Health food booms in India

MUMBAI, India — As I devour a (delicious) frozen yogurt, store manager Ankush Chopra tells me that Indian celebrities frequently visit his Mumbai shop. He rattles off names of Bollywood stars and then pulls out his mobile phone to show me proof. He turns his phone to me so I can see the photograph he took of one such actor, Jackie Shroff, wearing sunglasses and sitting in his car in front of the store.

“He has taken the 'berry blast' flavor, one medium, one small,” Chopra tells me. “With all the berries [as toppings] – strawberry, blueberry, raspberry and blackberry.”

Bollywood actress Raveena Tandon prefers the original flavor, Chopra adds.

As we chat in the store’s outdoor seating in Mumbai’s relatively posh Pali Hill neighborhood, a deliveryman from the nearby market walks up to the shop, carrying a two-foot wide basket of fresh strawberries on his head.

Cocoberry, India’s first non-fat premium frozen yogurt, opened a year ago in an effort to capitalize on a rising demand for health food among India’s growing class of wealthy consumers. The health food market, measured at $92 million in the end of 2008, is expected to nearly triple in size by the end of 2013, according to Shushmul Maheshwari, the chief executive of market-research company RNCOS.

The beginning of an organized, formal market for health food began a few years ago when big retailers began offering health products in their stores, Maheshwari wrote in an email. This developed as a result of a rise in education level and the emergence of strong advertising channels by which retailers could reach consumers.

In a related trend, more Indians in New Delhi are choosing organic foods.

The frozen yogurt company, which enhances its 98 percent fat-free yogurt with vitamin E, plans to invest 120 crore ($26 million) over the next two years as it expands its operation in cities across the country. It plans to have 100 outlets by the end of 2011, says business development manager Deepa Negi.

Walk into a Cocoberry store and the experience feels remarkably similar to walking into a Pinkberry in Los Angeles. Store workers offer you the choice of frozen yogurt in a rotating variety of fruit flavors or original. If you can’t decide, try a sample. They then fill your small, medium or large plastic dish with yogurt out of a machine as if it were soft ice cream, giving it a perfect swirl at the top. And finally, you can choose from a toppings bar offering 16 fruit or candy options.

But despite the striking similarity in layout and options, managing director G.S. Bhalla says Pinkberry did not inspire him. In fact, he argues, the company tried to create something completely different.

One way Cocoberry is special, he says, is that it is about more than just food. It is a lifestyle. To buy the frozen yogurt is to associate oneself with healthy living, modern ideas, socially and environmentally conscious living, the latest fashion and – at least in Mumbai – Bollywood stars.

“We’ve created a brand that young people want to be associated with,” he says.

 

The company’s Facebook fan page has almost 30,000 members who write comments on its wall like “I love it soooo much” and “pls open cocoberry in noida..!! the commuting to def col is a toughie..!!!”

The Cocoberry staff interacts with the fans, giving them updates on new branches and flavors and providing health tips about the benefits of eating various fruit toppings. The page also has a photograph of a store worker making the peace sign as he poses with actor Jackie Shroff, holding his freshly made yogurt, at the Pali Hill branch.

Cocoberry also tweaks its yogurt flavor to make it appeal to an Indian market.

Other food companies have also sprung up that try to capitalize on this new demand for health food, often in uniquely Indian ways.

Companies, like Vital Foods based in the Santa Cruz East suburb, now offer a healthy option to Mumbai’s famous lunch-box delivery system run by a union of dabbawallas. The dabbawallas collect lunch-boxes from residences or food stores, deliver the food during lunchtime at offices throughout the city and then return the empty boxes.

Vital Foods prepares lunch options for upper class business men and women who have dietary requirements or want healthier options prepared with little oil and no artificial ingredients or preservatives, says spokesperson Pratim Parekh. The lunches are then delivered via the dabbawalla service.

Vital Foods, which began six years ago serving 10 customers, now prepares 400 lunches a day, he says.

Another company, called JKart, offered customers healthy juices made according to an individual’s medical history and blood type, says former owner Anupam Adarsh. The company focused on home deliveries of the custom-made bottled juices, he said.

Like men who deliver milk, called doodh, to Indian homes, JKart was called “the modern age doodhwallas,” Adarsh says.

Adarsh sold the juice chain, which has since closed, and he now plans on starting a similar brand in March called Bounce Health Bar. It will offer health options like wraps and low-calorie meals and focus on selling at corporate workplaces and to young people.

“The market is already there,” Adarsh says. “This is the time to enter it.”

Yet despite the optimism surrounding the health food market in India, there are still limitations, says Maheshwari of RNCOS. He says retailers have not yet begun selling a complete range of health food products or certified brands, the products tend to be over-priced and they are largely produced for an export-oriented market.

Godrej Nature’s Basket, a gourmet retail chain that caters to up-market Indian consumers, has seen a recent spike in demand for its health food options at its stores in Mumbai, according to managing director Mohit Khattar. While the market is now focused on western products, the chain plans to expand the types of products available.

“It is only when this trend gets localized,” he wrote in an email, “[that] the big ticket growth will come in.”