Why and when did you decide to venture into the food retail business?
I pursued a Master of Science degree in nutrition and exercise physiology from Columbia University because this is something I’ve always been passionate about — I was a student athlete and loved working out. I also grew up with disordered eating, which is different from eating disorders. I was very uncomfortable around food, and I think a lot of women will be able to relate to that. Let’s just say that we are not always able to make decisions about food in a very neutral way. What’s cool about the programme is its liberal arts approach to nutrition, which is not a yes or no thing. Nutrition is a behaviour, and eating is a habit. Behavioural nutrition lies at the intersection of nutrition and psychology. The other thing that fascinates me is nutrition education. How it is imparted, and how are we, as professionals in the field, communicating the knowledge? I found that there is both excessive info as well as misinformation. As my favourite food writer Michael Pollan says, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”. The mistake that most of us make is in eating too many grains but not enough vegetables. What we need to do is flip the ratio, and that’s why I started my company.
How have you used behavioural nutrition to communicate your values to your target audience?
All my salad dressings on Amazon come with a generic chart that I want people to use in their daily lives — whether they use my products or not — along with a list of recommended veggie pairings in English and Hindi. Many people from our parents’ or grandparents’ generations as well as the help at home may not be fluent in English. And this was the behavioural nutrition bit: the idea that the person making the food may not be you. Right now, my jars are really small. The plan is to incorporate the content on my bottles once they are larger, which we are working on. Currently, I use social media and platforms like Amazon to distribute this content, and I speak about this a lot. We definitely intend to branch out into other product categories. In terms of behavioural nutrition, the idea is to not make people feel that you’re depriving them. So instead of, say, taking away the roti, I say eat more vegetables.
Why did you decide to enter such a niche market?
Because no one else was doing it! There are bigger companies who are into dressings, but people pick up those products without realising they are unhealthy. Salads are not traditionally Indian meals, so the way our product is intended to be used is not necessarily very Indian. And that’s what we want to challenge. Next, we want to do a bunch of Indian-inspired dressings and stir-fry sauces. Then you can take the regular kachumber (a salad of chopped onion, tomato, cucumber, with chilli and coriander) at home and throw on one of our dressings to make it more exciting. If you see our recommended pairings, you will find ‘exotic’ veggies — mushroom, avocado, rocket — but I do make sure that I also include things that are easily and locally available, like carrot, tomato, onion, and capsicum.
Why Arugula & Co. instead of christening your brand after something native to the country?
Arugula is the rocket leaf; it infuses a sharp, peppery flavour into salads. It was originally supposed to be just Arugula, but when we put it on the packaging, we realised it was looking like an ingredient name. So we changed the name. And while arugula is not native to India — and neither are tomatoes — it is locally grown now. It’s unrealistic to support only native vegetables because people do want, for the lack of a better word, ‘exotics’. It’s not bad for the soil or environment as long as it’s farmed responsibly. And this is what we try to ensure through our supply chain.
Tell us about the different salad dressings that are available? Do you offer anything else?
We have five at the moment: the balsamic-olive oil and chilli-jaggery vinaigrettes, and three nut-butter-based dressings — cashew-mustard, peanut-lime and wasabi-togarashi. For our Indian-inspired line coming up next, one of the most exciting ingredients we found is the timur. It’s basically Indian Sichuan pepper, and it’s grown in Uttarakhand. Something we don’t have in our range is the garlic flavour, so we want to include that as well as an under-explored Indian herb like methi. We want a third vinaigrette, since we already have a supply chain of certain vinegars. We source coconut vinegar which has been made in Goa for years. We also have access to jamun (black plum) vinegar. A lot of these things are in our back pocket, and the idea is to constantly try them out in the kitchen with some structure and find a balance based on our costing requirements and supply chain. We are, however, limited by the products’ shelf life, so we need to use dried herbs. We are also looking at ingredients that are available, cheap, local and organically sourced.
How did you find out about the coconut vinegar or, say, the Japanese community making soy sauce in Allahabad?
