How Holachef built a tech-based food business

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Backed by India Quotient, Holachef is an online food platform that crowd sources Chefs in Mumbai to cook and deliver homemade, preservative-free food to customers.

Modern day kitchen economics are such that quite often we tend to leave the ladles in the shelf and order-in food from outside. Added to this, we take it as an opportunity to scout for food that we can’t otherwise make at home. In simpler words, exotic dishes. But, how long can we survive on restaurant food? And, how often have we found authentic cuisine home delivered at reasonable prices? These were the very thoughts running on Saurabh Saxena’s mind when he was still an employee at Soon enough, he found a solution and plunged into the entrepreneurship ecosystem with his second venture, Holachef (his first being Aakar Knowledge Solutions, research-based education company).

Founded in 2014, Holachef is an online food platform that connects Chefs who specialise in exotic cuisines with customers who turn to online for food delivery. “We don’t operate in an entirely new sector. Holachef is an improvisation of what a Zomato on one hand and a brick and mortar store on the other have built. For us, technology is the enabler to conduct business more efficiently,” indicates Saxena.

Hola Chef is backed by India Quotient, which invested Rs. 2 crore as short-term debt in February 2015. “One of the primary challenges that any startup in its early days faces is in identifying the right valuation. Luckily for us, India Quotient was willing to take that risk,” says Saxena. Once the startup raises its next round of funding, or when the business has achieved a sizeable scale, the debt will be converted into equity.

Rolling out the idea

So how does Holachef work? First, the startup partners with Chefs who are professionally trained to cook exotic, preservative-free food. Then, it collates data and uses predictive algorithms to determine what kind of food customers want to eat. This analysis is then used to decide what kind of food needs to be prepared and made available on the platform for the day. Unlike any other food business, Holachef does not offer on-demand service to its customers. For every order, the customer has to choose a time slot within which they want the food to be delivered. “Our customers can also pre-order food and on the basis of this demand, we determine what to make and how much to make,” states Saxena.

The Chefs at the startup are typically ones that have held high positions at fine dining restaurants or even amateur chefs who hold a professional degree in this field. “Usually, amateur chefs learn on the job,” adds Saxena. While today, the menu on the website changes every day, Saxena indicates that they have plans to post a seven-day menu, which will ensure that they are better planned in meeting customer requirements.

On the logistics front, the Chef prepares and delivers the food to Holachef, which in turn delivers the food to its customers. To fulfil this, the startup has setup an internal logistics team and delivery is managed efficiently through automatic route planning. “We also look at a sharing economy with our logistics team. We don’t mind hiring people who can work for just a few hours a day,” he says.

Holachef currently has over 100 chefs on board and records an average of 250 orders per day and over 3,000 orders a month. While it started off operations from Powai (in Mumbai), it has expanded into Chembur and by year end plans to create a presence across key locations in Mumbai. “By then, we estimate our monthly number of orders to increase to 20,000 to 25,000,” shares Saxena. The company takes a percentage of revenues from the Chef, for each dish.

At the purchase point

As is the case with most startups, Holachef earned its first few customers through a combination of word-of-mouth and social media marketing. “Our key marketing strategy was to get the customer to taste the food first. Until now we’ve had a zero customer drop rate. This puts us in a very strong footing in sales,” notes Saxena. He adds that Holachef’s key differentiator lies in making fresh food ever day, and not using any preservatives. “In fact, even our dishes don’t repeat for a week. For now, all leftover food for the day goes to NGOs which donate food to the needy every day,” he says.

Operating in a food business is akin to dealing with emotions. Food is often very personal and every individual’s preferences vary. This, while being an advantage, is also a challenge for Holachef. “Sometimes, even a chef can have a bad day and the food, in turn, may drop in quality. In such circumstances, we ensure that we inform the customer before hand, and our customer support team resolves the issue immediately,” he admits.

Second, of course, is in managing logistics in the most efficient way possible. Saxena feels that once the seven-day menu is introduced and business expands to other regions, more systems will have to come in place to ensure that each order is tracked and the food gets delivered on time.

Three-year plan

In the longer run, Saxena plans to take Holachef to multiple cities, including Tier II and Tier III regions. His focus during the scaling up phase is going to be on ensuring that the food quality and delivery process is maintained, and in making technology more intuitive for chefs and customers. “In three years from now, we want to reach a monthly order target of 50,000 orders a month,” says Saxena, on a parting note.

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