All through the 15 years that Pune-based Neha Harish Mhalas spent as a dedicated preschool teacher, she couldn’t stop wondering if she should pursue her childhood dream of being a professional chef. In 2011, she landed what she thought was her big break — being shortlisted as a contestant on the second season of MasterChef India.
“But my contract mentioned that I had to stay away from my family for three months. I decided I couldn’t leave my children for that long,” she notes.
It was in late 2020 that she finally set up Ahan Kitchenette after a friend, who was headed out of town, requested home-cooked meals for her parents. “I began by accepting party orders in my society, but soon realised that there was a larger demand for healthy, homemade food. So I started selling north Indian meal boxes for Rs 125 each,” she says.
“In the initial days, I felt really overwhelmed because I was working from 7 am to 10 pm almost everyday. Then, business took a big hit when all four of us were infected with COVID-19 during the second wave. I was too frail to work and had to pause my services for months,” she adds.
In July this year, Neha resumed her kitchen and now fulfills at least 10 orders within a 12 km radius everyday. She is among the 650 home chefs in Pune who’ve successfully made a career in their craft, thanks to entrepreneur Adetee Agarwaal’s food tech startup, PinkAprons.
Hundreds of these homemakers have not only been able to attain financial independence, but also receive extensive branding and technical support from PinkAprons for the continued growth of their individual businesses. This, in turn, has enabled them to provide nutritious, affordable and timely meals to over 25,000 customers across the city so far.
“During our initial conversations with these home chefs — 85 per cent of which are women — we realised that even those with business acumen could manage catering only within their residential societies. They faced issues in terms of marketing, packaging and deliveries, as well as reaching out to new customers. Some others were attempting sales only as a hobby,” Adetee tells The Better India. “When we stepped in, they could focus on their expertise instead of these secondary tasks. Even now, we’re seeing about 10-15 new registrations everyday and are expecting to have a network of 1,000 home chefs by the end of the year.”
“We started onboarding home chefs in May 2020, and the app and the website were launched on Ganesh Chaturthi (August). But it was only in March this year that we started receiving a good number of orders, about 50-60 per day. Since then, we’ve clocked a turnover of Rs 2 million,” she adds.
PinkAprons accepts registration from home chefs on its website, offering three subscription plans for Rs 499, Rs 999 and Rs 1,999 per month, respectively.
“We do a couple of taste audits before enrolling the home chefs to make sure the quality of their food is upto the mark. The first three months function as free trials, after which they can choose which plan they want to go for, depending on the delivery radius they want to offer their services in. While we currently make use of a white label website and app, we’ll be launching our own versions early next year, which will also include a subscription plan for Rs 99 per month,” she adds.
PinkAprons, which makes use of delivery partners such as Dunzo, WeFast and Bro, is set to launch its services in Mumbai next month, for which they’ve already received more than a thousand enquiries, says Adetee.
Tapping into a niche market
Adetee previously worked as an IT professional for several MNCs, and began her entrepreneurial journey with FoodGinie in 2016.
“I realised there was a lack of decent north Indian, vegetarian food options in Pune. My family and I set up FoodGinie as a cloud kitchen setup, and it quickly became a crowd favourite in the IT hubs of Magarpatta and Hinjewadi. We also supply frozen gravies to franchise outlets. Till date, we’ve catered to over a lakh customers in Pune and Surat, and also in Raipur on a third-party-basis,” she says.
“I began conceptualising PinkAprons when FoodGinie was shut for a few months during the 2020 lockdown. Being in the same industry, I could tap into our existing network of small food businesses, vendors and other resources. This also enabled me to address some of the gaps in the existing delivery models. For instance, at PinkAprons, customers have the option to schedule their meals up to a month in advance,” she says.
“My focus has always been on empowering home chefs because bigger companies refuse to collaborate with them. They have certain time limitations and deem homemakers as unprofessionals, notwithstanding years of their domestic experience. But the hospitality industry was also badly struck by the COVID-19 pandemic. So many professional chefs were let go during the 2020 lockdown, and they didn’t know when they would hear back from their crews, if at all. They made for some of our earliest contributors,” recalls Adetee.
