Arjun Balaji, Co-founder and CEO of Gourmet Garden oversees all business operations, particularly around growth, brand, and partnerships for Gourmet Garden. He has an MBA from IIM Lucknow and a Bachelors in Computer Science Engg. from Visvesvaraya Technological University Bangalore. In his earlier stint, Arjun was a partner at McKinsey & Company, where he spent 13 years advising clients across several sectors and continents. In the last 4-5 years at McKinsey, Arjun launched the fast-growth-tech practice to serve innovative businesses of tech MNCs and Indian unicorns. Encouraging market trends around food quality and safety, and breakthroughs in controlled environment farming inspired him to transition from management consulting to the journey of building Gourmet Garden as a pre-eminent brand of distinctive quality, zero-contamination food essentials.
Vishal Narayanaswamy is Co-founder and COO, Supply of Gourmet Garden, who leads all agronomy, farm expansion and R&D at Gourmet Garden. He has an MBA in Aviation Management, B.S in Aviation Business Administration and an A.S in Professional Aeronautics all from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona Beach, Florida. Earlier professional stints include consulting for an aerospace company focused on space tourism, and an airline project in Cape Verde. His first startup experience was in Seychelles where he launched a branded water product. Upon his return to hometown Chennai, he decided to deploy new farming methods and became one of the earliest commercial hydroponic farmers by late 2016. The breakthrough was in early 2018 when he was able to redesign what is otherwise an expensive and failure-prone farming technique to a highly simple, robust, and cost-effective model, which produced distinctly high-quality greens and veggies. This innovation which was eventually patented (only patent in this space in India) and the playbook of controlled-environment farming are now core to the origins of Gourmet Garden.
Arjun and Vishal, the founders of Gourmet Garden (https://gourmetgarden.in/) share their passion for organic farming and their journey in the agri-consumer space fuelled by innovation, and of building Gourmet Garden as a pre-eminent brand of distinctive quality and zero-contamination food essentials.
1. How did you both decide on starting this venture and how has the journey been?
Our paths to this play were different, but it converged around our joint passions for fresh food, and its biggest influencer i.e. farming approaches. As consumers, we sought much better-quality fresh produce but struggled to find it, and that quest led us to understand the many challenges to freshness and safety from current farming and supply chain practices. Finding the early breakthrough answers through Naturoponic farming got us sufficiently excited about the future. We knew there is merit in investing our time, money and effort in solving this very important problem for consumers and farmers. We setup Gourmet Garden to be the brand that can offer truly fresh and safe fresh produce, on back of innovations in farming and supply chain
2. What is naturoponic or controlled environment farming? How is it different from regular farming?
Current farming models are suboptimal in many ways especially for perishable fresh produce. There are several variables such as heat, wind, rain, water quality, soil quality, and pests that can wreak havoc and kill crop. Nutrition imbalance and use of pesticides makes the produce unsafe to eat. Very few hacks can address these challenges holistically. Naturoponic farming fundamentally changes the way farming is done. Naturoponic veggies are grown in protected greenhouses, without soil, using clean water and high-quality non-GMO seeds. The resulting quality and freshness is leagues ahead of any other kind of veggies, while also being the safest. The farming method is also carbon positive, which means its footprint from emissions and resource use is the lowest, making it the most sustainable method of farming.
3. Why is naturoponic / controlled-environment farming considered to be the future of farming?
Fruits and veggies demand continues to increase but supply is coming under severe stress owing to inefficient traditional farming approaches and economics. Farmers earn much less than any other profession in a city, despite all the hard work. Little wonder that they are exiting the profession and relocating. This, along with stress on available arable land and depleting ground water has resulted in mass exodus, with over 20% of farming populations moving out in just the last decade. The irreversible forces are exerting severe stress on demand-supply balance and the food security question is looming large even in a country like India. So, while some countries see naturoponic farming as an immediate answer to growing veggies in harsh climates, even agri-centric countries such as India, Israel, Netherlands etc are realising this is the only way to secure perishable food supply in coming decades. Further, the fact that this is a carbon positive method of growing ensures this is most environment friendly, a topic fast gaining momentum when it comes to the existence of human-kind on this planet.
4. Very interesting! Will naturoponic farming replace all other methods? What about organic farming and how are they different, since you do both?
We use both methods of farming to cater to the full range of veggies and fruits. The intention is to offer the widest range of zero-contamination produce to consumers – produce that is fully safe to consume, and that is tastier and more nutritious. Some veggies and most fruits are more feasible through organic farming, so we leverage that. Constraint here is to ensure soil is free of pesticide residues and is certified. Naturoponic relaxes that constraint as there is no soil (veggies grown on water/ coconut fibre), so can grow anywhere and also all year round. We believe both methods and similar other non-chemical methods will replace huge portions of regular pesticide farming over time.
5. Are the veggies grown in controlled environment safe? Some argue that crops always grew in open so then why protect the crop?
