Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Club Planit: Neelam Karnatak cultivating health and sustainability

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Meet Neelam Karnatak, co-founder of Club Planit, a food retail company that is redefining the way customers can have the best food experience. With a steadfast belief in the power of wholesome, clean-label food, Neelam has dedicated her life’s work to promoting sustainable consumption and ensuring that every consumer has access to nutritious, responsibly sourced food. Join us as we move forward to know more about the story of Club Planit’s success and discover how their commitment to quality food is transforming the food retail landscape.

A small introduction about the Co-Founder

I am Neelam Karnatak. I’m an agri-graduate from G.B Pant University of Agriculture and Technology, one of the universities that was at the forefront of the Green Revolution in India. I also hold an MBA from IIM Ahmedabad. My keen interest in and passion for the food and agriculture sector led me to joining the strategy team of a Swiss-Indian agritech platform, prior to co-founding Planit.

What inspired Club Planit? What exactly do you do?

We are a core team of four members, and all of us share a deep passion for food. It’s worth noting that when comparing the culinary offerings of other countries, such as the USA or Germany, the quality of food, even those with Indian or other tropical origins, is often far superior and frequently available at a more affordable price. As an example, it is highly likely that pomegranates can be found at a lower price in a German supermarket compared to purchasing them from a fruit vendor in India.

Similarly, did you know that what you consume as cinnamon is actually not cinnamon. What you eat, what an average Indian consumer consumes today is actually cassia. A high amount of cassia is actually very bad for your kidney and our consumers don’t know that. Even while the Indian consumer is sold cassia labelled as cinnamon, the best quality of true cinnamon from India is exported to the EU.

If you talk about imported products, we find that you have to pay maybe 300% more than the price the food is imported for; and often, the product is nowhere near the quality of what you would buy in their origin countries. Which is not fair to the consumer.

When you look at processed products, they contain large quantities of unhealthy ingredients such as sugar, palm oil and salt, as well as ultra-processed chemicals such as emulsifiers, anti-oxidants and stabilisers.

We believe that our Indian consumers should expect a lot more from food and we are here to offer more quality, offer more purity, and more authentic experiences. And most importantly more value for your money. So, this is what Club Planit is trying to do to bring you amazing food, and experiences at honest prices.

How do you manage the supply chain and other things?

Our products originate from a network of small farmers, or small manufacturers and non-profits that work with small and marginalized farmers; and then we have trusted vendors who have been selected after a rigorous process. So, for example, the spice blends (masalas) that we offer are, you know, formulated by an artisanal manufacturer, who have formulated these masalas working with leading chefs of prominent hotel chains. Our masala heritage goes back centuries, and some of our spice blends have lost many of their original ingredients over the years.

Take Garam Masala – what you get in the market, in the mass market, you won’t get more than 11 ingredients; the more expensive ingredients have been substituted away. The entire experience is being diluted and we should always remember that food is one of the vehicles of conserving your culture, right? So Planit’s garam masala attempts to re-create the magic of the original formulation and has as many as 21 ingredients. We have multiple ways in which we try to bring all these great experiences to our consumers.

How do you ensure the quality and freshness of your products, especially during transportation and delivery?

All our Fresh Products, such as fruits, are procured to order, so, we procure food the same morning that we are delivering to maximize freshness that the consumer experiences. If you talk about non-perishables, your daals, your rice and stuff like that. Again, we procure these products freshly milled and in small lots, so it’s not that the stock is sitting there for a year and you’re getting an old product. That is how we basically maintain that whatever you’re getting is fresh.

The other bit is that we have an in-house delivery system. We control both what is going to the customer and how it is going to the customer.

How is the customer response towards your products? Are they liking it?

Basically, our belief is that if the product is not good or is too expensive, the customer would go and look for something else. We are present in six categories and offer almost a hundred products now, large enough for customers to actually meet a bunch of a lot of their Pantry needs from us. Each of our products needs to meet our benchmark on quality and price.

Sticking to this philosophy, we have found, generates a lot of customer love and trust. So the response has been extremely positive, and then that has actually resulted in a lot of stickiness and customers’ willingness to refer their friends to us.

What challenges has your company faced and how you have overcome those?

We face new challenges every day on multiple fronts. But, you know, the challenge that kind of keeps on occurring again, and again and is what we are here to solve for is, is finding great products, you know, because your mass market is ridden with, what I call a not-so-great or mediocre quality, right? For example, one of our goals is to secure the top 1%, quality for any product, which is simply not possible for any mass market player to offer. To get that top, one per cent quality is incredibly difficult because you have to judge them on various characteristics like where it is coming from, how does it cook or taste, how is its visual appeal, can we source such quality consistently. And doing this across a large variety of products makes it even more difficult because we aim to offer almost everything that you need in your pantry and on your table.

