Wednesday, July 24, 2024

How Food Square Replaced Foodhall To Claim The Gourmet Retailing Torch

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Founded by two friends turned entrepreneurs – Mayank Gupta and Lalit Jhawar – who graduated from the hallowed portals of IIT Bombay and Kingston University, London respectively, the young guns nurture a burning ambition to set new benchmarks and standards in the qualitative and experiential aspects of gourmet retailing in India.

With a current earnings runrate of Rs. 3 crore per month, Food Square has attracted a bevy of high networth investors including none other than Salman Khan himself. The brand has now set its sights on expanding its brand footprint in Mumbai and beyond

The launch of Food Square in September 2023 made splashy headlines all over the media.One headline on the website of anational news channel read: IIT and Kingston graduates lease Salman Khan’s commercial property to open a gourmet supermarket. Moreheadlines, in Rashomon variation, followed. A leading publication announced: Foodhall out, FoodSquare in! Salman Khan to get Rs. 1 crore per month for his 4-Floor Santacruz property.

The monthly rental itself left many rolling their eyes. The four-storyed 25,000 square-foot property, bought in 2012 by Salman Khan for a reported sum of Rs. 120 crore is locatedon Linking Road, which connects two of Mumbai’s ritziest neighborhoods – Bandra West and Santacruz – a veritable shopping Mecca for the affluent and well-heeled classes. In July 2017, the actor leased out the property to Future Group owned Foodhall for 5 years and for a monthly rental starting at Rs. 90 lakh.

By 2023, Foodhall was singing its swan song as it found itself staring at a financial precipice. It decided to fold up operations following the debt-related travails of its parent company. With its eyes on the exit ramps, Foodhall approached one of its leading vendors – LandCraft Agro – to take over the business. But the negotiations got stuck over some legal issues and the deal fell through. Eventually, Foodhall shuttered the store, which left the doors open for a new occupant to hang its shingle.

Rise of a New Guard in Gourmet Retailing

With Foodhall going without even a whimper, Food Square arrived with a bang. But the new brand was virtually a greenhorn and new kid on the block. And for someone just getting off the starting blocks and stepping straightaway into the shoes of a veritable emeriti in India’s food and grocery establishment seemed too good to be true. But even if it seemed like a high-end wager likely to go wrong, one thing stood loud and clear: A new guard was rising to take an old guard’s place.

“Honestly, we simply acted on the opportunities that were presented to us. We just took the right decision and have moved on to where we are today,” muses Co-founder Mayank Gupta on how Food Square came to replace its iconic predecessor. He says when Foodhall promoters first proposed to them to take over the business, it threw them for a loop at the time.

That hunch seems to have played out well. Nearly six months into operations, Food Square has seen several high net worth investors open up their Rolodex quicker than for any other new retailer entering the business.

“Our property landlord Salman Khan and his family have come on board as investors and are partners now in the business,” informs Mayank. Very recently, Food Square also received an undisclosed funding round from other notable investors, including supermodels Ujjwala Raut and Vartika Singh, designer Payal Singhal, digital creator Simone Khambatta, and luxury fashion house Purple Style Labs, among other individual angel investors.

Operating under the legal name of Landcraft Retail, Food Square in Bandra West, Mumbai is spread across 25,000 square feet in a four-storyed commercial property, which makes it the largest gourmet store in the country. “Landcraft Retail is an extension of our farming business under LandCraft Agro, which operates the brand name Trueganic and through which we’ve supplied fresh vegetables and fruits to over 200 supermarkets and gourmet stores across West and South India. Expanding into retail was a natural progression for us,” says Lalit Jhawar, the other Co-founder of Food Square.

As a premier gourmet store, Food Square features an in-house bakery, an exclusive truffle section, an extensive selection of over 350 cheese varieties, and a café. Aiming to provide a world- class shopping experience focused on offline retail, this swanky new gourmet destination also boasts of a spice mill, a salad bar, as well as a specialty pet store.

