HomeSocial Impact HeroesRagoth Bala Of The Cumin Club On 5 Things You Need To...

Ragoth Bala Of The Cumin Club On 5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand

An Interview With Martita Mestey

Make a product that is relevant but also think about the bigger goal it is laddering up to! With our 5-minute meal kits, we help our customers eat a balanced vegetarian meal that saves them time without compromising on health. In turn, we are supporting the transition that the country is making out of traditional animal protein sources towards more plant-based sources.

As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ragoth Bala.

With 10+ years in various roles across eCommerce startups, Ragoth started The Cumin Culinary Brands in 2019. He currently runs the Chicago-based startup with his 2 co-founders and a team that spans the US and India. Ragoth holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Electrical Engineering (Anna University) and an MBA in Entrepreneurship and Strategic Management (Chicago Booth).

Ragoth moved to the USA for a new career opportunity but soon discovered the lack of quick Indian vegetarian options that satisfied his needs. He started The Cumin Club as a way to bring home-cooked Indian, vegetarian meals to the masses without compromising on taste and nutrition, all while saving you time.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

I grew up in Palani, a sleepy pilgrimage town in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Growing up, my family was vegetarian and I enjoyed a balanced diet without having to obsess over labels as Indian food is naturally flavorful and healthy. Access to delicious food that was also nutritious was never a challenge, until I moved to the USA.

I touched down in rural Arkansas over 10 years ago, starry-eyed and very excited to live in the land of opportunity. Food wasn’t the first thing on my mind but my diet quickly changed due to the lack of good vegetarian food around me. I had to think about my next meal more than I ever had before and this made me realize how big of a role food plays in my everyday well-being and overall health.

Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food or beverage brand you are leading?

Between business school and full-time work, I was really struggling to eat right. I just couldn’t find a solution to what I was looking for — flavorful and healthy plant-based Indian food that was affordable and convenient. Was that too much to ask? In this day and age, technology and access have progressed at such a rapid pace that I was unwilling to settle for subpar dishes just because I was far from home. It was actually my mother who came to my rescue when she started shipping me “meal kits”, as I like to call them, from across the world where all I had to do was add water. That was the first “ah ha moment”. She would send these meals from my hometown and every time I took a bite, it felt like we were at the table together again. It made me understand the importance of traditional recipes, handed down from generations, made with hyper-local spices and ingredients. Those ingredients were not only necessary to help fuel our bodies but also to help us connect with a place that we had ventured far from. Not only did the dishes taste incredible, I was equally impressed at how convenient it was. Many of the meals were freeze-dried, drawing inspiration from our ancestors who dried food in the sun to preserve foods for longer. Just add water and enjoy a healthy meal that tasted authentic? Sold. I knew others would enjoy that too. This spurred the creation of The Cumin Club, where we curate 5-minute meals from across India that are convenient, nutritious and taste as authentic as dining with a home-cook in India.

The second “ah ha moment” was when I realized I could combine my experience with e-commerce and my passion for Indian food to bring something new to the table that could change the game of everyday nutrition for a lot of people. Especially Indian expats like me along with vegetarians, vegans and the ever-growing group of flexitarians.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

At the beginning of our consumer sales journey, we operated order fulfillment via excel spreadsheets. We made a seemingly simple copy-paste error that shifted some information and led to about 100 customers receiving the orders of the customers in the previous 100 rows. It was frustrating in the moment and funny at the same time, but heartwarming to hear from early customers who were very understanding of our blunder. Being a startup means we make mistakes (and learn from them) all the time but my main learning is that mistakes are inevitable when starting out. The most important part is to acknowledge them and understand that they are a part of the growth process. Don’t dwell on them and take mistakes in stride as you may be surprised about how understanding your team and early supporters are. Just keep going!

What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a food or beverage line? What can be done to avoid those errors?

One of the mistakes I have seen quite a bit is launching with a large lineup of products. It’s always tempting to put everything possible out there but then it becomes very subjective and difficult to find the right MVP product mix. Begin by using a smaller set of products to effectively answer whether or not customers want what you have to offer. Once you have some initial results, you can extrapolate consumer data and launch other products from your early learning. In essence, this is the MVP mindset — put something out there, learn from it and iterate.

Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to produce. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

Start by writing a one-pager on the business you want to launch. Include a description of the idea, the target market, competition, sourcing, and distribution strategy. The writing process makes us question every single word and sentence which helps refine the idea more than just a free-form brainstorm. Bonus — you can share the one-pager with your potential co-founders, customers, and anyone who could give you quality feedback.

I would also recommend asking for help and advice every step of the way. It can initially be intimidating to reach out to our networks too but it’s best to do so early in the process. Taking advantage of others’ learnings is the best way to accelerate the development of your idea into a business. There are likely other businesses similar to yours out there that you can learn from! Having said that, as important as it is for you to get input, always ensure the final decision is yours.

Many people have good ideas all the time. But some people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How would you encourage someone to overcome this hurdle?

As they say, ideas are dime a dozen. Turning an idea into a business requires strategy and disciplined approach in its execution. Strategy, in the world of startups, can be simplified as defensible differentiators. All that means is creating a foundation for upward growth aka an “unfair advantage”.

