Can Gourmet Food Go Mass Market?

Abhay Jaiswal and Arjun Gadkari, the founders of an ambitious new food company, are betting that it can.

March 13, 2012 11:17 am by

Abhay Jaiswal (left) and Arjun Gadkari. Photo: Sheena Dabholkar.

There’s something apt about a start-up being located in the basement of a building. With no natural light, and wall embellishments provided by in-house and family talent, the offices of Pico in Worli conjure up images of long nights spent crunching numbers, of a journey rooted in modest beginnings that will eventually pave the way to rolling-in-money success. For business partners Arjun Gadkari and Abhay Jaiswal, the bet is on something just short of total country domination, and something perhaps a tad more ludicrous in scope. “What Barista and Café Coffee Day did to coffee, we want to do to gourmet food,” says Jaiswal, 35, who chucked up a partner track at PwC in the UK to see through their vision.

To do this, the duo will soon embark on implementing a plan that was kickstarted in earnest a few years ago when they came together after identifying a gap in the Indian market: there were restaurants and grocery stores, but nothing that bridged the divide, that provided qood quality albeit affordable gourmet food products that could be eaten in or taken out either for a desk-side office lunch or fuss-free family dinner. Think Carluccio’s in London or Dean & Deluca in New York, except decidedly less snobby. “Our roles are as curators of fine international gourmet food,” says Jaiswal. “But without the snob value. Our food must be accessible to young Indians who travel or those who are curious to try new food.” Certainly, the price points of their menus, which offer a sampling of global fare like empanadas, burritos, knishes, the Somalian sambussa and Greek spanakopitas, reflect this strategy: prices for a meal with a drink average around Rs250.

The challenges, however, are immense. They are trying to make converts of office-going people, strapped for time, who usually rely on home dabbahs and tiffin services, to fulfill their eating needs. Their belief is that giving people a reliable, accessible and affordable alternative will lure them to become grab-and-go consumers, who even if they decide to eat in at one of their outlets, will be tempted to pick up something, say a salad or grilled meat, to take home for dinner. To accomplish this, the company will roll out more than a dozen Pico outlets across the city over the next 18 months, ranging from cafes—such as their original venture The Café at Le Mill, which will be rebranded Café Pico by the month’s end—to grab-and-go outlets, of which they currently operate one branded Pico Express in Nirlon Knowledge Park in Goregaon.

They will also start churning out retail products like sauces, jams, biscuits and pastas from a chain called Pico Gourmet Kitchen, which will double up as an eat-in restaurant of sorts. Throw in a catering business and an e-retail site, through which they will sell their products, and Pico could be the city’s answer to Pret A Manger, the wildly popular UK self-service chain loved by harried office workers. Over the next two years, Jaiswal and Gadkari, who will expand the company from 50 to a 100 people just in the next couple of months, are hedging their bets on a statistic that spurred their decision to enter the food business: pasta remains one of the fastest growing processed food segments in India.

“The best quality durum wheat for pasta is grown in Punjab,” Jaiswal says. “So we started thinking, what if we could integrate the pasta and the sauce, and provide it as a ready-to-eat meal option. And if it could be done with pasta, then it could be done with other products as well.” The duo are well placed to see through their vision: London-born and bred Gadkari, 24, is an Oxford-educated linguist who spent a year in Italy working for a restaurant in the Alps among other more formalised jobs (such as working for a private equity firm). His passion, he says, is food, which is partly what propelled him to set up The Café at Le Mill as a experimenting ground for Pico. Jaiswal is an IIT-Delhi and London Business School-educated management consultant who spent much of his career helping multi-billion dollar companies build out their businesses. The third cog in their wheel is Nicole Gonsalves-Pereira, the Le Cordon Bleu-trained, Gordan Ramsay-protégée who heads all their product development along with Gadkari and Gadkari’s mother. Together, they’ve imported much of the simplicity and elegance of The Café at Le Mill’s fare—barley and green lentil salads, salt beef tenderloin, Korean pancakes—into their packaged fare, which also includes soups, desserts and drinks.

The driving force of their menu is it not “being bad for you”, says Gadkari, who is reluctant to push the idea of their food as being “healthy” as “one person’s idea of healthy could mean something else to somebody else”. Yet, to this end, the team invests heavily in research and development at their manufacturing facility in Goregaon, from where they make all their breads, pastas, and in-house products, preparing for the day that Pico will not only be all over Mumbai but all over the country, in big metros and tier II cities. The eventual dream is to sell their belief that gourmet food when standardised across quality and hygiene norms, can still be affordable, covetable and accessible. “My goal is to have a Maggi-type product that sells for Rs15,” says Gadkari. “That’s probably five years away, but we have to start laying the foundation from now.”