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Rashmi Daga: Keeping it fresh

  • The founder of FreshMenu tells Mint about swapping ‘the MBA life’ for a start-up’s struggles, hiring her first chef, and the evolution of her company
  • Over the years, she has gained a sense of how the country eats. The flavour this summer is Middle Eastern and Moroccan

Rashmi Daga took a break to have a child but bootstrapped another start-up, Afday
Rashmi Daga took a break to have a child but bootstrapped another start-up, Afday (Jayachandran/Mint)

As is the case with many start-ups, one of Rashmi Daga’s biggest challenges was finding her first employee. It was all very well to have a brilliant idea, planned precisely and executed with care, but how could a business progress without manpower?

Her company Foodvista India Pvt. Ltd operates FreshMenu, which started functioning in July-August 2014 with the aim of delivering fresh food from cloud kitchens—online orders prepared in remote kitchens at multiple locations. Everyone she got in touch with for hiring agreed it was a great idea but they wanted to get on board only once the company was up and running. “Who wants to join a company that does not exist, has no signboard but is just an idea? People who do that are the biggest risk-takers."

“But I needed at least one person to start," remembers Daga.

Finally, in response to a tweet on Italian food, she found a restaurant chef willing to join her. The next day, they went to the supermarket, got supplies, went to Daga’s home and cooked. “I realized that you could get restaurant-quality food home-delivered. That (feeling) was a high. That was my first realization that this works."

By that December, she had an investor in Lightspeed Venture Partners (with $5 million, or 34.8 crore now). From around 50 orders a day to 2,000-2,500 orders by September 2015, to about 15,000-17,000 a day today, FreshMenu has become the go-to option for many working people bored of canteen food. That first brave chef recruit is no longer with the company, but FreshMenu employs around 1,500 people in four cities—Bengaluru, Mumbai, Delhi, Gurugram—in the kitchens and for delivery.

Additionally, $17 million Series B funding from Zodius Technology Fund in 2016 and another $2.94 million bridge fund earlier this year, based on an estimated valuation of $48 million, has made FreshMenu a frequent conversation topic for entrepreneurship.

It’s a late Saturday morning when we meet at HSR Layout’s Third Wave Coffee Roasters in Bengaluru. Some of the other occupants of the café turn out to be morning walkers, stopping by for some refreshment on an unusually hot day—by this city’s standards. Dressed in a sari for what’s a regular working day for her, Daga admits she “mentally works seven days a week but is physically home on Sundays". She talks rapidly, easily, as if reading out from a prepared speech.

For someone who has traversed multiple sectors and companies, the Delhi College of Engineering (now Delhi Technological University) and Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A) graduate gives part of the credit for her entrepreneurial skills to her Marwari genes. “As a community, we are adaptable to the local culture," she says. “What I learnt from the community is love for customer service, customization, and how to make money…"

After combined stints of four-and-a-half years at IBM and Johnson and Johnson’s (J&J’s) medical division in Delhi, Daga moved to Bengaluru when her husband, Aditya Somani, got a job there, hoping to figure out the “rest of the world. The MNC (multinational company) world is different with its well-defined roles, but it takes time to move up—especially when you are young."

In 2008, Bengaluru was already a fertile field for start-ups, so she joined online education company TutorVista as vice-president of operations—there was no looking back. “I loved the whole environment," she says. “It gave so much freedom, problems to solve, and there was a thrill of making an impact. Whatever you did, you could see the outcome immediately. In three-and-a-half years, I learnt people management, using money effectively, scaling up and down, thinking ops, sales, customer services and marketing."

Daga took a break to have a child but bootstrapped another start-up, Afday (Art for Everyday), an e-portal for selling art. But, she admits, it was not timed well. The market was not big enough, and, in 2011, people were still getting used to shopping online. “The realization for me was I wanted something larger, with impact and size. So we shut it down," she says.

She admits it was not easy to swap “the MBA life" for a start-up’s struggles. But she still wanted to do it because the perception is that with your own business, you make more money, have more control of your life and get greater recognition. She knew that even if she took a few years off MNCs, she could get back to them if needed. “I am not someone who thinks so much before doing something. My attitude is baad mein dekhenge (we will see later). It’s easier (to take risks) when you are younger...and one big learning (in entrepreneurship) is that money is a starting point, never the end point."

