A profile of one of the country's first online vegetable delivery services. Shonali Muthalaly meets R. K. Venkatesan of Veggi Bazaar

R. K. Venkatesan's office smells of curry leaves. As he briskly opens the door, I'm engulfed in the aroma of fresh vegetables: notes of coriander, basil and lemon vying with the sweetness of ripening fruit. His office is basic, equipped with a table, swivel chair and white board. He swivels constantly and with enthusiasm as he talks, like a five-year-old with a new toy. This determined energy is what's enabled him to do what was once perceived as impossible: sell Chennai vegetables online.

Venkatesan is the founder of Veggi Bazaar (http://www.veggibazaar.com), one of the country's first online vegetable and fruit stores. After 11 years of working in Information Technology, he quit his job at Hewlett-Packard to start his own company. “To be honest, it had a lot to do with recession. Salaries came down,” he says, “I thought I might as well take the plunge, and see if luck favours us.” He had just one security blanket. “My wife. She is still with Cognizant,” he says, adding with a chuckle, “So, she's the family breadwinner.”

Since Venkatesan's father ran a big catering company ‘Iyappan Marriage Services,' “something food-related” seemed an obvious choice. “We thought of door delivery of cooked food, but that's already quite a competitive market. With industrial catering you get orders, but very little money. The third option was to do something someone else has tried and failed.”

He picked the toughest option. “Just five years ago, a group of youngsters got together to start a similar company, selling vegetables, and they folded up with a Rs. 2.5 crore loss.”

There were other reasons not to get into the business. “In India, Internet penetration is still in single digits. Vegetables and fruits are highly perishable goods. Customers want them at different levels of ripeness. There's no loyalty as far as the Internet is concerned. Customers will drop you in an instant for a better deal,” he states, adding, “If you go with your family to Big Bazaar, my business is gone for a week.”

Other services too

Yet, convinced of the need in a city filled with working professionals too busy to shop and chop, he went ahead and launched the site in 2009, offering not just an online grocery store, but also services such as washing, peeling, slicing and dicing. “We deliver to 45 areas across the city today. We have tied up with companies such as Cognizant, HCL and CavinCare so their employees buy from us. We deliver at the office,” he says, stating that they do about 90 deliveries every day, with about 5,000 users on their database. “In the past two years, we've done more than 30,000 deliveries,” he grins, swiveling his chair with such rapidity that I need to crane my neck to maintain eye contact.

“It's tough, yes. But this is a basic commodity that everyone needs. I just have to offer better deals and incentives constantly. Right now we are just about breaking even. I want more customers, because only if I create a larger base can I get better discounts and offer better pricing.” Most of the existing customers make the most of his high-tech cutting machine equipped with platinum blades. He shows it to me, watching with pride as an assistant feeds in radish, carrot and bitter gourd to display how finely they're chopped, grated and sliced. “Our USP is cut vegetables and peeled fruits. They are washed in cold and then hot water — so it saves you the process of cleaning. And it's all done by machinery, so it's hygienic.”

You can call Veggi Bazaar (ph: 95000 79697 or 95000 89697), or place orders online. The orders are collated at about 10 p.m. “My wife and I are often up till midnight putting it all together. By 11.30 we sms vendors with the order so they can get the stock ready.” He adds “We buy from Koyambedu, and farms we trust in Chengalpet, Tindivanam and Kodaikanal.” Vegetables reach their Alwarpet office by 6.30 in the morning, where a person in charge of quality control checks them. Then they are sorted, cleaned and chopped. “Yam is our highest seller. People tell us, ‘We love the taste but hate cutting it.” The vegetables are packed in boxes and bags and then delivered between 3 p.m. and 9 p.m.

The business threw up some surprises. “Some of our clients have American addresses. We were puzzled till we realised they were buying vegetables online, for their parents who live in Chennai.”

Back at the office, Venkatesan's looking thoughtful as I leave, composing his own shopping list. “We also buy online,” he says, “My wife pays on her credit card. We might be a small company, but we're a process-oriented one. No exceptions for anybody.”

SHOPPING IS SIMPLE

* When I try the site, what really works for me is how easy it is to source ‘exotica' such as basil, lemon grass and galangal. I do my vegetable shopping in fifteen minutes on my Macbook, following Nigel Slater's ingredient list for a Thai Green Curry in The Guardian while listening to Pitbull-Marc Antony's ‘Rain On Me'. Best fifteen minutes of vegetable shopping ever.

* The only catch is they deliver the next day, anytime between 3 p.m. and 9 p.m., which is a rather large window of waiting time. My vegetables finally arrive at 8 p.m., all beautifully packed. They don't have galangal though they do promise to deliver it next time. Minimum order is Rs. 200.

Keywords: Veggi Bazaar

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