Raghunandan S. Kamath : The ice-cream man

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Raghunandan S. Kamath has whipped up a revolution in ice-creams. Using fresh fruits, dry fruits, milk and sugar, with absolutely no preservatives, colouring agents, chemicals, gelatin or any other additive, he has made Natural Ice-creams a household name in Mumbai, Delhi, Indore, Jaipur, Goa, Bangalore, Raipur Hyderabad, and many other places. Tasty, smooth and soft ice-creams with exotic Indian flavours like sitaphal (custard apple), chickoo, mango, jackfruit, tender coconut and almost a hundred others, Kamath has carved a solid niche in ice-cream making and distribution. Kamath (61) is a simple man, whose office and home in Mumbai are surrounded by fruit trees, as he loves fruits. His factory at Kandivili in Mumbai is huge and he lives in an expansive bungalow at Andheri with his wife, two sons and a daughter-in-law.

There are over a 120 Natural Ice-cream outlets in India, the majority being in Mumbai where he started his business in 1984 at Juhu. The latest outlet, inaugurated in December is in Delhi, and it has already created waves. His USPs (unique selling points) are many. Besides the non inclusion of preservatives, he believes in creating totally Indian flavours, like even cinnamon and muskmelon. Kamath has revolutionary ideas, he strongly believes in his work which is his passion and he has risen to this place through sheer hard work, good standards and honest approach to business. He has now involved his sons Srinivas and Siddhant and other family members in his expanding business. The 25,000 sq. feet Natural Ice-cream factory at Kandivili in Mumbai is a hub of activity. Huge containers, machines and hygienically strong conditions manufacture mouth watering ice-cream by the tonne. At any given time there are at least 20-25 flavours being produced, since fruit based ones are seasonal and they have a hundred different flavours waiting to be developed and marketed.

In his office at Kandivli where one can see the terrace garden with several fruit trees, the ‘icecream man’ spoke to Veena Adige at length about his childhood, his fetish for ice-creams and fruits, his vision and future plans. He also spoke about what makes every scoop of his ice-creams so very natural.

Please tell me about your childhood.

(His eyes light up when he answers this question). I had a very happy childhood. I am the youngest among four brothers and three sisters, all of whom were in Mumbai when I was small. I loved climbing trees, going for jatras, playing, swimming and being naughty. Being the youngest my parents never scolded me. I was not very good in studies and failed in the seventh standard. My father was a fruiterer from whom I learnt the basics of distinguishing fruits and selecting the best ones. I came to Mumbai and joined my brother who makes Gokul ice-cream. We have an Udipi-style restaurant where ice-cream is also sold. But I wanted to diversify and I separated from my brother in 1983. I collected money from my brothers and friends and put up an ice-cream outlet in 1984 at Juhu and from the very first day it attracted a lot of customers.

What is your USP?

Mere paas maa hai! I have taken a lot of ideas from my mother and also from my wife’s kitchen. I observed my mother and how she tackled various problems in her kitchen and I used them in my field. For example, when she wanted to remove the stones from rice, she would put it in water, swirl it till the stones settled down and the rice would be scooped from above. I used this in deseeding sitaphal which used to be a tedious job. It took a long time to deseed custard apple and this being a seasonal fruit and the flavor being in great demand, I invented a machine to deseed and now we can almost match the demand with our supply.

I used my mother’s techniques of blowing air (while cooking with wood), not using spoons but gently tossing fruits so that they do not break, using different techniques of cutting (for upma she cut chillies lengthwise and for others she cut them into small pieces, and still for others she ground them), which I used in cutting fruits, each differently and other such ideas. My mother’s problems became my bread and butter. Every fruit, every flavour has different techniques and my team and I researched, got the best out of it and that is why we have reached where we are. Without seeming to be too proud I can honestly say that Natural Ice-cream reaches places where even McDonald’s or Subway do not reach. Also we do not make common ice-cream flavours. Ours are different- zara hatke. We have no favourites, all flavours are equal for us and all have their own special techniques of treatment.

