Thirty thousand feet above the ground, bored and hungry, if you are tucking into a cup of hot biryani or upma , you have Radha Daga to thank. This 79-year-old from Chennai started her ready-to-eat food business about a decade ago. Her brand, Triguni Eze Eats, is now available on IndiGo and Air Asia India flights, on Amazon and retail stores across the country, and in Singapore and Malaysia.
“I don’t think like an entrepreneur. They look at generating revenues and profit and loss. I got into my business without thinking whether it will make money,” says Radha with a smile.
While her current business came out of her love for cooking, she had got into her first business to help women. She set up her first business of textile import in 1987, in Chennai. “It was also started to create employment for women. It gave me pleasure to train people and to see that they were improving and living better, dressing better and eating better,” she says. By 2009, Radha was determined to get into the food business.
On a holiday with her husband, in the US she stumbled upon a magazine that had an advertisement about ready-to-eat pasta. All one had to do was add hot water. The idea stuck with her.
On her return to India, she thought: How about Cup-o-idli? She bought a dehydrating machine and found a chef who had worked with a flight kitchen. Together, they started working on idlis. But after months of trial and error, they realised some of the idlis were not hydrating properly with hot water.
Radha gave up on the idlis and tried other combinations. The lemon rice and biryani were instant hits and set the company soaring, literally and figuratively. Ready-to-eat tamarind rice and upma followed.
“The food is cooked the way normal food is prepared, and then it goes through a process [for dehydration and preservation] that I can’t disclose,” laughs Radha.
Around that time, a representative of IndiGo airlines came across Triguni Eze Eats’ biryani in a cup and was excited to see it is ready to eat just by adding hot water — eight minutes is all it took. In 2012, IndiGo expressed interest in Radha’s product for their in-flight meals, but wanted her to work on the packaging to make it convenient for the crew. The airline is now her biggest client, buying 85% of her total production.
Triguni Eze Eats produces their products as per orders, as they are particular about shelf life. “We have the capacity to pack 16,000 to 18,000 tubs a day. Before the first lockdown we were dispatching 13,000 tubs a day between the airline and the domestic market,” she says.
Upma , dal chawal , rajma chawal and biryani are the hot favourites. Upma and biryani are produced every day.
Finding clients on land
Last September, as lockdowns eased, she turned her focus on trains. Her new line has pongal sambar, moong dal khichdi and masala upma , priced at ₹85 for 230 grams (and 250 grams after rehydration). Meanwhile, other experiments are constantly on at the Triguni Foods factory in Thiruverkadu.
“When I started this business at the age of 69, I did not want any debts,” says Radha. Things were going smooth till the demonetisation happened in 2016. It took time to recover.
She had just managed to get back on the saddle, when the pandemic and lockdown hit last year. With air travel almost nil, and people staying at home and cooking themselves, her ready-to-eat meals were not on retail customers’ shopping lists. “For most people, the priority was ordering groceries, fruits and vegetables.” This added to the setback. “Pre-pandemic (2019-2020) our turnover was 16 crore. February and March 2020 were negative. 2020-2021 we closed at around 5 crore because both airline and markets picked up only after December 2020.”
But since November 15, things are getting back on track. “I am dispatching one lakh tubs a week now. These go to IRCTC, airlines, and are also in demand by travellers, and students,” says Radha. The reason she believes is the convenience and the fact that this is the closest thing to home food. Radha is now upbeat about the future, especially because she believes, “I have a good product.”