It was an unusual combination of selling Pav Bhaji and fruit-flavoured ice creams to the ever-growing population of Bombay (now, Mumbai) in 1984, but Raghunandan Srinivas Kamath was au courant with India’s dessert obsession. He had worked in his brother’s South Indian eatery long enough to know how much Indians love to end a meal on a sweet note.
The simple idea of offering something cold after a hot and spicy dish worked and he clocked a revenue of Rs 5,00,000 in the first year from his own tiny 200-sq-ft shop in Juhu’s Koliwada area. A year later, he stopped selling Pav Bhaji to become a full-fledged ice cream brand. The modest eatery with six tables was now offering frozen dessert in five flavours — sitaphal (custard apple), kaju-draksh (cashew-raisin), mango, chocolate and strawberry.
Fast forward to 2021, the single ice cream parlour has grown into 135 outlets in various cities, offering an average of over 20 flavours at a given time. This is the story of Natural Ice Cream that recorded a retail turnover of Rs 300 crore in the financial year 2020 and was named as India’s Top 10 brand for customer experience in a KPMG survey.
“You don’t have to wait for the ‘big idea’. It is important to start and build upon the small ideas to create the biggest wins,” Kamath tells The Better India.
For the last 37 years, Kamath has been leveraging small ideas to build his empire.
At a time when ice creams were a rare, albeit prized possession and only affluent families had access to them, Kamath sold Pav Bhaji with ice cream. This pioneering brand also stepped away from artificial colours, flavours and preservatives that its competitors were using.
Kamath keenly observed his surroundings to make ‘Naturals’ a household name — whether it was learning to pick quality fruits like his father, using his mother’s traditional hacks or taking customer feedback seriously.
Today, his wife, Annapurna and sons, Siddhant and Srinivas also serve on the management board. Their staff of 125 members produce close to 20 tonnes of ice creams daily.
Going Beyond Vanilla Ice Cream
Originally from Puttur taluka of Mangalore in Karnataka, Kamath was the youngest of seven siblings. His mother was a homemaker and his father was a fruit vendor. The family of eight also cultivated some fruits on their one-acre land but their monthly earnings were as low as Rs 100.
The prospect of education looked insubstantial. Students of Classes 1 to 5 in Kamath’s school were taught together and despite failing in his exams, he was promoted. However, it was the lessons outside the classroom that Kamath liked the most.
He would often accompany his father to the field and sell the fruits in the market. During this period, Kamath learnt how to spot quality, ripened fruits. The expertise has come in handy for Kamath, who is battling TYPE 2 Diabetes.
Kamath was 14 when his family moved to Mumbai. Kamath joined a new school but after failing to clear his boards twice, he was asked to join his eldest brother, who was running a South Indian eatery ‘Gokul Refreshments’, and sell their homemade ice cream. Though he wanted to go beyond chocolate and vanilla flavours to make ice cream with real fruit pulp, his idea was not entertained.
Incidentally, around the same time, the brothers split and a share of the restaurant went to Kamath. With Rs 3,50,000, Kamath began Naturals with six staff members. The flavours, colours and texture of hand-made ice creams were different but he managed to sell 1,000 cups on the first weekend.
Fruit, sugar and milk became Kamath’s USP. He had the task of not only surviving the competition but also ensuring his product stood out. To do this, Kamath broke away from the conventional flavours and put his fruit expertise to use.
“Naturals being an artisanal ice cream brand has grown substantially due to three ingredients — fruit, sugar and milk. As per our marketing tagline — ‘Taste The Original’, our brand focuses on original flavours such as Sitaphal, Tender Coconut, etc,” Kamath adds.
Lessons From Ma
The company has invented some unconventional flavours like cucumber, prasadam (food consumed by worshippers), gajar halwa (carrot dessert), and tilgul (sesame candy laddus), including a plethora of lip-smacking fruit flavours of chikoos, jackfruits, litchis, black grapes, figs and watermelon.
“Not all these flavours sell well but it increases your brand value. People realise you know about fruits better than anyone else. We make limited stock of a lot of these flavours, as they’re not hot favourites. But it’s like those art movies people do for awards. Not every flavour is ‘Dangal’,” he told The Economic Times.
Quality is a common thing in all flavours and for this, Kamath is grateful to his mother. He watched her earnestly prepare food and give time to each dish. There was no room for ‘quick’ recipes in the Kamath household, which is reflected in their brand today.
Kamath also built a machine to deseed fruits like sitaphal and jackfruit, which he learnt from his mother. There is a blower on top of the milk boiler to prevent carbonisation, something that was borrowed from his mother’s act of blowing milk as it started to boil.
“As the business was growing, it was getting difficult to meet the demand. Our ice cream needed special equipment and technique since we offered unique flavours. These machines had to be custom-built and most of them were developed in-house to ensure the consistency and taste that our customers were getting when we first started. Our best-selling flavour, Sitaphal, involved a tedious process of de-seeding by hand and as a result, we could only manage 24 kilos [back then]. With the machines and our own technique, we were able to scale our daily output to 1 tonne per day,” says Kamath.
For the last three decades, Naturals has bought milk from a dairy in Nashik and fruits are sourced from their regular suppliers across India. All the fruits are brought to their state-of-the-art factory in Kandivali where ice creams are prepared.
While the company has never engaged in traditional marketing gimmicks, it puts a lot of emphasis on customer feedback like introducing new flavours. They even renamed pickle-flavoured Mango to ‘Wild Mango’ on one customer’s suggestion.
Kamath and his team have also worked hard on keeping the customers aware of their history and giving an insight into their day-to-day functioning by implementing different themes in parlours. For instance, one parlour has the growth story of the milk vendor who has now expanded his tabelas (stables).
There were no ‘MBA-level’ strategies employed by this daring businessman who simply wanted to sell fruit-flavoured ice cream. By entering a niche segment such as the ice cream market, which was largely dominated by a handful of brands, Kamath took a huge risk but it paid off and how.