How did you expand?

There was a lot of demand for my ice-cream and in the tenth year, in 1994, I decided to have more outlets and we started five more in Mumbai. They all started doing well and I decided to go to other places. Today there are 120 outlets. I plan on having more franchisees and outlets even in far off places like Kolkata and others.

What is your turnover now?

It is Rs. 85 crores and I plan on taking it to a hundred crores soon.

How do you combat the onslaught of multinational companies which are introducing newer ice-creams in India?

By being entirely Indian. I am cashing in on truly Indian flavours and Indian tastes. We have introduced flavours which no MNC (multi-national company) can duplicate. We have tender coconut, chickoo, seasonal fruits and other flavours. We have identified where we can get the best quality fruit, like Mangalore for jackfruit, and we go to great lengths to get them. Our quality control is very strong. We test and give the best. Our approach is like that of a mother, she wants to give her children hot, fresh and hygienic food. She does not want to give junk food. We take similar care in giving our customers the very best. Our ice-cream is a unique blend of kulfi and ice-cream.

What new flavours can we expect in the future?

We are planning on Indian sweets flavours like, tilgul, gajar ka halwa, thandai during holi, jalebi, boondi laddoo, chikki etc., and we are seeking permission for all this. We may go in for ginger honey ice-cream in winter and even cucumber flavour.

What are the most popular flavours?

We have over a hundred flavours and some flavours do well in certain areas and others elsewhere. Like jackfruit flavour is appreciated in South India and even Pune, but in Delhi people are not aware of it. Also, it clashes with mango which is a hot favourite. By and large, tender coconut, chickoo, litchi and mango do very well. We want to develop a new flavour every week. Tulsi, chai patti (which is takka tan in konkani language) and few other flavours are also in the offing.

How much fruit do you use daily?

It depends. We use about 5000 tender coconuts daily. Other fruits being seasonal we use according to demand. We make about 6.5 tonnes of icecream. We use 10,000 litres of milk, 800 kg sugar, 500 dozen custard apples (in season) and mangoes. Earlier we needed 10 people working for 8 hours to deseed 50 dozen sitaphals. Now with the machine we need only two people who can deseed 500 dozen sitaphals in 8 hours.

Who is your inspiration?

My mother, of course. I learnt a lot from her and her techniques. And also my wife who is a very good cook. She has given me a lot of tips. I have incorporated the ideas of my mother, my wife, my father, brother and others’ and have constantly improvised. I am open to ideas and constantly learn new things. Customers are the best teachers. They give ideas and suggestions which are used.

Where do you manufacture the ice-cream and how do you transport it to other places?

We manufacture all the ice-cream at our Kandivili factory. We have special packaging to take it to other places. At the moment we are concentrating only in India so the ice-cream can be taken anywhere and still remain fresh. Each flavour has a shelf life, generally 15 days for fresh fruit. Dry fruits, chocolate and other flavours have a longer shelf life.

Natural ice-cream has received a lot of awards.

Natural Ice-cream is in the Limca Book of Records. On 26 February 2009, as part of our silver jubilee celebrations, we made the biggest strawberry ice cream candy bar weighing 3,235 kgs at the Kandivli factory. We used 3,420 litres of milk, 600 kgs strawberry pulp and 342 kgs sugar to make it. About 33,000 scoops were distributed free to people. We got the National Record in 2010 and entered the Limca Book of Records. Besides we have won the Coca-Cola Golden Spoon award for ‘Most admired Foodservice Retailer of the year’ in 2011 and 2012. We were also featured in the Top 50 ‘Unusual Entrepreneurs’ in India Today.

What advice would you give young entrepreneurs?

To succeed you need to do something innovative and something you love so that you will not be working, but enjoying what you are doing. Your accounts must be clear, you should pay your taxes!

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