Besides, she had already done stints with Ola Cabs and jewellery venture Bluestone, and did not want to be an employee in a start-up any longer. She had learnt her lesson—from operations and finance to pitching ideas and convincing people to come on board a new business. “In J&J, a visiting card can open doors. When you work for an upcoming company, nobody recognizes you. And when you work in Bangalore, you have a lot of ideas every day," she says, laughing.

The idea of FreshMenu checked a lot of boxes, in that the food industry was highly unorganized, and poised for disruption. In 2014, a lot was happening in the US—ordering on the phone, deliveries on demand, etc. A similar opportunity seemed to exist in India—a bridge between ordering online and a dabba service.

Her initial idea was to send people recipes so they could make their own meals. Then she realized that India, unlike the US, does not have a DIY (do-it-yourself) culture. So FreshMenu chose non-native, Western cuisines because people didn’t have a price and taste benchmark for it. When a new company like hers offered a version of Mexican cuisine, it would be accepted more easily than any version of dalmakhni they could showcase.

Secondly, their food was priced more than a dabba service to make it more “aspirational". So low-cost cloud kitchens came up. They wanted to own their facilities, because if you can’t own the supply chain, you can’t vouch for reliability, Daga says. “If you don’t do end-to-end, you don’t get the margins because of broken supply chains.

“A new (food) brand in a new user’s head needs love, which does not come from machine-made food. Also, you don’t inherit processes in this business. You have to iterate through all. Today is more important than yesterday or tomorrow. Food is a business that makes money with density. So my challenge is how do I get more orders in each locality (as opposed to spreading to more localities)?"

I ask her about the frequent speculation regarding the company’s sale. “Everybody wants to acquire FreshMenu," she says, grinning. “We are attractive as a business. If we had to exit, we would have done that two years back. The hardest was these four years, getting off the ground, scaling to 40 kitchens across three cities. We have got through the hurdles, so now there is no personal benefit in exiting. We are looking for investments, though. We are a few months from profitability, and at a strong inflection point."

Over the years, she has gained a sense of how the country eats. The flavour this summer is Middle Eastern and Moroccan. A few years ago, it was Italian, and Chinese before that. Today, customers are willing to experiment. A couple of months ago, they had a dish with quinoa and brown rice at the base, butter chicken on top and salsa with sour cream on the side. “As a combination, you would imagine, it does not fly, but it actually does," she says.

The question Daga has been asked multiple times is a bit of a cliché that she addresses often at big conferences and in intimate chats: about being a working mother and about women entrepreneurs. Her daughter, Riddhi, was 3 when Daga was toying with the idea of FreshMenu, dealing with the “push and pull" of family and ambition. Should she wait for her to grow up or jump in?

“In my mind, I realized, she will never grow up. She would (always) need her mother, if not physically, then emotionally. Instead of blaming her at some point, I decided to take the plunge."

That first year was tough, Daga remembers. “She used to be with me in the kitchen and in the car while delivering orders. The first two years, I worked seven days a week. It was hard and there were fights at home. The business is taxing, without fixed hours. We were becoming successful and success pushes you to do more."

Her daughter turned out to be independent. She understood her mother’s ambitions. Daga’s extended family did not see the logic but her close family was supportive. “I knew from Day 1 that I couldn’t be a full-time mom. Learning not to be a superwoman helps too. So whether a driver or nanny, whatever help you can get, pay for it. Money can buy support. If I was not happy, I could not make others happy. The solve is really in your head."

She says women in traditional households are trained to be sincere, humble, listen to people and never talk of ambition openly, which goes against women in a neck-and-neck competition with men. Our social set-up is such that women get trained to be conservative, not waste money. “In India, men are told smart work is good while women are told hard work is good."


A big achievement with FreshMenu

Replacing the idea of ‘thaalis’ with bowls.

Last movie she liked

‘Gully Boy’.

Favourite FreshMenu dish

Burrito bowl.

Food trend that’s here to stay


Mumbai-based Arun Janardhan has been writing on sport, lifestyle and personalities for two decades.

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