It was his mother who first sowed the seeds of The Cumin Club in Ragoth Bala’s mind. Here’s how he curates healthy & vegetarian 5-minute meals for Indians living abroad, hoping to take authentic Indian food to the world.
On the outside, Ragoth Bala, a resident of Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, seemed perfectly cut out to complete his undergraduate studies in electrical engineering. However, he was quick to realise that his passion did not lie in pursuing it.
It was around this time that he was introduced to a fairly new stream, then called business analytics. This, he says, he took to very well.
A consulting stint with Walmart in Bengaluru helped Ragoth understand the segment better, and it led to him moving to Bentonville in Arkansas in 2012, where he continued working in business analytics. He says through his time here, he developed a good flair for entrepreneurship and product management.
“I wanted to channel that energy into starting something of my own,” he tells The Better India.
However, he felt he needed a better understanding of running a business before taking that step. For this, he decided to take a course in business management while working a full-time job.
“I would work from 9 am to 5 pm, and then head to the University of Chicago from 6 pm to 10 pm. The idea of launching The Cumin Club came about towards the end of my journey as a student. I saw that many of my classmates, owing to packed schedules through the week, would rely on meal kits, which were mostly easy to cook and consume. The issue was that I found no vegetarian options that satisfied the South Asian palate.”
He adds, “A lot of the vegetarian food options in the US only included cheese and bread. Things are improving now, as there are many more vegetarian and even vegan restaurants. However, if I were to go into a regular restaurant, my options as a vegetarian remain very limited, and sometimes, even unavailable.”
Mom to the rescue
At a time when Ragoth was missing home food, his mother came up with the idea of sending him easy to assemble food packets. “She did not call them meal kits, but they were essentially just that. She would send me ready-to-cook food packets, which I ate pretty much all through my final year. In many ways, I can say that it was my mother’s ingenuity that led me to start the company,” he says.
With that inspiration, Ragoth completed his course and moved back to India in 2019 to study the ready to eat food market. He spent the next couple of months conducting research on various vegetarian Indian meals, before returning to the US. “I started with the intention of making Indian meals as commonplace as pizza, or mac and cheese. The ready to eat factor in these foods is what drives their sales, and I wanted to capitalise on that while providing a nutritious and wholesome meal,” he adds.
In 2019, he officially launched The Cumin Club to provide meals that can be assembled within five minutes, and are made with clean ingredients minus any preservatives.
The venture has curated 40 Indian recipes from different regions and includes popular meals like dal makhani, pav bhaji, dal chawal, misal pav, idli sambar, rice upma and bisibelabath. “This menu is a work in progress, since we are yet to reach so many regions of India,” Ragoth says. In terms of bestsellers, paneer butter masala tops the chart, followed by the very comforting idli sambar.
“Being able to whip up a wholesome vegetarian meal in less than five minutes is one of the biggest strengths we have developed on,” he adds.
How do the meal kits work?
Ragoth says, “There is a difference between the meal kits we prepare and sell, and those available in the market as frozen or instant food. The market ones are often preserved for almost one year at a stretch. Instead, we deal directly with the customer and have a turnaround time as short as 10 days.”
This is the time it takes for the chefs on his team to prepare the meal kit and deliver it to customers. However, The Cumin Club has managed to achieve a shelf-life of up to 16 weeks in some dishes using an advanced technology called freeze drying. “The fact that we do not rely on any kind of preservative is a huge plus for me as an entrepreneur,” Ragoth notes.
During cryogenic freezing, the food is freeze dried, which means that all moisture is removed from it by cooling it in an extremely low temperature. Then, low heat is passed through the food, which kicks in the sublimation process. The moisture goes from the solid to the gaseous state and leaves behind the food in a good form, extending the shelf life from three days to 10 weeks.
“This technique has multiple benefits, one of them being the reduced weight of the food itself, and therefore the ease of shipping,” he says.
The growth trajectory
In July 2019, the company started by serving 30 customers. In 2020, it experienced a growth spurt, partly owing to COVID-19, which forced people to stay indoors. Ragoth says, “With work from home in full swing, we saw a good increase in the number of customers subscribing to the meal kits. This also helped strengthen our hold in the market and reach the $3 million revenue mark in 2022.”
The company’s ethos is based on making authentic Indian meals accessible to people across the US. So far, it has developed a customer base of over 4,000 subscribers across 30 American states.
Connie T, a subscriber, says, “I love having these tasty meals — they are so easy to prepare. They come in so handy when I don’t have time to make my own meals from scratch.”
Meanwhile, Sreenivasan, who lives in Atlanta, says “Being a graduate student, one doesn’t have much time to prepare food, for which The Cumin Club’s meals have come in handy. You can prepare any meal in just five minutes, and I recommend it to anyone who misses Indian food in the US.”
Ragoth says that he enjoys the pav bhaji and the dal chawal the most.
Speaking about some of the customer experiences, he notes, “We had one customer who would regularly order the meal kits. During the pandemic, he came to us with a request to deliver these kits to his parents in Mumbai. The idea of this son looking out for his elderly parents back in India was so heart-warming.”
The company follows a subscription model and the meal kits are priced at $4.99 and above. While the primary market for the product is Indian expats, Ragoth says that getting non-Indians to taste and like the food is also a major driving factor. The brand is also looking to expand operations in Europe and Canada.
While the business was started by Ragoth, he is ably supported by his co-founders Harish Visweswaran and Kirubhanandan Rajagopal.
To find out more, you can click here.
(Edited by Divya Sethu)