I spent six months trying to build my supply chain. I was constantly networking and speaking to people, and my aim was to find the most local ingredients. Navdanya has a shop in Andheri in Mumbai, and the woman who runs it told me to check out this meat shop in Bandra if I was looking for cool vinegars. Once I found the vinegar, I contacted the company, and they are our suppliers today. The soy sauce was plain luck. When I was looking for organic sauces, I called up a friend whose family imports foods. This guy is kind of a hipster — he was at a cafe in Rishikesh and liked the bottle of organic soy sauce that was on his table. He sent me a photograph, and I looked it up and was blown away. The sauce is made by a Japanese community of three or four people working out of an agricultural university in Allahabad. They also produce four different types of miso including a kabuli chana (chickpea) miso, which we are very keen on using. I visited them, and they showed me their fermentation process. It’s such a pure product. When you buy, for example, a Kikkoman soy sauce, you don’t realise that it has been artificially fermented and the integrity of the product has been completely compromised. I have been to Japan twice, and I have never had a better soy sauce. We try to find cool, interesting partners, and this is probably one of the most fun parts of the job.
What’s sustainable about how your products are packaged?
Ninety per cent of our supply chain is sourced from India and is certified organic. And we use only glass bottles. Glass is the most “food-safe” material in the world, and it’s completely nontoxic. I studied waste management and what happens when you throw something into the trash can in India. Because of the high resale value of glass, it has 70 per cent more chance of being picked up by ragpickers and being recycled. If it does end up in the environment, it is completely nontoxic. Even though it might take thousands of years to decompose, it will not harm the environment. It’s 100 per cent recyclable. When you order the product from Amazon, their fulfilment centres will send it sealed in plastic. On our end, however, we use sustainable bubble wrap when we ship to any of our customers or retailers, including Amazon. We use sustainable tape, and our paper bags and labels are made from recycled kraft paper.
What would your ideal price point be?
Two hundred and forty rupees for a bottle of salad dressing is not reasonable, and it’s one of my pain points personally. The running joke within various investor circles is that we are still waiting for the consumer market to come up in India. And if I can get to the top 10 per cent with my price range, I will think I have a successful product. But I’m not even thinking beyond that. Look at what Patanjali has done; they have tapped into the desires of the masses and created a health brand for India by commercialising the hell out of Ayurveda. My target price point would be 180 to 190 rupees, and I think I’ll be able to build scale a lot faster if I can do that.
Tell us about your influences/role models.
Joan Dye Gussow is known globally as the matriarch of the “eat local, think global” movement. She was my professor at Columbia from 2014-’15, and, at 87 years old, she was still farming and living off her land in upstate New York, which my class visited. Before that, I didn’t even realise I was leading a high-carbon lifestyle. Joan got me thinking about sustainability, food systems and where our food comes from. When I moved back to Mumbai, I approached Edible Gardens who help set up organic, sustainable terrace gardens intended to feed you. I’m looking at getting a composting machine so that the waste from my kitchen can be put back into the soil. The motivation is to create a closed loop within my household and not send any food scraps to landfills, which could lead to diseases when not recycled properly.
How do you manage the carbon footprint involved in transportation?
I try to source from as close to Mumbai as possible, and our main vendors are based out of Pune. As sustainable as the soy sauce is, it is packaged in plastic and comes from Allahabad on a truck that emits carbon. These are the realities of being sustainable in India. Firstly, let’s talk about plastic. Unfortunately, though there are several companies whose products are sustainable, there is no alternative for the plastic packaging. I would love for our company to be carbon neutral or carbon negative, and that is usually done by planting trees. Today, the trade-offs we make are well informed. I try to reduce my carbon footprint by limiting the source of emissions to transport, which is an industry that is primed for disruption. I hope we will move rapidly to EVs (electric vehicles) that are powered by solar panels. However, we don’t have a similar solution for plastic; even cutting-edge companies in the US end up using some in their operations. I would choose a soy sauce vendor who is located even further from Allahabad but uses glass bottles. If I have to, I’d rather emit carbon dioxide through transport rather than packaging.