Aquaponic Farming to Gourmet Retailing

Mayank and Lalit started their farming operations in 2019, and the two operate one of the largest aquaponic farms in India. Aquaponic farming combines aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics (growing plants without soil) in a symbiotic system. During the process, no pesticides and herbicides are used, making the fruits and vegetables healthier and safer.

The objective behind establishing this fruit and vegetable plantation was to cultivate premium-quality produce for export to discerning markets such as Singapore and Dubai where Mayank had lived and worked before. However, as fate would have it, the business was started just three months before Covid threw a curveball.

By March 2020, the world had shut down, which made it impossible for the two budding entrepreneurs to travel overseas and meet customers for their produce. Finding their export business going off the rails, Mayank and Lalit stepped out onto the limb to change the directional arrow of the business and flip the script.

The duo made a pivot and started to look for retailers within the country who would value their high quality produce. After knocking at the doors of several retailers, a few doors flew open, which heralded their entry into the retailing business. Thanks to their genuinely pristine produce quality, high-end retailers where shoppers come looking for quality and fresh produce began showing interest.

Nature’s Basket started buying first, and was soon followed by the likes of Foodhall, Spencer’s, Star Bazaar, Ratnadeep, QMart, and Namdhari’s. Before long, the trickle had turned into a tide and within a year their business had become a top supplier of fruits and vegetables in the west and south Indian markets. At its peak, their farming business was supplying to about some 250 leading supermarkets in those regions, and earning an impressive monthly revenue of over Rs. 80 lakh.

In 2023, Foodhall vacated the property it had leased from Salman Khan. The departure of Foodhall offered a perfectly teed up opportunity for Mayank and Lalit to pull a power move and launch their own gourmet store at the marquee site. They seized upon the opportunity by soft launching the store in September 2023. Branded as Food Square, the store went fully operational in November and stands out today like a Faberge gem in Mumbai’s gourmet retailing firmament.

Retailing Insights from Farm Business

Mayank recounts how four years of running and managing operations of their farm to retail venture gave them a ring side view into the retailing business. “Ever since our days in the export business, when we supplied fresh produce to retailers in Singapore and Dubai, we noticed a lot of gaps in India compared to how high quality food is retailed in other countries that have a similar per capita income. And we believe that Indian consumers today living in affluent and high income pockets of the country need an enhanced gourmet retailing experience.”

Mayank’s friend turned business partner Lalit echoes his companion’s thoughts: “Supplying fresh fruits and vegetables to top retailers offered us a rich seam of on-the-ground insights and understanding into the world of food and grocery retailing. We came to intimately understand their strengths, their weaknesses, and how these businesses performed in various pockets of the country. By 2022, we had become the biggest supplier to a lot of these retailers and Foodhall was among them. Our operations also gave us a lot of back-end data, which helped strengthen our belief that in pockets of affluence in the country, there are enough consumers wanting a very enlightened, high quality experience and high quality product.”

When the moment opened for Mayank and Lalit to launch Food Square, both felt sure they had the chops for it. “We were already in this business for the last four years and we had gained loads of insights. We understood which high-end supermarket, in which territory of which city had high volume and low volume sales across different periods. We analyzed seasonal trends, as well as the weekly fluctuations in fruit and vegetable purchases, among other factors,” states Lalit.

From Friendship to Entrepreneurship

Mayank and Lalit share both history and chemistry going back to their college days. “Both of us first met at the London School of Economics where we had gone to study summer school courses in Finance and Business. That was back in 2010.

After that, thanks to our proximity – Lalit lived with his family in Powai, in a Hiranandani township, and I was in IIT Bombay, in the Powai campus – our friendship grew and blossomed. Today, we are more than friends. We are like brothers. We are like family. And since 2019, we have been working full time together,” recounts Mayank.

While Mayank completed his Bachelor’s of Technology and Master’s of Technology from IIT Bombay, Lalit is a graduate in Entrepreneurship and International Business Management from Kingston University, London. As is obvious, both come with high end creds, besides being well traveled and well-read folks.

