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Abhay Hanjura of Licious: Meating high expectations

The co-founder of delivery platform Licious talks about bringing the category out of the black bag, displacement, and the next stage of evolution

Abhay Hanjura, co-founder of Licious
Abhay Hanjura, co-founder of Licious (Illustration by Priya Kuriyan)

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One objective of Abhay Hanjura, when he co-founded meat delivery platform Licious in 2015, was to remove the stigma associated with meat. He explains it with an example he uses often, on why a few things like condoms, alcohol, feminine hygiene products and meat are sold in black polythene bags, on the assumption that the customer would be embarrassed by the purchase.

“Why do vegetarians get to prefix their food choice with the word ‘pure’—100% pure vegetarian?” he asks. “The mansahari (meat eater) is subliminally ostracised. So that’s a strong motivation for me, to bring a category out of that black bag.”

“Given the deep relationship the consumer has with product and category,” he continues on a subject that clearly gets his goat, “it cannot be socioculturally represented with such shame. To be a butcher is not a curse. My dream is to do for meat and fisheries what Amul did for dairy. After all, he believes, more than 73% of Indians eat meat.

“If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.”

It’s the kind of one-liner Hanjura revels in. Another one is on the quality of the meat being so good that it puts “life into a dead chicken (mare hue murge mein jaan dal de)”.

Behind the one-liners and glib quotes, though, is a person who glamorised an industry that used to live in gritty by-lanes. Delightful Gourmet Pvt. Ltd, the company he co-founded with Vivek Gupta, has elevated butchers to “meat technicians”, similar to the way barbers have evolved into hair stylists or coffee makers have become baristas.

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With home deliveries gaining popularity through the pandemic, Licious has become one of the biggest meat and seafood brands in the country. A series G funding of $52 million (around 400 crore) led by IIFL Asset Management’s late stage tech fund in October last year made it the country’s first direct-to-consumer (D2C) brand to become a unicorn, a company with a $1 billion or more valuation.

“The unicorn tag is like an advance tip for service you will do and not for the service you have done,” says 36-year-old Hanjura. “People at times could lose sight of the long game, having arrived at this pedestal sooner than originally thought. It comes with a winner’s curse, like Virat Kohli, who has the world chasing him if he doesn’t score. That’s the only downside.”

On a pleasant mid-morning in Bengaluru, Hanjura has arrived early at The Leela Palace and is seated at the outdoor coffee shop, stirring a dark brew. It’s his preferred hunting ground, close to home and office, and he refers to the staff by name. His story fits the mould of the tech entrepreneur that’s so typical of Bengaluru—came to the city for education or work, got immersed in its addictive urge to build something, got the partners and funding, and created the next big thing.

The Kashmiri Pandit spent the first few years of his life in Ladakh, Kashmir and Jammu. His father was in the army before he moved to the Army Postal Service, and, finally, India Post. The family—parents, grandmother, sister Abha, who is now an independent Sufi rock musician, and he—left Kashmir in the early 1990s, at the height of trouble there, in the hope of returning when things got better. They never did. “From an early stage, what became clear was that nothing will be handed to you on a platter,” says the bearded, long-haired Hanjura. “Ours has been a life of scarcity. So surplus does not get to our head so much.”

“I have seen my 28-year-old parents age to, like, 38-40 in just one-two years. Their life macro-catalysed itself in an accelerated way. Migration was tough as a community. We were not welcomed with open arms, we were seen as freaks, bullied in schools.”

Once he gave up on the dream of getting into the Armed Forces, he moved to Bengaluru in 2004 for a bachelor’s degree at Bhagwan Mahavir Jain College, following this up with a course at the Insurance Institute of India in Mumbai. That became his career, with the “idea that success and successful people must come from a path, follow a trajectory”. He travelled incessantly, surviving on black coffee and Red Bull; it drove him to a hospital bed with exhaustion before he had turned 30.

He decided then that entrepreneurship would be the way forward.

Hanjura’s father was horrified at the notion of his son selling meat, even though they were a meat-loving family, and threatened to disown him. “It occurred to me then: Why are meat eaters called non-vegetarians in India? If I start calling you a non-Kashmiri or a non-American…. It’s an exclusion-based identification system,” says Hanjura.

