How Saurabh Saxena’s app made Ratan Tata invest in it

(This story was published in ET Panache on 21st October 2015. You can read the original here.)

Like the rest of us, Saurabh Saxena, CEO and Founder of Holachef, has had problems with domestic help. “What she cooked wasn’t necessarily what we liked,” he says, laughing. But, unlike the rest of us, he turned his frustration into something productive. Holachef, launched in September 2014, connects you to chefs to enhance your dining experience right at home. The company has a customer base in Mumbai and recently expanded to Pune. Earlier this year, they received Rs 2 crore in seed funding from India Quotient. In another fundraiser, led by Kalaari Capital, they raised Rs 20 crore in Series A funding. And then came another biggie. Holachef managed to catch the eye of Ratan Tata, who invested an undisclosed sum in the startup. ETPanache catches up with Saxena, the man behind nearly 3.5 lakh meals, to find out about his love for ghar ka khaana, his inspiration and just who he would like to call over for dinner. And of course, he’ll be ordering in.

You have been in the startup circuit since 2006, starting with Aakar Knowledge Solutions. Tell us about your switch from an educational startup to Holachef?

Even though I was in the field of education for seven years, there was a problem in the F&B market that I felt that I could solve. I reasoned that my friends and I were facing the problem, so why not try to solve it?

How did Holachef come about?

My wife and I are working professionals. Cooking and the kitchen are the last of our concerns. The domestic help wasn’t great and eventually we used to order in and go out to eat way too often. There was no place which offered quality food that’s not greasy. So, yes, in a way our domestic help was a breaking point for us (laughs). We couldn’t expect her to bake lasagna for us, so we can’t really blame her though.

Do you remember your first customer? Do they get special treatment at Holachef?

Our first order was from a very close friend of mine. I gave him a call and told him, “Boss. Download the app and place an order.” It was more of a command (laughs). He ordered South Indian fare. Nowadays, I don’t need to command him, but he does order frequently from us.

How did you build your army of over 200 chefs?

That’s the best part! Within the F&B industry there is a huge and thriving amateur industry. There is a good supply of chefs skilled in various cuisines, both at the amateur level and professional level. At the top restaurants, you remember the dish and restaurant but not the chef. With Holachef, they get direct exposure for their cooking. Getting them on board was difficult at first but once chefs started realising that this was workable, it all started coming together. Some of the chefs who have been with us from the start have served more than 20,000 meals. Our chefs come from Taj, ITC as well as a lot of home chefs.

How often do you and your wife use Holachef?

We use it every day. We’ve shut down our home kitchen.

What were the challenges you faced when you started? And what are the challenges you’re facing today?

Convincing the chefs that this was an alternate way of looking at the supply chain was one of our initial challenges. Now the problems are more operational. Making sure everything is consistent across customers, making sure the food is what the customer wants.

How did you first go about raising funds for Holachef?

Initially, the co-founder and I put in money. But we were fortunate that quite a few people had our food and were keen on the idea. That’s how India Quotient came on board.

How did Ratan Tata hear of Holachef?

I was fortunate to meet him at one of the events Kalaari had organised. We got talking. Given his experience in the hospitality industry, he had an amazing level of insight and asked us great questions on how we were planning on taking things forward. The conversation lasted close to 45 minutes. After that, we heard back from his team that he was interested.

Did he order any food?

He did check out the website at the presentation. But he hasn’t ordered food. I did take oatmeal cookies and some delicious South Indian condiments for him for the meeting, but I don’t think he ate it (laughs).

Has Ratan Tata sat in on any meeting? To what extent does he provide guidance?

With a person like him, it is more about the small interactions you can have with him. It’s not like he needs to sit on the board or attend meetings.

What is the best advice you’ve taken away from conversations with him?

That companies are built with a lot of effort and thought. He said while there is a lot of strategy, there should also be passion. Transferring that passion from the top to bottom is a priority.

Who would you like to call over for dinner?

Rahul Dravid. I would not make anything because if I cook, he would run away. I would have our chefs serve him authentic regional cuisine — food from Bihar, Maharashtra and so on. I will also be glad to host Ratan Tata.

Who are the startup entrepreneurs that you will be looking out for?

We have to look for real problems with our customers, not just a buying habit or trend. I look forward to startups in healthcare. There are a few in the personal nursing space and I think that is a phenomenal idea. Simply because we all have elders at home — personal healthcare is so difficult to find. If a startup like this succeeds, it will make a tremendous improvement in people’s lives.

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