Their initial success in hooking up with top retailers for fresh produce encouraged Mayank and Lalit to enlist and train over 150 farmers in the region in aquaponic and hydroponic farming. Currently, their farming business has over 100 acres of land under aquaponic and hydroponic cultivation. The operations produce more than 40 varieties of vegetables and fruits, which are sold to top supermarkets under the brand name Trueganic. Using aquaponic technology and enclosed, climate-controlled greenhouse systems, the farms produce the highest quality greens, herbs, and fruits such as kale, chives, lettuce, spinach, dragon fruit, avocado, mango, among others.

A Gastronomic Universe

Mayank and Lalit’s agricultural enterprise oversees a network of collection and distribution hubs, and operates an efficient supply chain. The business also has its own setup within various APMC markets in Mumbai and a few other cities.

“Being into full-time farming since 2019, we are connected with various agri-related government agencies and farmer producer organizations (FPOs) around the country. This way, we get access to very unique products that we can stock and store. For example, at Food Square, we have about 300 varieties of Indian rice. Also, we have all kinds of millets that one can think of. We also offer a wide range of food items that would be familiar to our grandparents if they lived in a rural area. So, we have all of these Indian products and, at the same time, we also have all the best products from around the world. This fact is enshrined in Food Square’s tagline: World Food Market,” asserts Mayank.

Indeed, Food Square’s gargantuan product expanse would knock out even the most fastidious food connoisseur.  As a premier retailer of gourmet foods, Food Square sells and stocks some 16,000 unique products and SKUs. That’s a lot of products to stock and keep in one outlet.

While managing such a diverse inventory within a single outlet presents logistical challenges, yet Mayank and Lalit’s expertise in farming, supply chain management, and market insights enables Food Square to effectively balance variety and volume.

“Drawing from our experience in supplying to supermarkets and understanding product demand dynamics, we strategically stock a wide array of both mainstream and niche items without compromising on space for fast-moving products. This approach allows us to cater to diverse consumer preferences while maintaining efficient inventory management practices,” shares Mayank.

Culinary Delights and Flavors from Around the World

In the business of gourmet retailing, variety and top- notch product quality isn’t everything. It’s the only thing. True to its tagline, Food Square maintains a focused edge in providing customers with an opportunity to experience a culinary journey spanning the globe.

“When you step inside, you’re not just getting access to imported goods; you’re also exploring the diverse culinary treasures of India. We have products and offerings from all 28 states and 8 union territories by way of classic and nouvelle cuisines, ingredients, and a wealth of flavors and products waiting to be discovered. So, whether it’s sampling delicacies from distant lands or savoring the rich diversity of our own country, Food Square is a perfect destination for your taste buds,” points out Lalit.

A significant portion of the brand’s sales comprises imported cheese, a prominent category among its customers, particularly in Bandra West. “Many of our patrons are frequent international travelers accustomed to the culinary experiences and quality associated with specific brands. They seek to replicate these experiences locally, driving demand for imported products,” says Mayank.

Another notable category is imported fruits and vegetables, often favored by visiting NRIs who prioritize quality over price. Despite the availability of local produce, some fruits like strawberries are preferred year-round, necessitating imports during the Indian off-season. Hence, catering to such preferences is essential.

“Additionally, our offerings extend to specialty items such as truffles, pasta, exotic hot sauces, and unique seasonings. These products cater to the discerning tastes of our clientele, reflecting their preferences for premium and distinctive culinary experiences sourced from abroad,” notes Mayank.

For a retailer whose product basket comprises a significant portion of overseas food products, maintaining an excellent relationship with foreign suppliers, export promotion councils, and trade and marketing agencies of countries abroad is a sine qua non of the business. As a top-end gourmet retailer, Food Square’s relationship and engagement with overseas collaborators has been fair dinkum. As wags say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. For instance, Food Square has been selling Australian avocados long before they were officially launched in India last month.

