When Goa-based Sairaj Dhond was a child, he couldn’t differentiate between jackfruit and chicken for the longest time. He’d savour his grandmother’s prized recipe of chickanchi bhaaji (chicken gravy), without realising that the gravy contained pieces of the fruit.
The jackfruit is the king of underappreciated fruits, and it is not uncommon to find its blends in a myriad of food items including flour, juices, chocolates, coffees, and so on. Indians have been smitten by the giant fruit for decades now, but it is only in the recent past that it has caught the world’s attention, albeit as a vegan alternative to meat.
Jackfruits have many health benefits, such as being high in potassium and fibre content, which helps lower elevated blood pressure, and having high antioxidant properties, as well as the capacity to absorb iron. When Sairaj, formerly a criminal lawyer, learned of these benefits, he decided to launch Wakao Foods during the COVID-19 lockdown. The 32-year-old says there were many reasons that inspired him to introduce jackfruit-based mock meat products such as Teriyaki Jack, Butter Jack, BBQ Jack and Jack Burger Patty.
“If there’s one silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is an increasing number of health-conscious people. I was reminded of my grandma’s praises for jackfruit on seeing the spike in coronavirus-induced death rates and subsequent demand for immunity boosters. Meanwhile, the lockdown had affected my business. This gave birth to Wakao Foods in November,” Sairaj tells The Better India.
Although the bootstrapped venture is only four-months-old, it has already created waves in the vegan community. Wakao food items are on the shelves of close to 30 vegan-based stores in Goa. High-end restaurants and hotel chains including the Grand Hyatt and JW Marriot are also fans of his products.
Starting a business from scratch in uncharted territory is not easy, but the lockdown and the economy taking a hit made it that much more difficult. Sairaj says jackfruit-based mock meat can revolutionise the way we look at healthy foods, and gluten-free foods in particular.
‘Following your passion is key’
Even before I complete my question on what it takes to make a venture successful, Sairaj jumps in and affirms that passion is key. If your work is not giving you happiness, the best thing is to leave it and save yourself the effort and time, he says.
This is what happened a few years ago, when Sairaj quit criminal litigation after finding his true calling in entrepreneurship, “It was an overnight decision to switch careers. I joined our family business in 2014. After I gained some experience, I started my own venture, but it came to a standstill during the lockdown,” says Sairaj. The ‘veganprenuer’ wanted to explore the food business, and jackfruit was a strong contender during brainstorming sessions.
In a callback to his childhood, he knew how jackfruit gravy was similar in taste, texture, and feel to meat, and was aware of the untapped potential of the versatile fruit-cum-superfood.
The challenge lay in identifying farmers who grow the seasonal fruit throughout the year, as well as in processing technology. A number of internet searches and YouTube videos came to his rescue. Additionally, he approached chefs and experts on jackfruit farming to gather accurate information.
When asked if by touting the products as a vegan alternative, he feared it would cater only to a niche market, he says, “Jackfruit is consumed pan-India, irrespective of cultural or religious choices, so that’s what we are relying on. It happens to be a great vegan item. Our USP is that our products are animal cruelty-free, inclusive, nutritious and delicious, something that will be accepted by everyone.”
Burger, tacos & other healthy cheat meals
Once Sairaj cracked the processing technology — retorting, or heating, distilling, and drying the fruit using a machine — he hand-picked farmers across Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Maharashtra to source the fruit. He cleverly mapped farming clusters that were growing jackfruits at different times of the year to ensure a steady supply. Next, he acquired FDA approval and necessary permissions to set up the processing unit.
Sairaj launched his venture with three ready-to-cook and two ready-to-eat products. He claims that all products are 100% natural, without any artificial colouring, chemicals and preservatives. With 27 offline stores across Goa, online sale (pan-India) and partnerships with 30 resorts and restaurants, the venture generates 2-3 tonnes of jackfruit meat every month.
The best part? The products have a shelf life of one year, and do not require refrigeration.
The carefully assorted food items are designed in a way that everyone, from a fitness freak to meat lovers, can relish.
Their best-selling product is the Jack Burger Patty, which is loved by children and vegans, and is a favourite during weddings. Sairaj says one of his friends, who had quit his vegan lifestyle after finding very limited food options, switched back after tasting the burger. The ready-to-cook Raw Jack is a healthy meat substitute for any gravy-based recipe. Teriyaki Jack and BBQ Jack make for delicious sliders or fillings for tacos or Frankie rolls. Lastly, Butter Jack can be consumed with rice.
Prahlad Sukhtankar, restaurateur at Black Sheep Bistro & Blackmarket, says, “We are delighted to work with Wakao products. We mainly use the raw jackfruit, which is packed well and vacuum-sealed to retain the raw flavour and stringy meaty texture. It comes to us cleaned and ready to use, saving much of the labour involved in cleaning and cutting, allowing our team to only focus on creativity. We use it to make various dishes like croquettes, tostadas and other tasty delicacies. We hope to work with them over the foreseeable future to create many more delicious dishes at The Black Sheep Bistro and Blackmarket.”
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Challenges & future plans
Educating people about meat substitutes, and assuring them of its taste, is not easy. The effort of marketing in the mainstream food market is still a challenge. But thanks to social media, there are plenty of advertising avenues. Coordinating with various stakeholders, such as farmers and retailers, at a time when physical meetings are limited is another problem.
In terms of scaling, the pace is moderate but steady. Big stores that have approached Sairaj came with high listing fees, which is a deterrent to expanding operations. There have also been rough patches when sales went down.
However, despite these issues, Sairaj never for once doubted his vision. On the contrary, he is drafting plans to aggressively expand offline sales in cities like Mumbai, Bengaluru, Lucknow and Delhi. The plan also includes introducing new exciting products, the samples of which are in the testing stage.
“My ultimate goal is to see every restaurant in India have a vegan menu beside the regular one,” he quips.
Ask any jackfruit lover or farmer, and they will tell you how difficult and excruciating it is to clean and cut the versatile fruit. Ready-to-eat consumables like the ones offered by Wakao Foods are surely proving to be game-changers.
Get in touch with Wakao Foods here
Edited by Divya Sethu