Saturday, April 26, 2014

Time for 'disruptive' eating, not technology

The last week would be remembered for the limited launch of ‘Google Glass.’  There would be huge rush for it as people are hearing about since long and few would get it. Another ‘disruptive’ technology and more in the pipeline. All these technologies have made our life better.
Can we think of ‘disruptive’ eating now? Think of the last 20 years. Is there any substantive change in the US food industry? I can single out some ethnic cuisines getting footholds in the US like Mediterranean and Chinese cuisines and/or The Whole Foods or Trader’s Joe becoming more visible. But the majority are still eating burgers, pizzas and tacos and the select few have access to various organic food items and the healthy options in all forms.
The ‘disruptive’ eating would address the 2 most glaring issues which we face today ~ the ‘social inequality’ and the ‘climate change.’
Yesterday was the Earth Day (22nd April) and we were reminded of global warming and its impact on us and the future generation in various forms, please see the UN report out on 12th April. The global meat consumption contributes towards 21% of the greenhouse gases, the main culprit behind the global warming. And the US has the highest per capita meat consumption.
The ‘social inequality’ has 3 components ~ inequality in health, income and education in the order as per my perception.
Recently French economist Thomas Piketty was making waves in the US with his illustrations on the income inequality worldwide more pronounced in the US. With only 2 facts you can get an idea of the income inequality in the US ~ only 16000 (sixteen thousand) households out of 117 million account for 44% of total US income. And the growth in income for the bottom 90% of the population in 2011 as compared to the income level of 1966 say measured as one inch. The growth for top 1% during the same period is at 5 miles as per observation of Pulitzer prize winning writer David Cay Johnston.
Education equality or inequality again came to the fore with the US Supreme Court’s decision this week to uphold the ban on the affirmative action in admission to Michigan public universities imposed by Michigan voters in 2006.
Needless to say most of the focus has remained at the income and education inequality. I believe the ‘health’ inequality holds the key. A healthy body has a healthy mind and a healthy mind drives all your effort. Say for example with the talk of recent minimum wage hike from $7.25 to $10.10, someone gets more money and comes out of the poverty. But he or she does not have enough money to buy $6 a pound organic chicken at The Whole Foods or $10 salad at a premium salad joint. As the person is still eating the more or less same food, the health profile of the person does not change and he or she may end up losing that extra income on the health care. Until and unless we find a healthy diet for low income populace, this ‘social’ inequality would persist. Let me share some facts widely known though.
The US is at the 9th rank among the fattest countries in the world with overweight prevalence of 74%. Many studies have shown that BMI (body mass index) and the wages are inversely proportional and in the US, no surprise that the majority of overweight population is from low income as well as less educated populace.
What we are doing at ‘Nirmal’, a café style Indian restaurant in Ypsilanti, MI is ‘disruptive’ eating as we want to bring ‘Indian cuisine’ to the forefront of the national debate. Nirmal’ is located between 2 great universities in Michigan namely University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti. Incidentally we are just 4 blocks from the first Domino’s Pizza store opened in 1967. We took over from ‘Temptations’, an Indian restaurant since 2009 and transformed it to ‘Nirmal’ in Dec 2013 after 4 years of trials and tribulations, a great learning experience for us. We have many firsts to our credit with respect to Indian food industry here in the US. For more information please visit our website  and see ‘Why Indian food’ appendixes under Blog corner. 

Why Indian Cuisine? First the data don’t lie.
  1. India is at 176th rank among the fattest countries with overweight prevalence of 16%.
  2. India has 500 million vegetarians, more than all vegetarians combined all over the world.
Most of the credit for these data goes to our ‘Curry’ based food. The ‘Curry’ is a kind of liquid sauce made with some base items like onion, tomato mixed with lot of spices. Off course our culture, tradition and the dominant religion in India ‘Hinduism’ do play a role in our food habits and the eating style. Spices from India have history of almost 5000 years and the benefits of various spices such as turmeric, cumin, ginger, cinnamon etc have been proved through the research done in the US and British universities.
Many analysts tend to brush aside these data points under the carpet of prevailing ‘poverty’ in India.  I would suggest you all to try our ‘Curry’ and judge yourselves. And if you know Indians as your office colleague or neighbor, your job would be much easier.
I am aware of Mediterranean cuisine getting traction in the US in 1990s after almost 50 years if we take into the account the ‘seven countries experiment’ done in 1940s. But with Greece and Egypt ~ 2 Mediterranean countries ~ figuring among top 20 fattest countries with 68-69% overweight prevalence, I do place Indian cuisine a notch higher. Specially the vegetarianism component which can play a big role in reducing the meat consumption in the US and beyond. Also the situation today is much grimmer and we can’t wait for another 50 years.
‘Disruptive’ eating at Nirmal consists of 4 stages, not just simple food and cuisine.
At the first stage, our goal is to raise awareness about BMI (Body Mass Index).
We may be the only restaurant in the US or elsewhere which has a poster ‘KNOW Your BMI’ at the very entrance as well as the back page of our menu. Then we picked up a logo with ‘KNOW-BMI’ and our toll free telephone no as 844-KNOW-BMI. Please see our logo in the menu or at the Facebook page (Nirmal Indian Cuisine). So anyone visiting us at the restaurant or visiting our website or facebook page can’t miss this BMI thing.
We believe knowing BMI is very crucial to a healthy living as being overweight is precursor to the most of the medical issues. We found that only 10% of our patrons knew or how to calculate their BMI though the majority had heard about it. And this is the situation in the university town of Ann Arbor – Ypsilanti.
Then at the second stage we have put calorie charts of the vegetarian options as well as meat options at the walls of the dining hall of our restaurant. Ditto at the back page of the menu. Please see the charts below.                                                                                                                     
Paneer (100gms)
Soya Chunks
 Protein (gms)
 Fat (gms)
Saturated Fat(gms)
Calcium (mgs)
Iron (mgs)