“In the past, we’ve already done such events with the Australian embassy and with a few others. Since 25,000 sq.ft. is a very capacious space to have under one roof and, that too, at a most coveted location, we get a lot of requests from foreign trade councils and embassies to do launch events. Some recent events held at our store were the promotion of Australian macadamias and American pecan nuts, among others. We are now working on a few more partnerships to get a few more launches and cuisines, and products from more countries,”informs Mayank.

Other than food, Food Square has a non-food section that houses categories like home and personal care, besides also selling some high-end cutlery, silverware and crockery.

“About 30% to 40% of our sales is generated from international and imported food, about 40% to 50% comes from the Indian food, and about 15% from non-food products,” informs Lalit.

Shaping Taste and Culinary Trends

One retailing Rubicon that Food Square does not want to cross is the private label business. With their current status limited to a single store, Mayank and Lalit believe that private label strategies are more suitable for businesses with significant volumes. Given their projected scale, they don’t anticipate achieving the necessary volume to justify the economies of scale associated with large-scale private labeling.

Instead, their focus remains on optimizing merchandising, assortment, and overall shopping experience. The emphasis is on sourcing high-quality products, both domestically and internationally, and to curate the best selection for their stores. “We have no plans to venture into manufacturing or private labeling and prefer to concentrate our efforts on enhancing our product offerings and retail experience,” says Lalit.

To bring fresh dynamism to its repertoire of products, Food Square actively promotes artisanal Indie brands. “We promote them massively and  our store has a dedicated section called Artisanal Indie Brands. Our vision is to serve as a launch pad for exceptional, high-quality brands and products within the country. Unlike venturing into manufacturing or white-labeling of products, our focus remains on sourcing and showcasing top-tier offerings,” says Lalit.

Laying out the case for promoting young and promising brands in more detail, Lalit explains that Food Square’s Bandra West location marks it out as an early adopter market within the country, often serving as a trendsetter for new concepts and consumer preferences. The locale attracts a diverse and discerning clientele, including many trend-conscious consumers who are quick to embrace innovations, whether in food, fashion, or other domains. Given its proximity to Bollywood, Bandra West holds an overweening influence in shaping fashion trends across Mumbai and beyond.

Citing an example, he says that Food Square introduced an upcoming but promising cream cheese brand about three months ago. “High quality cream cheese is not manufactured on scale in India and the brand we introduced found ready takers among top bakers who visit our store to pick up lots of niche baking ingredients. Now, the brand has been able to attract the interest of a top baker and chef and they may enter into a partnership together. There are other similar examples where brands debuting at our store have been able to acquire market catchet and make it to the big league.”

Small-batch and craft offerings are at the core of innovation. Sophisticated consumers that are Food Square’s core clientele come looking for more craft and less mass-produced products. Food Square offers artisanal and Indie brands and upcoming new brands identified as having potential, an opportunity to feature on their shelves without imposing any listing fees for an initial period. This duration serves as an experimental phase, allowing these brands togauge market reception and consumer interest.

However, should a brand fail to resonate with their clientele during this trial period, Food Square prioritizes the efficient utilization of its valuable shelf space. As retailers, optimizing the assortment of products available to their customers is paramount, necessitating careful curation and management of their inventory.

“In our assessment, a quarter, or approximately 90 days, represents an adequate time frame for a food brand to ascertain its market viability, particularly within the discerning community of Bandra. Should a product fail to gain traction within this period,we have to discontinue its presence on our shelves. Conversely, successful sales within this time frame warrant our commitment to featuring the brand across multiple categories within our store. Such decisions are made with careful consideration and a focus on optimizing our offerings,” shares Mayank.

He confides that their approach to promoting young and progressive brands is influenced by their own entrepreneurial journey, where they emerged from humble beginnings to establish their presence in the market. “We understand firsthand the significance of landing an opportunity, as we once did when selling high-quality vegetables to upscale retailers in 2020. Their willingness to collaborate was a critical element that shaped our journey, and we remain indebted to them for their support. It is with this spirit of gratitude that we extend opportunities to aspiring product makers, entrepreneurs, chefs, and producers, recognizing the transformative impact of a single opportunity.”