To overcome the “idea-to-business’’ hurdle, start by understanding the strategies behind other startups, both in and out of your industry. You’ll start to realize that there are patterns everywhere and eventually you will identify the right pattern for your idea to become a full fledged business. For example, many businesses have used the Uber model of connecting two groups of people in a marketplace setting!

Lastly, it’s about having a bias for action — don’t be afraid to go after your ideas. In business and in life, there’s a balance between thought and action. While there is no principle to determine when thoughts need to turn to action, it is clear that a lot of startup founders and successful businesses know how to jump in and get started. In other words, go build it instead of just thinking about it. The real world will provide the feedback you need.

There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?

Consultants cannot replace founders or ‘sweat equity’. In my opinion, it is better to strike out with co-founders over consultants. Building a startup is a long journey and consultants don’t always have the right incentives to help you through the unique challenges you may face. Co-founders are the early consultants, thought partners, helping hands and everything you need to face the enormous task of ‘starting up’.

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

Always start with bootstrapping, unless the problem you are looking to solve involves hard sciences like a biomedical product where access to labs and equipment are a huge barrier to start up.It gives the team the freedom to iterate as fast as possible to fully shape out the product/service offering, business model and strategy. Once there is initial traction, set a goal to raise smart money which could include capital. Remember that the backing will come with expertise, counsel and connections to accelerate growth. In most cases, early smart money comes from Angel Investors and then from VCs.

Can you share thoughts from your experience about how to file a patent, how to source good raw ingredients, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer or distributor?

Start with qualifying partners based on their credentials, industry experience, reputation (talk to their customers) and responsiveness. Once you start with a qualified partner, focus time and attention towards nurturing a good relationship. Economics can always be figured out, as long as a solid foundation is built up with mutual trust.

Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand” and why?

  1. Future-proof your brand.

Create something that aligns with upward trends, especially those on the rise for good reasons. For us at The Cumin Club, we are future-proofing Indian food by making it sustainable. Since our food is freeze dried, we don’t have to include water in our manufacturing or include ice packs in shipping. This methodology is something that we aptly call “Don’t ship water”. Additionally, make sure that you can clean-label your product. The food regulations in the USA are among the most lax in the world. As mentioned, our freeze drying process requires zero water. The benefit of this is that our meals have zero preservatives, additives or artificial ingredients ensuring that everything on our label is easily understood plus naturally nutritious.

2. Have a greater purpose.

Make a product that is relevant but also think about the bigger goal it is laddering up to! With our 5-minute meal kits, we help our customers eat a balanced vegetarian meal that saves them time without compromising on health. In turn, we are supporting the transition that the country is making out of traditional animal protein sources towards more plant-based sources.

3. Tell the story behind the food.

People don’t just buy your products, they are buying into your story. Our origin story is critical for people to understand how the brand was born. Beyond that, we continue to share how we find inspiration for new dishes, how our freeze drying technology works, and education around regional Indian dishes. This helps our community see that we are real people behind the brand and that transparency is one of our core values.

4. Create food experiences that go beyond taste.

This one goes back to my childhood where the ‘experience’ I wanted to recreate for others was the feeling of growing up with parents who actively shared responsibility. I grew up in a dual-income household in a small town where most women were stay-at-home moms who were solely responsible for the daily food on the table. I was amazed by my mom’s ability to balance our household and a career and loved seeing my dad’s support of her. When I started my family and this business it was always important to me to split the responsibility of mealtime with my wife and encourage others to do the same. We always say that we want to help the transition the perception of food being the great barrier to the great equalizer in households around the world, so women don’t bear that burden alone.

5. Build the right team.

Diverse experiences and perspectives refine a business and make it stronger. For us, our team includes a diverse mix ranging from a CPG marketing veteran to a Data Scientist. We all bring our experience to the table of view to grow the product and the brand in very different ways. For example, our Data Scientist is also a massive foodie and his high standards help keep our product pipeline fresh and top notch.

Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?

At The Cumin Club, we obsess over authenticity by prioritizing locally sourced spices, recipes, and chefs from all over the country. Just like “Indian” isn’t a language, it’s not a type of food either. There is an incredible amount of diversity across the country in the people along with the food. Each region has its own local cuisine and flavor that people can relate to. Our goal is to produce meals from every major region, ensuring as much representation as possible. Find the one differentiating factor for your product and obsess over it, that’s the only way to turn your customers into ambassadors with a mouthpiece which is key for any business to succeed.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

We have shown that convenience and environmental consciousness can co-exist. We hope to inspire more “just-add-water” and “don’t-ship-ice-packs” brands across more categories to bring value to customers and continue to do good for the planet.We strongly believe that lentils are the OG plant-based protein, and with all the chatter about alternative plant-based meats, we want to showcase that there is plenty of variety within more natural sources that can be flavorful and nutritious.

You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

In my humble opinion, everyone should give flexitarianism a fair chance. For the sake of the world we live in, but also for the sake of our own health and well-being. Moving from animal protein to lab-grown plant-based protein might be just shifting the problem from one to another, but lentils, the OG plant protein, can make the real difference in having a good protein-rich vegetarian meal. We would love to turn Meatless Mondays into Meatless Months to start!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

Ragoth Bala Of The Cumin Club On 5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.