Hunger Games Redefined: The Gourmet Route According to Ashok Mani of Intergrow Brands, not bowing down to the pandemic or the months-long lockdown, the gourmet food industry is bouncing back with gusto

By Prabhjeet Bhatla

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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Intergrow Brands
Ashok Mani, Managing Director and CEO Intergrow Brands

As more consumers have shown concern for the environmental footprint of their food in recent years, businesses have taken notice. So as in the absence of fine-dining restaurants, which were the primary means of indulging in gourmet dishes, food enthusiasts armed with YouTube recipe videos and ingredients are busy recreating a similar experience at home.

Intergrow Brands managing director and chief executive officer Ashok Mani in a discussion with Entrepreneur India talked about how factors like globalization, relaxation of import policies, growth of organized retailing, changing lifestyles have helped gourmet retail to grow in India during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Its mechanics in all its glory

Mani believes, "Any entrepreneur makes sure that they make it big in this competitive market as gourmet brand in the Indian scenario has its scale limitations, when we conceived Sprig, our idea was always to curate and take the product to global stage. Competition in market is definitely high, our aim was always to let customers traverse discovery cycle and experience the product. Once they experience product, we have generally seen great stickiness."

"For an entrepreneur wanting to make it big in the market, keeping the customer first and creating experiences that customer will value will be the key to enter and sustain in the market."

He further draws light on the funding environment by stating, "It is lot more conducive for branded products now. For the proposition to be interesting to investors, the fact that products are scalable on global stage is an important aspect. For niche products, focusing only on India may not achieve the scale which is good enough for risk-capital to be deployed."

Journey from manufacturing to marketing

"Aesthetics do matter; packaging and presentation also reflects the confidence with which you are trying to convey on the quality of product it carries. We are extremely careful from the beginning, packaging style that we use is European and we were truly disruptive in market in introducing packaging which was not used before; for example we use extruded aluminum tubes to pack spices. This is to maintain the right temperature to keep the spices fresh; it was first of its kind in India then."

"In terms of messaging, we are in a space where we need to continuously educate customers on the products and its benefits. Building relevance to products in terms of giving multiple application options is extremely important- we have been leveraging strength of digital channels to deliver the same. In terms of target customers, needs of our customers are very different and most of it is driven by the experiences that they have had in terms of travels, digital media and books that they consume. It is important to keep pace in understanding how preferences evolve. Also, one aspect where we have been a little bold is, we do not make products for scale – if there is a customer need, we go ahead and develop the products not being very mindful of scaling potential. There are a good number of products that we carry which were developed from that angle."

March forward

While some would have us believe that the global COVID-19 pandemic has brought revolutionary change to consumers' eating and food purchasing patterns, the fact is that most of the consumer behaviors and drivers we see emerging today were already in play. The pandemic has simply reinforced and accelerated these fast-evolving opportunities for food and beverage makers.

Moreover, today's financial pressures will further fast-track these trends. Eating more meals at home, cooking more from scratch, healthier eating, greater use of supplements, maintaining a well-stocked pantry, and splurging on gourmet ingredients/indulgent treats are behaviors traditionally accelerated during recessionary times.

Perhaps most important, accelerated food spending levels driven by the COVID-19 crisis have prompted widespread experimentation, ranging from first-time purchases of meat alternatives to more use of meal kits. For food and beverage marketers, the opportunity will be to keep these new buyers after the pandemic is past.

Gourmet foods have evolved into a group of more culinary sophisticated, ethnic, and often natural/fresh foods and drinks that generally command a premium price, are of high quality, and are more likely to be produced by smaller and/or artisan producers. They include foods sold in specialty gourmet, natural organic and ethnic food stores as well as the specialty sections of mainstream grocery retailers.

Those five elements

For an entrepreneur wanting to make it big in the market, keeping the customer first and creating experiences that customer will value will be the key to enter and sustain in the market.

Mani stresses upon five things that entrepreneurs need to keep in mind when investing in the gourmet food ingredients business is that "Are products really world-class? Are product experiences truly unique? Does customer-base have good stickiness to brand? Does Trade Channels believe in products being successful? Are there avenues to expand internationally?"

Post-COVID scene for gourmet industry

Mani on future trends of gourmet food post-COVID, "COVID-19 is an extremely stressful time. It was really interesting to note that when people wanted an occupational therapy to let go of all paranoia and negativity around the situation, it was cooking and baking that they turned to. We are happy to be in an industry that has been able to deliver the element of happiness and hope."

"Cooking at home has indeed developed as a trend with millennials. More and more people have jumped on to the bandwagon; we are expecting demand for products like ours to go up due to this trend. The fact that cooking is happening across spectrum is something that's exciting us be it from 2 minute noodles to DIY (do it yourself) Pasta to Sushi is a wide spectrum of opportunities for us to serve customers better."

The onset and continued spread of COVID-19 has broad-based implications for the specialty food market, driving a resurgence of home cooking and baking, value shopping, demand for healthy and functional products, particularly those offering immunity-boosting ingredients, and a surge in snacking. Gourmet foods are expected to gain momentum, which noted many brands saw increased sales as dairy and meat products disappeared from shelves in March when many shoppers stocked up on staples.

A consequence of the pandemic may be diminished innovation as manufacturers assess portfolios and eliminate low-selling products in favor of more popular items. Retailers and distributors are optimizing assortments and prioritizing essentials.

The impact of COVID-19 on the specialty food industry cannot be underestimated. Food retail is an essential business channel, and while that has been beneficial to sales for our members, many of whom are small businesses, the overall landscape is both optimistic and uncertain.

Prabhjeet Bhatla

Former Staff

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