Gupta, whom he had met in 2009-10, was a client-turned-friend working at Helion Ventures in Bengaluru who bought into the idea. Hanjura, then with Futurisk Insurance Broking Co.—where he worked for five-odd years—says both of them quit their jobs over the course of the same hour, sending out identical resignation emails with minor changes. Gupta recalls on phone: “While I was initially helping him set up the company, on 19 March 2015, the conversation became emotional and we together resigned, sitting in my room. We never looked back.”

“Founders, especially,” says Hanjura while ordering another coffee, “are eccentric people—maybe I am a subdued eccentric. We believe our idea of the world is singularly pristine. This eccentricity is also the boon and bane of an entrepreneur. Boon because it allows us to think laterally and bane because sometimes we run fast in the wrong direction.”

The idea of Licious was born in the home of his then girlfriend and now wife, Supriya; today, they have a three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Zuhie. Early investors included Kanwaljit Singh, founder and managing partner at Fireside Ventures, and former Infosys chief financial officer and angel investor Mohandas Pai. Hanjura says raising money was not easy, primarily because he feels they didn’t have the IIT-IIM pedigree so attractive for investors.

The idea was to handle every element of the business, farm-to-fork, direct-to-consumer. This was a time when India was a market of aggregators, like Snapdeal, Flipkart, Ola, Big Basket, Grofers. Licious wanted to go against the grain, to be one big player in one market, crack every aspect of e-commerce, supply chain, last mile and technology while being D2C.

“The consumer should get value for money. If that experience goes bad, there is no salvage value,” says Hanjura. “The only way a product will do the magic is if we have full control of every dimension. Every gram of meat bought, sold, is packed, processed, sourced, quality- checked and delivered by Licious. To do this, we have essentially had to set up the most unique, just-in-time perishable supply chain.”

Today, Licious has an annual revenue of about 1,000 crore, fed by roughly two-and-a-half-million customers, with its products available in 23 cities, from Bengaluru to the latest addition, Raipur. About 1.5 million deliveries happen in a month—all ordered online. Their inventory tech ensures the right products are at the right places at the right time. Over 6,000 employees across corporate offices, operations, processing centres and deliveries work to make sure nothing goes wrong.

The founders are now looking to work on an omni-channel model and focus more on value-added businesses like ready-to-eat food, which already represents 20% of their portfolio. They recently started “an experience centre” in Koramangala, Bengaluru, that, according to Hanjura, “shatters every myth of what a meat store should be”—it breaks a stereotype. An ESG (environmental, social, governance) compliant automated processing plant spread over 150,000 sq. feet is in the works. Besides, two plants are coming up, in Kolkata and Kochi.

This year, Licious will also get into the alternative protein category and consolidate business in tier-2 cities. Earlier this week, it launched a plant-based meat brand, UnCrave. The company will also continue to look for complementary businesses to acquire while finding ways to improve on the tech.

“Having a sourcing channel, producing yourself and going directly to consumers made Licious what it became,” he says. “India does not eat frozen, because that’s considered old, except matar (peas), corn and ice cream. When we first went to market, there was a joke that a bald guy (Gupta) and one with long hair were looking for gold-plated fish and meat in India. Today that has become standard.”

Since he mentions a joke, I ask him about his interest in stand-up comedy during his college stint in Bengaluru. That, however, has now been restricted to odd social evenings, when he has a glass in hand and an audience in front. He claims to be able to mimic anyone if he spends long enough with them.

What excites him currently is cooking, which happens at least thrice a week, learning to sing Hindustani classical, and writing. He scrolls through his phone to show pictures of the butter garlic crabs he had made a day earlier.

Over the phone later, Gupta says the founders are two sides of the same coin. “He is so full of life that I have changed a lot with him. I am a workaholic but he has taught me to live life while you work hard.”

Hanjura’s father, now retired, has come around. When Harvard Business School called the two founders to speak at an India conference a few years ago, Hanjura says he sent some pictures from the event to his father. “On Facebook, dad wrote a 2km-long post about ‘my visionary son and his visionary co-founder etc.’” Hanjura says, smiling.

Since he had mentioned eccentricity, I ask him to describe himself. He sees himself as “entropic. I am not a square or a circle, not a triangle. I am more scattered. Structured in a unstructured way. I don’t thrive in templates, in formulas, in convention.

“I thrive in fluidity.”

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Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle. He tweets @iArunJ.

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