Saturday Story 18: Ram Lal ki Rasoi
Ponappa shook his head in disbelief. For the 6th month in a row, the collection box was short by five hundred rupees. The residents of Silver Springs Housing Society, where every home had at least 2 cars – one of them a BMW or Mercedes – was cheating the Ram Lal Ki Rasoi company. Phew… what should one do, laugh or cry?
“It’s okay, Ponappa,” said Ram Lal Verma, with his usual smile, during the weekly video-conference of sales managers.
It had been 4 years, since the world first sat up and took notice of Covid 19. And nothing was the same… The long lockdown, low sentiment and shift in consumer priorities had brought many an established business to its knees. At the same time, a new generation of entrepreneurs had emerged. Ram Lal Ki Story was one such story.
It all started in March 2020, when factory worker Ram Lal Sevak got stranded in Mumbai. Like millions of other migrant workers. One evening, when all was gloomy, Ram Lal bought 5 kgs of atta, and started rolling out chapatis. The smell of fresh rotis wafted around the neighbourhood… soon there was a line of hungry hombres.
Ram Lal distributed all he had cooked, for he had a generous heart. The smile of pleasure on the receivers’ face was compensation enough. That night, he slept soundly, for the first time in days.
To his surprise, the next evening, a group of labourers came to him, carrying a 10 kg bag of atta.
And a heartfelt request.
“Aap ka saath ho to hum sab mil kar banavat hai…” they said. And this became a daily routine.
With several hands making light work, the makeshift kitchen was now producing chapatis in the hundreds. Folks from neighbouring slums were queuing up at ‘Ram Lal ki Rasoi’. To cover the cost of atta, they started Rs 1 per chapati. They had no trouble selling as many chapatis, as they could roll out.
The heartwarming story caught the attention of a FB page called ‘Humans of Corona’, and that’s where Sudha Swaminathan saw it. She had been toiling day and night, to send migrant workers home by bus and train. Supplying them with food for the journey was a challenge. Why not outsource that bit to an outfit run by migrant workers themselves!
With her background in logistics and management, Sudha established a kitchen in an empty godown in Anna Nagar, with better standards of hygiene and packaging. They were now producing a couple of thousand rotis, along with sukha aloo and, occasionally, bhindi. The operation was funded by donations from IIM women graduates, in India and overseas.
One morning, out of the blue, one Mrs Vijaya Rao sent a WA message to Sudha:
“I have heard you are supplying chapatis. Can you send me 10 pieces every day? There are more customers also – all senior citizens – in my building.”
Sudha scratched her head, and thought of his elderly mother in Chennai, toiling in the kitchen without any maid. She could not refuse the request. Within 2 weeks the Scientists Co-operative Housing Society in Vashi was placing an order for 150 chapatis a day, and there were requests from neighbouring societies.
At 2 am, Sudha sat up, bolt upright in her bed. It was a once-in-a-lifetime business opportunity. With so many migrants returning home, help would not be easy to employ. Nor would it be cheap. In fact, this was an opportunity to create a whole new business and a whole new way of doing business.
“Ram Lal ji, kya aap mere partner banenge?” asked Sudha.
At first, the erstwhile factory worker was incredulous. But when he heard Sudha’s plan, and the passion in her voice, the man was convinced. He had just one request.
“Aap hamare saare saathiyon ko ek chhota sa hissa denge to bahut achcha hoga.”
The company was incorporated as ‘Ram Lal ki Rasoi’, for its main USP was authenticity, and the human touch. All workers received ‘sweat equity’ but their work environment was no-pasina. Thanks to giant blowers and good ventilation. At Ram Lal’s suggestion, they played devotional music on the speakers, as they went about cooking. He called it ‘ek panth, do kaaj.’
Production was taken care of, and demand was there for the asking. Soon, Sudha had tied up with more than 50 housing societies for daily delivery of chapatis. The volumes were good… but at the end of 3 months, he was crestfallen. The company was making no profit at all. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all…
Ram Lal noticed his partner’s demeanour and knew, kuch gadbad hai. He told Sudha to share her troubles, man halka hoga. The MBA poured out her woes in an endless torrent.
“Chapati banana aasaan hai, par logon tak pahuchana mushkil.”
First of all, there were 3 sevaks – as workers were now called – who took orders via WA from each society. Then there were 2 sevaks, whose only job was to tally the monthly bill for each household, and chase the payment. Oopar se numerous sevaks helped with packing and dispatch. Making sure each packet was correctly labelled, with the right number of chapatis…
And often, there were mix-ups, resulting in frantic calls from bachelors and housewives, the loyal customer base of the company.
“Ab ya to hum chapati ki price badhaa dein…” shrugged Sudha. A step she did not want to take.
Ram Lal was lost in thought. Finally, he said, “Ek tareeka hai.”
In b-school Sudha had often heard of the term ‘out-of-the-box’ solution. But Ram Lal’s idea was so brilliant – and crazy – it blew her mind. Well, desperate times call for desperate measures…
Two months later, Ram Lal Ki Rasoi set up its first ‘Hot Case’ in a highrise building in Mumbai, with 200 apartments. Data crunching revealed the average number of chapatis ordered by the residents – it peaked every Monday and Thursday. On average the Lodha Primero society ordered 400 chapatis a day.
Enter Operation Hot Case. A low cost, stand-alone unit which looked like cold storage, but actually kept food warm. From this ‘hot case’ chapatis could be picked up, in packaging of 2s and 4s. You could make a payment in the collection box daily, weekly or monthly. But no bill would be provided. Kyunki jitna bharosa aap ko hum par hai, utna hi hamein aap par.
The very first month, collections matched the actual price of chapatis supplied. And in some months, it was slightly in excess. The customers appreciated the ‘on demand’ nature of the chapati, no headache of pre-order. Occasionally, the ‘hot case’ would fall short, the solution was to send a few extra… kuch na bikey to koi baat nahin.
The delivery boy had clear instructions – distribute to the needy, or scatter them where you see stray dogs.
With the delivery system working smoothly, Ram Lal Ki Rasoi could focus on what it did best – making hot, fresh chapatis. Soon, more than 100 elite societies had ‘Hot Case’ installations. The company introduced new items, such as ajwain ka paratha on Saturdays and cheeni roti on Sundays, which were a hit.
Sudha had a mandate from Eastbridge Capital Partners, for $2 million in funding. Because Sudhir Sharma, the managing partner, was a regular customer. He was convinced, this can work all over India. Maybe, even the world. Ram Lal’s crazy idea was the new gold standard. Soon to be a case study at Harvard Business School.
Ram Lal thought back to that fateful day when he first rolled out a chapati. And distributed them, without any thought of returns.
His was the ultimate trust – trust in the Universe. And it had paid off.
In flat no 9B in Silver Springs society, Rama has just made a startling discovery. Her 86 year old father, who is diabetic, visits the nearby Chandu Halwai, every Saturday.
The halwai had casually remarked to her, “Bauji ko jalebi badi pasand hai! Pichle mahine paanch sau ki hajam kar gaye…”
After all, a man cannot survive on ghar ki dal and hot case ki roti.
Ram Lal ji, maaf kijiyega. Beti ne jo lifafa box mein daalne ko diya, maine rakh liya. Jab mauka milega, bank se nikalwa kar aapka karz chuka doonga. Thoda bharosa rakhiye!
If only Ponappa could hear those words…
Don’t miss the audio file Inside the Author’s Mind: Why I wrote ‘Ram Lal ki Rasoi’.