OOn the outside, Ragoth Bala, a resident of Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, seemed perfectly suited to complete his undergraduate studies in electrical engineering. However, he soon realized that his passion did not lie in pursuing him.
It was during this time that he was introduced to a relatively new stream, then called business analytics. This, he says, he took very well.
A consulting stint at Walmart in Bengaluru helped Ragoth better understand the segment, and it led to his move to Bentonville, Arkansas in 2012, where he continued to work in business analytics. He says that during his time here he developed a good sense of entrepreneurship and product management.
“I wanted to channel that energy into starting something of my own,” he said. The best India.
However, he felt he needed a better understanding of running a business before taking this step. For this, he decided to take a course in business management while working full time.
“I worked 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., then I went to the University of Chicago from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. The idea of launching The Cumin Club was born towards the end of my student career. I saw that many of my classmates, due to busy schedules throughout the week, relied on meal kits, which were mostly easy to cook and consume. The problem was that I couldn’t find any vegetarian options that would satisfy the South Asian palate.
He adds, “A lot of vegetarian food options in the United States only included cheese and bread. Things are looking up now, as there are a lot more vegetarian and even vegan restaurants. However, if I were to go to a regular restaurant, my options as a vegetarian would remain very limited, and sometimes even unavailable.
Mom to the rescue
At a time when Ragoth lacked food at home, his mother came up with the idea of sending him some easy-to-assemble food packets. “She didn’t call them meal kits, but they were basically just that. She sent me packets of ready-to-cook food, which I ate pretty much throughout my senior year. In many ways, I can say it was my mother’s ingenuity that led me to start the business,” he says.
With this inspiration, Ragoth completed his course and returned to India in 2019 to study the ready-to-eat food market. He spent the next two months researching various vegetarian Indian dishes, before returning to the United States. “I started with the intention of making Indian dishes as mundane as pizza or mac and cheese. The ready-to-eat factor of these foods is what drives their sales, and I wanted to capitalize on that while offering a nutritious and healthy meal,” he adds.
In 2019, he officially launched The Cumin Club to provide meals that can be put together in five minutes and are made with clean ingredients without any preservatives.
The company has curated 40 Indian recipes from different regions and includes popular dishes like dal makhani, pav bhaji, dal chawal, misal cobblestoneIsambar dliupma rice and bisibélabat. “This menu is a work in progress, as we haven’t reached so many parts of India yet,” Ragoth says. In terms of bestsellers, paneer butter masala tops the list, followed by very comforting idli sambar.
“Being able to prepare a healthy vegetarian meal in less than five minutes is one of the greatest strengths we have built on,” he adds.
How do meal kits work?
Ragoth says, “There is a difference between the meal kits we prepare and sell, and those available on the market as frozen or instant foods. Those on the market are often kept for nearly a 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 of his team to prepare the meal kit and deliver it to the customers. However, The Cumin Club has managed to achieve a shelf life of up to 16 weeks in some dishes using a cutting-edge technology called freeze-drying. “The fact that we didn’t rely on any type of preservative is a huge plus for me as an entrepreneur,” notes Ragoth.
During cryogenic freezing, food is freeze-dried, which means that all the moisture is removed from it by cooling it to an extremely low temperature. Then, low heat is transmitted through the food, which initiates the sublimation process. Moisture changes from solid to gaseous state and leaves food in good condition, extending shelf life from three days to 10 weeks.
“This technique has multiple advantages, one of them being the reduced weight of the food itself, and therefore ease of shipping,” he says.
The growth trajectory
In July 2019, the company started serving 30 customers. In 2020, it experienced a growth spurt, in part due to COVID-19, which forced people to stay indoors. Ragoth says: “With working from home on the rise, we have seen a good increase in customers subscribing to meal kits. It also helped strengthen our grip on the market and hit the $3 million revenue mark in 2022.”
The company’s philosophy is to make authentic Indian meals accessible to people across the United States. So far, he has developed a following of over 4,000 subscribers in 30 US states.
Connie T, a subscriber, says: “I love eating these tasty dishes, they are so easy to prepare. They come in really handy when I don’t have time to cook my own meals from scratch.
Meanwhile, Sreenivasan, who lives in Atlanta, says, “As a graduate student, you don’t have a lot of time to prepare food, which Cumin Club meals have come in handy for. You can cook any meal in just five minutes, and I recommend it to anyone who is craving Indian food in the US.
Ragoth says he likes the pav bhaji and the dal chawal most.
Speaking about some of the customer experiences, he notes, “We had a customer who regularly ordered the meal kits. During the pandemic, he asked us to deliver these kits to his parents in Mumbai. The thought of this son caring for his elderly parents in India was so heartwarming.
The company follows a subscription model, and meal kits are priced at $4.99 and up. Although the main market for the product is Indian expats, Ragoth says getting non-Indians to taste and like the food is also a major driving factor. The brand is also looking to expand its business in Europe and Canada.
While the company was started by Ragoth, he is ably supported by his co-founders Harish Visweswaran and Kirubhanandan Rajagopal.
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(Editing by Divya Sethu)