Veggies can’t be safer or more nutritious than ones from Naturoponic farming. Imagine raising a child, you want the best environment, a roof on the head, adequate vitamins and nutrition, and some tender care- so baby grows healthy and fine. It’s the same with veggies – give them the right clean environment, use clean inputs and adequate nutrients, don’t spray toxic pesticides, protect them from harmful environments, and they grow to become full of nutrition and taste. Open field farming in soil was the more popular method in previous centuries given the variables that existed back then. However, even 500-1000 years back, people innovated on terrace farming and farming on water-bodies to adapt to the environment they were in. We now have to adapt to the new normal – which is rising temperatures, heavy imbalanced downpours, contaminated soil, and many chemical-resistant pests. And that adapting forces us to consider these controlled environment clean farming models for the future.
6. How is Gourmet Garden different from other options in the market who claim clean farming/doorstep delivery?
There are many players offering to connect farmers to consumers, as a veggie delivery service. We are not just a delivery service or ecommerce. We are present across the full value chain and also have large farming operations we directly control. This allows us to focus on two things more disproportionately than others:
a) Source quality: We leverage only our patented naturoponic and certified organic farming methods to grow significantly better-quality produce with zero contamination –
b) Delivered quality and safety: We focus on getting that produce within 1-2 days and 1-2 touches to consumer, with least deterioration.
In this context, we are currently able to offer the widest range of zero-contamination produce each day of the week, something most others can’t. And our range of produce is fresher, translating to higher tastes and nutrition.
7. We understand this farming bit, tell us more about the 1-2 day and 1-2 touch method?
Veggies are mostly composed of proteins, carbs, minerals, vitamins, water and ash. The non-nutrient/non-water content is ash. Veggies deteriorate very fast after harvest, and some veggies such as tomato and palak can lose 60-80% nutrition and moisture in 2 days. Most vendors do not leverage cold chains to elongate freshness life, as it is unavailable or expensive. It is therefore super important to transport produce in quick time to the consumer, and only a predominantly local water-rich farming operation allows for it. We harvest all produce on the day of customer order or some of it even after the order to ensure this. Further, we have a 1 touch process post-harvest to pack and then directly ship to the customer, eliminating handling damages and contamination.
8. We also noticed you are packing the produce? Most vendors don’t. I’m guessing it is extra cost and effort for you guys to do it – why is it required and how do you do it and still keep it eco-friendly?
Packaging of food and fresh produce is not a well-understood subject. Most vendors and brands don’t pack produce as they don’t understand why it’s important. Food science experts say that packaging fresh produce is the only sure shot way to safeguard both freshness and safety of produce. Without packing, fruits and vegetables can lose a lot of moisture, nutrition, and freshness while also getting exposed to several contaminants during transportation and handling.
Since all of our fruits and vegetables have different levels of water content. They need optimal keep temperature, and handling considerations. We use a range of packing options to ensure fruits and vegetables remain the best when they arrive at our customer’s doorstep. All this, while being conscious about sustainability, so we use predominantly non-plastics and even when we do use plastics – these are 100% biodegradable and recyclable. These are expensive options from Europe but we do it. Food waste is a massive concern for our country and so is food contamination related illnesses. We are putting that extra effort time and cost to avoid both
9. How is your pricing compared to several other alternatives available in the market?
Pricing is a very subjective topic in F&V. It is influenced by atleast 4 factors a) seasonality and demand/supply excess, b) age of produce post-harvest, c) grade of produce and d) type of farming. Most of us seek out lower priced options as that’s what most have grown up doing learning from our parents. However, outside the seasonality effect, lower priced produce could very likely be older harvests, doused with pesticides, and lower grades.
That said, while there is huge variability in pricing, we are able to maintain our premium quality pricing to within 15-20% premium to regular produce being sold in online platforms/ popular super markets. This is much lower than any others growing produce in our methods.
A friend told me this factoid and I have since held onto and always share: Consumer research points to most urban middle/upper middle-class households spending 2% of their annual income on fresh produce shopping. Given our upbringing habits (me included), we all want the best deals on veggie shopping and will negotiate hard for discounts or lower premiums even if it is better quality. Now put it in context of how important quality of food is: there is again published research on quality of diet contributing to over 80% of a person’s fitness outcomes, and pesticides being the single largest (17%) factor for all chronic diseases.
So next time we worry about a small premium to secure a better-quality pesticide-free source of food, think about that 2% going upto 2.5% and all the other spends that crowd our lives, and their relative impacts!
10. Enlightening! You’ve also ventured into spices and dry fruits. What other things are on the cards?
We have a unique offering in everything we sell. Beyond the uniqueness of our fresh produce, in spices, we only offer spices with highest aroma content owing to their authentic source, and we recently launched a freshly ground range that retains this aroma in entirety through the most optimum small batch roasting and cold-pulverising techniques. Similarly, our dry fruits too are some of the highest grades from around the world. We will also be launching a few other things soon including a range of sauces and dips made from our range of finest produce, and other conveniences such as an extended range of DIY kits and cut produce.
11. Look forward to that! What is the end goal you are building towards?
The overall goal is to move populations to much more conscious eating, and to enable them to celebrate food each day. While consumers are very picky when it comes to many other consumption spaces including fashion and footwear, they pay little attention to choices they are making in the space of food essentials. In every country, this awareness sets in when people see increasing incomes but deteriorating health outcomes. India is right there at the cusp now and brands like us will do our bit to educate the populations on the unknowns with our food.
– By Namita Gupta