Energy (Cal)
100gms =3.5 Oz ~ Paneer is Indian cheese, 100% vegetarian ~ Lentils has dietary fiber of 31gms

We are trying to convey 2 messages unequivocally ~ you don’t have to eat ‘meat’ for protein as soya chunks or lentils have twice or equal protein for 5 times less fat than Chicken. Also the  goat’ meat is the healthiest meat around, better than Chicken and people are not even aware of it. We have cited an article ‘Eat Goat’ from Michigan State University, one of the top agriculture research University in the US.

Table 1. Nutrient Composition of Goat and Other Types of Meat [1], [2]
 Fat (g)
 Saturated Fat (g)
 Protein (g)
 Cholesterol (mg)
[1]Per 3 oz. of cooked meat
[2] USDA Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 14 (2001)

At the third stage, we at Nirmal are trying to make Indian food affordable by offering $5 food box for the whole day (11.30 am to 7.30am), a substitute for omnipresent ‘buffet’ priced at $8-10.  Our offerings and price line are unmatched by any Indian restaurant in the US or beyond. For example, we offer entrees in 8 oz (lentils, soya chunks or tofu) in $4 and the naan bread in $1, the cheapest price in the US. So you can get lunch or dinner in $5 as per your choice if you don’t want $5 food box with pre-determined entrees which we post daily on twitter, facebook and our web page. We may be the first Indian restaurant to offer ‘only Curry’ (8 Oz in $3) which people can use as a spread for burgers or dressings for the salad. Please compare these with offerings at other Indian restaurants.
At the final stage, we are giving a sense of gratification to our patrons. First eating at Nirmal which uses bio-degradable table wares, they are a part in this big endeavor of keeping climate clean. And if they can turn vegetarian for a day per week with so many options in Indian cuisine, they would be helping a great cause of reducing the meat consumption and hence the global warming. Think of some facts ~ average per person daily meat consumption in the US is 322 gms (1 pound = 454 gms), the highest in the world if you compare with 220 gms in Europe, 160 gms in China and mere 12 gms in India. Say 100 million people in the US out of 330 million decide to skip meat for one day every week, total annual savings in the meat production would be 0.7 pounds per day x 100 million people x 52 weeks per year ~ a whopping 3.6 billion pound only in the US.
In the nut shell we are positioning Indian cuisine as a healthy diet for low income people who still don’t have options other than the burgers, tacos or pizzas. We live in a global village and in the internet age. No one can change their eating habits overnight. But if we can find some better options for eating well within our means, we can give it a try.
Also with our presence at the campuses since 2009 at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor campus along with 3 others, we are convinced that we have to catch the kids at younger age to get them hooked to Indian cuisine. This time we are trying to target the High schools as well as the middle schools also.
So whatever we have done or trying to do is unique and revolutionary. During my research in the US or beyond, I did not find any restaurant or food chain with such clear cut agenda. Do we expect people to understand our agenda in 3 to 6 months or to change their eating habits, No? We are up against the existing Indian restaurants who have made Indian food synonymous with the dairy cream, oil and the lack of spices making our food bland and top of that with ‘Buffet.’. Also the price tag is much higher making Indian food kind of elite, it is not.
‘Buffet’ is not healthy eating though it is good for introduction to some new cuisines. In India a ‘lunch Buffet’ costs $10-12 whereas the daily (8 hrs) minimum wage is $3-4. Here in the US, a lunch buffet costs $8-9, one hour minimum wage. 2 largest Chinese food chains namely Panda Express and P F Chang do not offer any kind of buffet.  95% of Indian restaurants offer ‘buffet’ here and at such low price they won’t be able to do justice with the quality of Indian cuisine.
People go for Indian food once a month indulging in a kind of extravagance not bothering about the health effect. We want the people to eat our food once a week. 
 I believe we have already impacted the lives of one million people or more since 2009.
During our stint at the campuses and at our present location since 2009, we served Indian cuisine to almost 100K people. Most of them almost 90% become the repeat customers for Indian food. So wherever they go almost 70% University of Michigan students leave Michigan, they stick to Indian food as it is healthy and flavorful and they can afford it easily.
In this internet age, we communicate through social media and people talk about what they are eating. Assuming 10% of these 100K people are on Facebook or twitter or other social media and has a average of 100 unique Facebook friends out of 500 plus friends, we are talking about reaching more than one million people. Then in addition we have more than 500 unique visitors to our website every month or 100 page views for our blog at this point and you need to multiply these figures by 100 at the minimum to get the social media impact. The sphere of our impact is growing by the day.
In our new avatar ‘Nirmal’, we are targeting the 80% of the population, the low income and the less educated people. Till now only 10% of US population could afford the Indian food always in the price range of $8-$10 for a meal. Now we brought it down to $5, competing with burgers or tacos to wean away that segment of population to Indian food. It still surprises me in 2009 we became the first Indian food vendor at the cafeterias at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
This is not one man’s job or I am not driven by profit. I want other Indian restaurants or even other restaurants to follow us at least for BMI and Calorie education. Then only we would achieve the ‘disruptive’ character of Nirmal. When I decided to pursue MBA at Ross School of Business, University of Michigan in 2006, I was inspired by Late Prof C.K.Prahalad at Ross and his concept of the business reaching out to the ‘bottom of Pyramid’ and eradicating poverty through profitability. 

