2 College Friends with a Unique Idea! Starting a Kitchen Robotics Company with a dream to to ‘build McDonalds of Indian Food’
Starting and scaling up a kitchen robotics company looks easy but it actually isn’t! High costs, scaling up with innovations and matching food consistency across outlets are among the slew of challenges holding back most food startups. Co-founded by Eshwar K Vikas and SudeepSabat in 2021, Mukunda Foods Private Limited, a kitchen robotics company, has been rolling out an innovative pipeline comprising six products that are currently installed in over 2000 locations.
Speaking to Financial Express Online, Eshwar K Vikas shares their early struggles as aspiring entrepreneurs, “My friend and roommate SudeepSabat and I decided to build McDonalds of Indian Food. We started with our first QSR under brand Mukunda to serve south Indian staple food like Dosa and Idli. The response was pretty encouraging, and we started scaling it up, but matching food consistency across the outlet became a nightmare for us. We started burning cash instead of making profits. Since both of us were engineers at the core, we decided to look for a solution to it, and in this process, we built our machines to cook food automatically at our outlets, leading to the birth of Automation in our outlets. We currently have automated 6-7 global cuisines.” Currently, Mukunda Foods has rolled out automated processes for multiple cuisines like Chinese Foods, Indian Gravies, South Indian Food, Snacks, Pizza, and Biryani.
The journey might sound easy but it clearly wasn’t for the two engineering graduates whose vision was to ‘build Mcdonalds of Indian food’. While there was always a need for automation in commercial kitchens, there were reservations from food business owners and chefs. However, Mukunda Foods co-founder Eshwar K Vikas feels that the Pandemic changed everything as the dire situation led to more and more cloud kitchens, amidst concerns related to skilled staff and labor because of the issue of migration. Further, ensuring hygiene and safety became a top priority for business owners.
With COVID-19 paving the way for a new normal, the whole scenario made automation a lot more relevant in the kitchen space, and in turn, people became more receptive to technological advancements. Since there aren’t many players in the segment, this indeed worked in Mukunda’sfavor. “Initially, we would visit multiple shops to understand what fits and what doesn’t. We would struggle for funds after all; we were still pursuing our engineering. We would need to talk to food Entrepreneurs and chefs to understand the real challenge etc. This process made us realize that not just us, many food entrepreneurs, need such a solution. From there, we became a kitchen automation solution provider. We would finish college at 4 PM and head out to the industrial market to scout for parts for the machines, spend late into the nights at factories (we rented their night shift, so it’s cheaper) to build the machines,” informs Eshwar K Vikas. The company takes around a year to develop each product with painstaking attention to detail. From the conceptualization stage to getting it ready on the floor, the entire process also pays special attention to chefs as they ‘bring the art into the machines while we bring the Science’, Mukunda Foods co-founder points out. In his words, “While we bring the science, the chef tells us what needs to be done. We are always fascinated by how much depth a chef has to help make the machines better. “
What paved the way for a stint in manufacturing innovative products used in many restaurants?
We started using the machines in our outlets, but we soon saw many restaurant owners approaching us to buy the machines. We then understood that making food was something a lot of brands were struggling with. They would have consistency issues as they scaled; they would get complaints that their Hyderabad outlet was better than the Bangalore outlet. We realized that the industry was in desperate need of a solution, and in us, they found our products quite helpful. Hence, we pivoted from selling food to selling machines. Our vision became to help entrepreneurs scale fast & profitably using Automation. And after having a lot of interactions with industry experts and chefs, we understood that most of the time, their challenges are cuisine-specific. For example, tossing Chinese food might not sound like a tedious job, but it requires skilled labor. The attrition rate is too high in the F&B services business, so we started working on a solution for that; Wokie is a solution to these challenges, and it can cook any toss-based recipes as per the standard Sops. Similarly, Eco-Fryers solves the problem of under and over-frying fried items.
When you founded a kitchen robotics company, what roadblocks did you face, how did you tackle it, and what key takeaways have taught you a lot about surviving and sustaining a business like this?
Building any product from scratch, especially if it’s something unique, requires not just funds but the right set of human resources and planning. Our focus was to build solutions that are not costly affairs for the clients, and we believed in building functionally efficient products; hence none of the products are/were humanoid or robots. Instead, we started working on co-bot equipment that handles repetitive tasks like tossing and stirring at the right time and proper temperature, and tThis helps us sell products at the right price point. To make this happen, we needed people who understood the business and technologies well, and being a start-up, we had our limitations. So, we went ahead and onboarded great minds from R&D-focused organizations like Mahindra, Volvo, Toyota, GE, Bosch, HAL, and the team also had young enthusiasts who shared our vision. While many companies could make a prototype, making machines at scale & bringing in the reliability of the products required a lot of iteration & hard work. As the restaurant depends on our machines for their survival, we had to be doubly sure to make machines that work like a workhorse. We built testing jigs to run lacs of cycles, brought in supply chain experts & did a global hunt for the rite food-friendly components, so there is no contamination.
Tell us more about your products – who is it for, how do you plan to scale it up, especially as you started R&D units from scratch?
We were blessed to have some partners who understand the potential of Automation at commercial kitchens. They would help us with the real problems they face, and together we would end up spending hours and days to understand the root cause and implications. Then, our R&B team starts developing a solution for it. Since these are everyday problems faced by the F&B businesses, we can serve many clients, helping us scale.
What kind of support have you received or expect from the Govt and the Hospitality Industry?
We have received support from TIFAC (part of DST) for commercializing the innovations. It’s a soft loan.
The industry and various organizations like NRAI and culinary organizations have always been supportive of us. They regularly organize events to educate their members about our innovations.
What is your plan to become a torchbearer in kitchen robotics, and what ambitious plans and innovations are you gearing up for?
We are looking at expanding product portfolio expansion but also geographical expansion.
On the product front, With F&B businesses back-ending their flatbreads, Patties, and Parathas into frozen food, there is a dire need for a solution that can regenerate or reheat these food items into their original taste. So, our next innovation, E-pan, is to address these requirements, and we plan to bring it to market by the end of this quarter. We are also aggressively penetrating international markets in Australia, Canada, United States, and the UK since they have decent demand for operationally efficient solutions for Asian Foods. In addition to this, Mukunda Foods recently ventured into KAAS (Kitchen As A Service). With KAAS, we enable brands to expand their cloud kitchens to a new location with a full operation kitchen equipped with automated equipment at zero CAPEX and zero manpower. Our first kitchen just got live, and is planning to have around 50 kitchens by the end of this year.
Source – financialexpress