“Money on its own is just a piece of paper — it’s only the act of exchange with something else which determines its value,” observes 66-year old Mani Krishnan who moved to the US with just a suitcase and a head full of dreams.
Like many before him, Krishnan had made the move in pursuit of better opportunities. Although his immediate family was already settled there, finding a footing in a foreign land had its own share of obstacles and challenges. Be it starting a business from scratch to being almost broke, he never let anything pull him down and instead came out stronger than before, after every single fall.
Today, he is the owner of a successful food enterprise called Shastha Foods, that has sold over 170 million dosas to customers all over America as well as Canada, in the last 17 years.
Starting a Dosa Batter Business from Scratch
Back in 1963, when Krishnan’s family moved to San Jose, California, he was left behind to complete his college education. It was only in August 1977 when he joined them.
A commerce graduate with some experience in accounting from a job in Mumbai, he managed to get hired in a tech company there. The next several years were a storm as he continued to work in accounting for a number of tech companies, only to finally quit.
His aspiration, however, was to do something on his own and be his own boss, and so started an export-import business in 1981. After running it through several bumps for more than 20 years, the business eventually came to a halt.
“I was nearly broke with a family to support. But, I thought that it’s better to be miserable on your own than to work for someone else and be more miserable. So instead I mortgaged my house and started a new business of selling dosa batter in 2003,” shared Krishnan, who noticed a rising demand for Indian foods that were both easy to cook and light on the pocket.
With very little money left after the initial investment, Krishnan with the help of his wife Anandhi, kickstarted the enterprise from their home. From manufacturing, labeling to distribution, everything was taken care of by them.
His day would start at 7 am, when he would begin making freshly fermented batter in a 2-litre grinder. This was then packed in 32 ounce containers (that could make 16 home-size dosas), labeled and taken for distribution in the nearby grocery stores.
“The increasing population of migrating Indians who yearned for the taste of home food was my initial target audience. I would go all around San Jose, from one grocery store to another requesting them to sell our batter in their store. About 10 stores agreed in the beginning, saying that they would pay me only if it sold. There were a few more small businesses selling the same, but ours was made more scientifically using machines, with labels and following proper FDA guidelines, so in good faith I would leave our products with them. I would make regular calls to take follow ups and even have to drive back to collect all the unsold packets and discard. The initial start is always the hardest,” he says.
Reaching the Peak
Despite the initial hiccups, they managed to sell almost 1,000 containers in the first year and by 2005 Shastha Foods made enough money for Krishnan to pay off his mortgage. By 2006, they were finally mainstream with high demand across the country.
From 10 stores, they now distribute in 350 stores across 10 states, and also launched an online platform that delivers dosa batter and many more products to 48 states in the US as well as several parts of Canada.
When asked about the secret to their humongous success, the hands-on entrepreneur humbly says, “I take nothing for granted. For us, service and quality is paramount. So, if due to unforeseen circumstances like temperature mishaps or storage issues, any item bought goes bad, I make sure to take personal responsibility for that and either issue a full refund or replacement. I have personally driven to customers’ residences to take back half empty packets and replace them with new fresh ones in case of any complaints. I always encourage customers to exercise their right to best quality products and make sure that they get their money’s worth.”
What began as a small business in San Jose has expanded into an iconic product that is now synonymous to the identity of Indian community there, with even prominent public figures like Mindy Kaling and US Senator Kamala Harris featuring it in a video.
“The video where Mindy Kaling along with US Senator Kamala Harris made our dosas was quite a pleasant surprise and I’m extremely grateful to them for that,” adds Krishnan.
A resident of Dublin City, California, Prabhu Venkatesh Subramanian is one of Krishnan’s oldest customers.
Talking about his experience, he says, “What’s best about them is how they prioritise customer feedback. At any given time, a complaint or negative feedback especially about the perishable items is taken with remarkable positivity. I have seen the company grow from a small space with just two grinders into a 35,000 sq ft manufacturing unit and warehouse, and yet his demeanour has not changed one bit. There is a sense of transparency in the way he does business and customers are always welcomed into the factory to witness the stringent level of quality-checks and safety maintained throughout. At our house, now their dosa batters, especially the millet and organic varieties have become a staple, in addition to the daily items like rice, dal, filter coffee and gingelly oil.”
From almost 16 varieties of dosa batters, daily essentials like rice, lentils, dals, pickles, sweet and millet-based items and other organic varieties, Shastha Foods has quite a range of products, both online and in retail shops. In the next few years, Krishnan hopes to make easy-to-make dosas as the healthy alternative to instant noodles and is working on making a concentrated version of dosa masala as well.
“My Business is More Than Just Money”
Having run Shastha Foods for over a decade, Krishnan believes it to be much more than a commercial enterprise. More than the money, he feels the impact it causes matters.
“A large house or a luxurious lifestyle was never a goal for me. I know from experience that money comes and goes and so I wanted to create something that could make a meaningful difference. So, at Shastha Foods, some of our raw materials like heritage rice varieties that we are planning to launch soon, are directly sourced from the farmers from parts of South India. Through our brand we are trying to create awareness around it and the demand that could preserve these endangered varieties,” he says.
65-year-old farmer, R Chandramohan from Tiruvarur, Tamil Nadu is one of the few who continue to cultivate heritage rice variants in the state. “Though there is a demand for heritage rice, the yield from heritage rice variants, grown organically, is less. Also, finding a good mill is difficult in these regions,” he says.
With the help and guidance of a non-profit organisation, Swami Dayananda Farms in Manjakkudi, farmers like Chandramohan have been able to cultivate more of these varieties. Since 2011, the organization has been able to conserve 247 varieties of heritage rice across India, like the Randhoni Pagal (West Bengal), Kala Namak (Uttar Pradesh), Kon Joha (West Bengal), Bora (Assam), Kal Urundai Champa (Tamil Nadu) etc.
Talking about the importance of preserving such variants, Sheela Balaji, chairperson and managing trustee Swami Dayananda Educational Trust says, “There was a point in India, where every village had a rice variety – reports state that we had over 100,000 varieties of heritage rice. Some years ago, we were on the brink of losing all our heritage rice variants. The efforts of some farmer groups have enabled us to conserve and cultivate them. We have to remember that if we lose our landraces (heritage rice varieties), we lose biodiversity that is so essential for food security; we need germplasm from landraces, if not many will be lost, like the many things which we have failed to document and preserve.”
“When we know the rice is going to reach so many families living in the USA, we are elated. Such an initiative encourages us and this in turn inspires other farmers to also opt for heritage rice. For such initiatives to take off, farmers need committed teams, who will be with them each step of the way. All I had to do was cultivate the rice organically, the rest was taken care of and I look forward to the next season,” adds Chandramohan, speaking about Krishnan’s new launch of heritage rice varieties in Shastha Foods.
Krishnan is a man who lives by the belief that his work is true worship and hopes to expand it as an avenue to help more people back in India.
“Growing up I was academically poor, while my sister was a gold medalist student and my brother, an IIM graduate. At the time it would make me feel bad but now when I look back to see the work I have done and joy I gathered along the way, I am left with zero regrets. At the end of the day if you do something with passion and hardwork, and persevere no matter what, everything else eventually falls into place,” he says.
You can connect with Shastha Foods, here.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)