Some pending future items would have huge impact in our effort as detailed below:

a.    Cooking classes with grocery at hand ~ At ‘Nirmal’ café, we plan to offer ‘free’ cooking classes to the local populace on Sundays, our off day and then guide them to buy materials for cooking at home from our make-shift grocery store provided by the local Indian grocery stores at the reduced prices . This would serve 2 purposes ~ first to dispel the myth about Indian food being spicy, messy or oily etc and bring the cost of lunch or dinner further down  for a family of 4 from $20 (assuming 4 food boxes) to $10 if cooked at home. We want Indian cuisine to be the part of regular meal for the low income populace. Later we want to take the 'Cooking classes' to the apartment complexes and the community centers etc.

b.    Bombay dabbawala & drive-through ~ To develop own delivery network to deliver the lunch or dinner at the offices and the homes on the pattern of Bombay dabbawala which is a delivery network in Mumbai, India. Also the drive-through would bring us at par with the other fast food restaurants like Wendy, Taco Bell etc.
These 2 items would be the integral components of Nirmal going forward as we need to expand our outreach. We are aiming for Fall 2014 launch.
c. The Book and the video game on ‘disruptive eating’ ~ We are working on both with the target of launching in Summer 2015.
The book titled ‘Disruptive eating’- Empowering everyone to change the world ~  would detail our journey from ‘Temptations’, a fine-dining restaurant with Full Bar to ‘Nirmal’,  a self-service café with the mantra ‘Eat Healthy Drink Healthy.’ We would explain how ‘disruptive eating’ can make our community, country and the world a better place and how each of us has a role to play. This would also contain a section on Indian food items with easy to cook instructions. This book aims to promote cooking at the home.
  The video game titled ‘Nirmal’ - Save the world(Nirmal means Pure) would be targeted at kids (8 -13   years of age). Kids would be able to calculate their BMI and observe the changes in their BMI as they go on eating at home or outside. Also how their veggie eating or use of bio-degradable products can impact the global warming.

   The idea is to let kids become aware of the BMI, the calorie values of the food items and the global warming issues at young age through the game they would love to play. Also they earn some points at the game converting them to the food box or the gift cards at the Nirmal.
       d. Expansion ~ The present location at Ypsilanti is 4000 sq ft.  For ‘Nirmal’ café with self-service, we need at most $1000 sq ft to operate provided we get food from CPD (central production cum distribution center) at Ypsilanti location as we serve at the campuses. We plan to expand at other towns like Ann Arbor, Canton and Detroit in the first phase in Michigan. Beyond Michigan, there are 3500 Indian restaurants in 1000+ cities in the US and it would be easier to convert at least one restaurant per city to Nirmal if we succeed in Michigan. Our aim is to become the first Indian food chain in the world.
This is the best time to bring Indian cuisine at the center stage given the fact that now we  have the first White House occupant who have had the college room-mates from the Indian sub-continent and who gets a birth-day treat (2013) at an Indian restaurant in Washington D.C. And needless to emphasize that President Obama has unflinching commitment to tackle the both issues which we are targeting with ‘disruptive’ eating.
Let us join hands together to make the world a better place to live and let live.
(The author of this article is an MBA from Ross School of Business, University of Michigan and a Co-Founder of ‘Nirmal’ )