Commitment to Quality and Customer Centricity

As a young retailer on the make, Food Square’s primary theme, its force motrice since its inception, is to provide the best value for money. “We grow and sell some of the best spinach you can find in the country. It’s true, our spinach comes at a higher price but the product quality is many order of magnitude higher than what you can get from a street vendor, a regular spinach seller, or even some supermarkets. Our spinach is cleaned and ready to cook. There’s no need for cleaning, disinfecting, or cutting off muddy or insect-infested parts. So, what we’re really emphasizing is that when you spend your money with us, you’re getting real value,” avers Mayank.

Enhancing the qualitative aspects of the shopping experience at Food Square is another area where Mayank and Lalit have been successful in keeping the ante high. “We make sure to always have a wide variety of fruits and vegetables available for our customers. However, initially, the design of our FnV section, which featured great looking furniture, unintentionally obscured some of our products,” shares Mayank.

“My team, within the first month of the launch realized ki product kam dikh raha hai, furniture zaada dikh raha hai. I mean, product bechna hai not furniture. And then, we immediately took out some furniture, which enhanced the visibility of all our crates so that the product appeared to really pop out of that, and sales automatically grew,” describes Mayank.

To raise the bar of customer service and experience, Food Square consistently solicits feedback from consumers and guests. A recurring theme in this feedback was the observation that while it offered a comprehensive range of food items, it lacked products in the non-food categories such as home and personal care, as well as kitchen essentials like cutlery and crockery. This constructive criticism prompted the retailer to experiment with expanding its product range to include these categories.

“The introduction of these new categories proved to be successful, and they have since become a significant aspect of our offerings Thus, in addition to our extensive selection of food items, we now stock and sell a range of non-food products, positioning ourselves as a one-stop destination for customers seeking both quality food and essential household items,” points out Lalit.

Another initiative that Food Square has taken to eliminate customer pain points, elevate customer service, and create a differentiated, personalized customer experience, has gone down very well with its customer base. Adding an element of convenience for its customers mostly hailing from the high table of Mumbai society, Food Square provides free valet service and parking to all guests. “That’s like an extra service we provide because we want to offer a five-star retail environment for our customers where they can walk into the store and feel comfortable and at ease. It’s something massively appreciated by our guests because the service allows them a stress-free visit to the store where they can shop at their leisure,” says Lalit.

While Food Square caters to the upper-middle-class and wealthy segments and comes with a high-end market positioning, it has been careful to ensure that the look, feel, and aura of the store is not intimidating. “We have made sure that the store does not alienate any consumer who wants to come in. All care has been taken to make the store warm and welcoming. After all, food is all about hospitality, warmth, and genuine connections. And that’s basically our brand’s positioning,” adds Lalit.

For a newbie retailer that joined the big clubby replacing Foodhall, which had gold-lettered credentials for being at the highest end of the food retailing spectrum, it is not uncommon for shoppers to compare the two entities.

“We have a variety of imported products, but we also focus on high-quality items made and distributed right here in our country. This mix sets us apart from the erstwhile Foodhall. We want our customers to feel at home, not pressured to buy only expensive imports. We offer a blend of both, catering to everyone’s tastes and budgets,” points out Lalit.

“Foodhall was a massive brand in India with a fanatic following and a large fan base. But the one feedback that we have been getting from a lot of people that used to shop at Foodhall is how our store occupying the same premise and area feels and appears a lot more roomy, airy, more inviting and with a distinctive ambience that is kind of pre-echo of what the word ‘cool luxury’ means,” says Mayank.

That is something that both Mayank and Lalit feel really proud about as they have been involved in every aspect of store design, layout, and color schemes, which culminated in the creation of Food Square. As an engineer by training, Mayank views retail as a perpetual optimization challenge. “It’s a continuous process of refining every aspect of the store and business operations. At Foodsquare, we are committed to this ongoing optimization endeavor, implementing daily adjustments to merchandising, assortment, and layout, among other factors, to enhance the overall customer experience and operational efficiency.”