The other challenge is basically, as I mentioned earlier, we don’t keep a lot of inventory and we procure in small batches and it’s difficult to find suppliers at our scale that can give us great products in small batches. So the process to solve the first problem is just relentless, we are so relentless that we won’t compromise on quality so there’s nothing else. You keep on finding, you keep on sampling, and you keep on researching talking to experts and all of that. On the second front, I would say that we try to have strategic relationships with our suppliers. So none of our relationships are transactional, whether with our suppliers or with our customers.

Are you available only on your website or are you present on different websites? Like shopping websites, like Amazon?

We are right now, present only on our website, but we plan to actually expand our presence in other on other platforms as well. So that is part of the plan.

How people are getting to know about your website? Do you do any such marketing? What kind of marketing do you do for this?

We are very community-centric, and that is why our brand name has the word ‘Club’ in it. We are active in certain communities and we heavily rely on customers referring us and that is how we have grown. What helps is those referrals are actually, genuine. I’m talking about genuine references based on customer delight, not like they are not paid references, so there’s a lot more stickiness. The other marketing pillar we rely upon is basically content, which we use to maximize customers’ food experience. It doesn’t matter whether we are offering the product or not, but if we can win, anyway, that is the other bit that we would focus on.

By any chance technology like specifically artificial intelligence is helping you in your business?

Artificial intelligence has undoubtedly been helpful, but I believe that a second-level or third-level human check is still necessary. While AI can provide a vast amount of information, I have noticed that it is often not entirely accurate. As a result, I always find myself needing to double or even triple-check the information before sharing it with my consumers. Thankfully, I possess a strong understanding of agricultural and food knowledge, allowing me to verify the accuracy of the information. AI tools are useful, but I would describe their assistance as superficial. When it comes to researching and creating content, AI certainly aids me in producing the final copy.

What are your plans to expand your business and the near future?

So if I talk about location, I think in the next 12-18 months, we are going to stay in Delhi NCR. Right now we are based in Gurugram. But in 12-18 months, I don’t see us going beyond Delhi NCR. When it comes to offering, I think we are going to expand our offerings to a lot more. We would try to give you everything that you need when it comes to food.

How do you incorporate sustainability and social responsibility into your business practices?

When it comes to sustainability, we have implemented several practices in our business. Firstly, we utilize electric vehicles for our delivery services, reducing the environmental impact of transportation. Additionally, we focus on delivering orders within communities, aiming to consolidate as many orders as possible. This approach helps minimize food miles, resulting in a reduced carbon footprint.

For long-haul transportation, such as bringing Alphonso mangoes from Ratnagiri, we opt for rail haulage. This choice helps us minimize the carbon footprint associated with the transportation process.

On the social responsibility front, we actively procure directly from farmers and organizations working with small-scale farmers. By eliminating intermediaries, we ensure that we pay a fair price for the produce, supporting the livelihoods of these farmers.

Another aspect of our social responsibility is our commitment to honesty and transparency towards our customers. We never make claims about our products being organic unless we can substantiate those claims with certificates and other supporting evidence. This ensures that our customers can trust the information provided to them.

Being a co-founder, what have you learned in this entire process?

I am continuously learning new things every day, and one significant realization I’ve had is that setting up a business is an extremely challenging task. Despite my passion and knowledge about food, venturing into entrepreneurship has proven to be an entirely different ballgame. There is a significant increase in responsibility and ownership when you are establishing a business. This has been my most significant learning experience thus far.

Apart from that, the range of activities involved in running a business is incredibly diverse. There are numerous interesting aspects and unexpected factors that arise, which I had never even considered during the initial strategy creation phase. However, I now have to deal with them on a regular basis. The reality of running a business often deviates significantly from what you initially plan. It has been an incredible and eye-opening experience for me.

What advice would you give to someone who is willing to start a food delivery company like you do?

This is not just a food delivery company but if someone was entering the food space in general, I would say that, it is very easy to enter but very difficult to sustain because it’s a very difficult and extremely competitive industry. So unless you are very, very passionate about the subject, don’t enter. Passion for the sector is the only thing that can actually help you sustain.

Our conversation with Neelam Karnatak has shed light on the remarkable journey of Club Planit, a food retail company that plans to disrupt the industry through its unwavering commitment to quality, sustainability, and consumer well-being. By delivering wholesome, nourishing food to the market, Club Planit is not only nourishing our bodies with premium quality food but also inspiring a positive change in FMCG marketing.

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