram along with the parallel expansion in Hyderabad.
Where do you source your raw material from?
We source from farmers and Farmer Producer Organisations across India — Uttaranchal, Andhra, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, MP, Assam, Punjab, Haryana, Maharashtra, and Himachal.
Give us details of your products and how they are healthier options?
We don’t use refined products; no maida, no refined sugar, our products contain millets (different varieties), brown rice, red rice, whole wheat etc and of course we use fresh ingredients.
Organic food can sometimes be unhealthy as well. But we only make healthy recipes with organic ingredients — Ragi pizzas, multigrain khichdi etc.
How do you market your services?
We have a very very high customer repeat rate. Once people are converted to organic and start consuming it, they start noticing the difference in their health, so word of mouth works really well for us. The next one is farmer’s market. Rest is social media and traditional methods.
What is the USP of Organic Express? Especially when organic food products are now available at retail stores too?
Our sourcing and pricing makes us stand out. We have proved that healthy can be tasty. Indigenous ingredients and fusion food is our USP. We have proved that burgers, pizzas etc can be healthy.
How do you coordinate with the farmers and how does that bit work? What are your challenges?
It goes on, on a continuous basis; does require a lot of effort. Coordinating with farmers starts with a reference, then farms visits, understanding each other’s requirements and constraints. Now we are connected with 3,000 farmers and farmer groups.
The supply chain is our major challenge as it has taken us years to establish it. There are no formal supply chains or distributors that are fully organic. Thus we have had to find and also convert in some cases, farmers and ensure they are authentic and completely organic.
Also, keeping in mind the availability of the ingredients depending on their seasonality and designing healthy recipes which are tasty as well as healthy using these organic ingredients is a major task. We have had to make our chefs unlearn the industry practices. Customer education about eating organic is ongoing as a lot of people do curse us on the extra time required for the food preparations.
Starting operations in more cities across India and opening more cafes and increasing the online presence. We also intend to launch new products, start the distribution across India and even export.