“We also partner with a few cloud kitchens that are looking to reach a wider market,” she says, adding that the total number of chefs enrolled at PinkAprons, both individuals and from small businesses, stands at around 700.
For instance, Tejaswini Despande, a former practising lawyer who runs two cloud kitchens called Authentique and Prasukh Foods, also works with PinkAprons. “I specialise in the CKP (Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhu) cuisine and want to popularise it among the younger generations. I began working with PinkAprons only six months ago, but now we offer customised thalis to at least seven of their customers on a daily basis. Their team is really polite and are readily available whenever I have any concerns,” she shares.
At PinkAprons, home chefs are provided with packaging support, sponsored listings and tailored marketing campaigns that are promoted on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. They also have the option of tracking their inventory and orders on the app, which also allows customers to make online payments. “We take care of any queries and complaints that they may have, so that it doesn’t interfere with the daily schedules of the home chefs,” she says.
Hadapsar-based Umesh Rathod, who manages his wife Sushma’s tiffin service, says, “My family food business began in 1991, but it wasn’t a year and a half ago that we were able to establish an online presence when we collaborated with PinkAprons.”
“They approached us after coming across our Google reviews. Now, we have an additional eight to 10 customers per day because of their subscription model,” he says, adding that his new customers have responded well to his wife’s delectable Maharashtrian meals, priced as low as Rs 70.
However, Adetee’s biggest achievement, she says, was reintroducing a domestic worker to a steady source of income.
“I met her at a CSR meal distribution programme we had arranged on Christmas last year. When she said that the bachelors she worked for had left town during the lockdown, I suggested that she give PinkAprons a try. She couldn’t believe that she, too, could venture into business, stressing on how she never even received a formal education. I told her that all she had to do was continue making good food and we’d take care of the rest. Now, she makes at least Rs 30,000 every month,” Adetee shares with a smile.
While several businesses took a hit during the pandemic, PinkAprons was launched in the middle of one. “Everything seemed like a challenge in the beginning. Due to COVID-19, people were apprehensive about going for deliveries. A few home chefs were also panicked at the thought of trying out something new. But the need for hygienic homemade food was at an all-time high, and we were able to do a good job of addressing that,” says Adetee.
Amid the various hurdles during the course of the pandemic, she adds, people from COVID-infected families were exceptionally sentimental after receiving timely deliveries. “I have saved every message of gratitude I received back then. I remember we delivered meals to the family members of a major marketing professional in Pune, until they all recovered. The audio she left me could make anyone cry. Since then, she has recommended PinkAprons to several of her friends, even if they’re dropping by Pune only for a couple of days,” she adds.
PinkAprons also became a reliable source of healthy meals for frontline doctors, who were able to popularise it among their admitted patients, says Adetee. “At some point, we were regularly delivering to about 10 COVID-19 hospitals. A loyal chunk of our customers also involves senior citizens who have to adhere to specific dietary restrictions,” she adds.
The success of a startup primarily depends on the technology it employs, and this sector needs a lot of improvement in India, says Adetee. “So many agencies make lofty promises but never follow up with them. But managing with only inhouse resources is not a long-term solution, so we outsource our marketing and delivery operations. With a team of about 40 employees including freelancers, we only have one man on payroll,” she says with a gleam of pride in her eyes.
As a woman in business, she has also witnessed and overcome a fair share of sexism. “Not many people take your venture seriously once they realise they’re coordinating with a woman. One of our earliest delivery vendors told me I should opt for their cheapest plan, assuming I wouldn’t make it past 500 orders. I chose to not retaliate back then, but felt happy when he approached us himself a few months later,” she adds.
“As a completely bootstrapped startup, we’re continually looking for more funding so as to expand to metropolitan cities. Our target is creating a network of two lakh home chefs in the next couple of years,” she says. “Someday, I’d also like to launch a vertical for homemakers pursuing handicraft and other handmade businesses.”
Edited by Divya Sethu