Jan 12, 2016

8 insights I learnt running a food stall

The last Saturday was a very memorable day in my life. I took my passion of healthy cooking in front of my customers. I had registered for putting up a breakfast counter stall at a local community event. The items I prepared were sold out in 2 hours. Some of the customers came back and said that they enjoyed the food. They asked for recipes, questions around ingredients etc. Overall, it was an enjoyable experience with lots of lessons and insights to carry forward.

1) A well defined goal and a deadline is extremely important to get started
I have been thinking about this idea of catering healthy and traditional food for quite some time. But there has been resistance, questioning myself, anxiety and procrastination that prevented me from getting started. It's easier to read loads of books on nutrition, try new recipes at home, watch numerous recipes on youtube etc but it's quite a task to take the step forward and actually cook food for people outside my immediate family, friends and neighbors. Thanks to this event, I had a clear goal and a one-week deadline. It brought me out of my comfort zone and pushed me to test my idea. In the one-week prior to the event, my mind was completely fixated on it and the associated tasks to work on.

2) Planning every step along the way makes execution so much easier
I'm a big fan of making to-do lists and plans. But this event taught me the impact of planning out the minute details. As Abraham Lincoln rightly said, "Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe", I planned down every little detail and added to my list in Evernote. When I had to actually cook the dishes on the D-day, I just had to go through the list and check off the items one by one.

3) Going completely organic is challenging
The organizers had asked me to use organic ingredients to the extent possible. This was the first time I checked out the prices of organic lentils in the grocery store. They were more than double the cost of non-organic ones. Checking the quality and authenticity of organic claim is a challenge too. The fact that the product is branded and packaged doesn't make me trust the "organic" label. I did use organic millets and rice as I wanted to use the unpolished varieties. But going "completely organic" would have put a lot of pressure on my pricing.

4) Eco-friendly plates and spoons are very expensive
Serving or packaging food in eco-friendly materials is a very important criteria to me. I have been researching about such materials for quite some time. I want to ensure that my business/hobby doesn't add on to the plastic in landfills. I procured arecanut plates and spoons from a wholesale dealer. It costed me Rs.4 per plate and Rs.3.20 per spoon. The retail prices are far higher (around Rs.10 per plate). Only if the demand for such products increase, the prices can become affordable to the masses. Else, we will see loads of paper plates and plastic cups piled up after every party or event. Eco-friendly packaging is one area which I hope gets enough attention from the innovators in this space.

5) Selling a new product category is hard
I have faced this challenge in my previous work experience as well. The solution I have read and implemented was to map the new category to the customers' existing mental models. In this case, I'm selling foods made out of a new product category "Millets". Though they are gaining popularity in Tamilnadu, I find this to be relatively untapped and unheard of among a younger crowd like in Bangalore. Some of them were a little hesitant to try idlis made out of finger millet (ragi). I tapped their "mental model" by trying to convince them that it will taste very similar to regular idlis.

6) Seeing is believing
Related to the previous point (5), if customers were given a chance to see how the food looks, their resistance to buy reduces a lot. It also makes selling a new category easier. Giving a sample for free would also break down this resistance.

7) Children and teenagers don't care much about traditional foods
This is a painful insight which I knew already but got reinforced through this event. This is also one of the powerful motivations for me to take my passion forward. I don't want future generations to forget about our idlis and paranthas for breakfast.   Sugar-coated cereal boxes have already become a staple for breakfast in our time-starved mornings. It's our responsibility as parents to ensure that our kids eat fresh breakfast from a kitchen rather than from a factory. I know it's tough but let's not give up hope for the future well-being of our children.

8) Delegating is a MUST to scale further
It was a solo effort from my side to cater to around 50 people. This required clear planning and a 3 AM wake up alarm :-) But if I want to scale and expand on this idea, it will be difficult to manage everything on my own. Getting someone on board to help me with cooking according to my values is going to be tough but will have to start my search if I'm serious about it.

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