Data analysis plays a significant role in Food Square’s operations and guides the decisions and strategies to work on. “By examining this data, we gain valuable insights into the effectiveness of our initiatives and in identifying areas of success and opportunities for improvement. This allows us to promptly implement corrective measures as needed,” says Mayank.

Elaborating further, Lalit explains: “It’s really about understanding what our customers want and need, and then being ready to help them. We collect data at different points, like when they talk to our sales staff or cashier at the exit counter. We also observe what they do inside the store, which sections they go to, and which products they choose. This helps us understand our customers better, so we can serve them better.”

Mayank views Retail as a combination of both science and art. “While a significant portion — approximately 80-90% — can be attributed to scientific methodologies, there remains a vital artistic aspect, comprising around 10-20%. This blend acknowledges the psychological nuances involved in consumer behavior and the importance of enticing customers with offerings of genuine value.”

Mayank and Lalit admit that there is a steep learning curve ahead even as both spend about 10-12 hours every day either at the store or the head office atop the same complex. “We have entered this field with ambitions to change a lot of things about how gourmet retailing is done in India. Our vision is to innovate, redefine industry standards, and set new benchmarks for excellence in the process,” says Mayank.

To spur and foster creativity and to bounce the ball off of any new idea within the organization, Food Square supports a very flat structure. Even the junior most person on the shop floor enjoys the freedom to approach the founders and the leadership team any time. “Everyone is encouraged to propose new ideas, thoughts, and experiments whenever they arise. This inclusive approach engenders a culture of creativity and innovation within our organization. Each week, we collectively evaluate the merits and drawbacks of these ideas, determining whether they warrant further exploration and action. This structured process ensures that promising concepts are thoroughly considered and implemented to drive our business forward,” reveals Lalit.

Adding further to Lalit’s strain of explanation, Mayank adds: “We come and belong to a startup culture and that is what we are promoting inside Food Square. A very flat non-structure that allows fostering of creativity, ideas and knowledge and training up and down the organization.”

Revenue and Plans for the Future

In November 2023, when Food Square went fully operational, it recorded sales of Rs. 2 crore. Fast forward to April 2024, and the sales figure has climbed to Rs. 3 crore, indicating an uptrend in revenue generation. But is it also a positive indicator of the company’s performance and potential for further expansion?

Mayank explains that they utilized two key data points for benchmarking the sales performance. By comparing Food Square’s sales figures to that of Foodhall, both pre and post- Covid, they were able to glean valuable insights into consumer behavior shifts. The most notable trend has been the emergence of home deliveries and quick commerce, which has significantly altered consumer preferences and diverted many towards the convenience of online shopping. By adapting to these shifts and aligning their strategies accordingly, Mayank and Lait aim to position Food Square for continued success in the evolving market landscape.

“Our analysis revealed that Food Square has surpassed Food Hall’s post-Covid sales figures. Currently, our focus is on striving to achieve pre- Covid sales levels of Foodhall. This milestone, when attained, would mark a significant achievement for us,” says Mayank.

He adds that in the first quarter since its launch, Food Square served over 30,000 customers and is now poised for faster growth. “Our sights are now set on amassing more than 200,000 customers and we aim to reach an annual revenue milestone of Rs. 300 crore in the next three years besides adding over 20,000 SKUs across our stores.”

Lalit and Mayank plan to open at least 10 more Food Square stores in the next three to five years in Mumbai and beyond. “Our goal is to be the go-to place for anyone in the country looking for something new and exciting in food. We want to offer everything the world has to offer, all in one place, and become the best food retailer in the country,” says Mayank.

He sees strong tailwinds that will help gourmet stores like Food Square to expand and flourish. “People in our country are spending money on cool experiences and special stuff. There’s also a big increase in luxury spending, and more folks are getting into healthy food too. These trends will act like a strong wind pushing us forward and help us on our way. And being vertically integrated with our farming business, we can do this exceptionally well compared to a lot of the other retailers out there.”

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