Around three years ago, Ameya Deshpande and his wife Priyanka were travelling in Ladakh, along with his childhood friend Aneesh Dhairyawan. In the scenic city of Leh, traces of culture were aplenty on the streets and monasteries alike. However, the culinary experience lacked the local flavour.
“The food in the Leh markets was burgers, pizzas, pastas, and stuff,” Deshpande told Quartz. “It could’ve been the simplest of meals but interaction with local families would’ve told us so much more about culture.”
Disappointed by that rather bland culinary experience, the trio took it upon itself to ensure that other travellers and diners don’t miss out on authentic local cuisine. Deshpande quit his investment banking job and Priyanka bid goodbye to ICICI Bank; Dhairyawan, a former human resource consultant with Deloitte, too, joined them. In 2015, they founded a food startup called Authenticook.
But this isn’t a dabba (tiffin) service. It doesn’t cook and deliver like a Faasos’ or deliver restaurants’ orders like Swiggy or Scootsy. It is more like Zomato, listing restaurants and reservations—except that it’s for home-cooked meals.
Since it began in September 2015, Authenticook has sold 2,000-odd seats for over 300 meals—80% of the bookings were made in the last 12 months—and lists 96 hosts across the nation.
It may not seem like a great time to launch another food-related venture in India. Between 2015 and 2016, a number of food-tech companies have either shuttered or downsized, with food-tech investments plunging from $500 million to $80 million. In the first quarter of 2017, the segment received an unimpressive $14.06 million in investments, down significantly from $39.47 million a year prior. Adding to the pressure, international giants like Google and Uber, too, have joined the overcrowded market.
But Authenticook isn’t worried. After all, it’s not selling food, it is selling an experience.
“There’s so much more to food, especially in a country as diverse as India,” Deshpande explained. “We have cuisines based on regions and communities.” For instance, Maharashtrian food isn’t just vada pav and missal pav. From Nashik to Akola to Nagpur, the cuisine keeps changing. Some areas house prolific fish-eaters, others have strict vegetarians. “We thought why not introduce a concept whereby people can try out different cuisines without making it a consumption-based story, which is what delivery companies do,” said Deshpande.
With Authenticook, you visit a host for a meal and learn about the cuisine from whoever is preparing it. The conversation that follows over a meal can be a lesson in the specific community’s culture, too. From a Bohri feast to a Parsi spread, a variety of meal options are available on the website. Moreover, there’s also some flexibility: You can either partake of a listed meal or request a particular cuisine.
Pricing varies from meal to meal because it is the hosts who decide (Authenticook guides them). The startup earns money through commission—it takes 20% of the cost of the meal and the host keeps the rest. ”A major part of overheads for a restaurant is the rental. The benefit of doing this at homes of people is that there is the existing real estate that people have,” said Deshpande. Most hosts already have the set-up in place, so it’s just the cost of groceries that is left to be considered. Cooking at home also means the business is built around flexibility. You can host as many people as you want, as often as you want.
Moreover, the model works for diverse user profiles. In Mumbai or Delhi, the crowd comprises locals looking for unique dining experiences, Deshpande says. In touristy places like Jaipur, Udaipur, Jodhpur, Goa, and Fort Kochi, travellers show more interest.
The biggest challenge for Authenticook is visibility.
“Till the time people don’t know something like this exists, they won’t try it,” Deshpande said. However, he believes Authenticook is just an early player in an untapped market. ”Today, Big Basket is so big,” he said, giving an example of the successful homegrown on-demand grocer. ”Ten years back, if you told people to call for groceries on the net, I don’t think too many people would’ve even tried it out.” Recently, Authenticook received a €200,000 (nearly Rs1.5 crore) grant from Booking.com’s first accelerator programme. It is looking to invest most of the amount in marketing and brand building. The company will also seek Series A funding sometime next year and aims to break even by 2019.
Some of the money will also go towards expanding the team. To ensure that hosts are up to par, each on of them is vetted personally by Authenticook. If the hosts are located in Mumbai or the nearby Pune, then the three founders themselves visit them and taste their preparations. In regions like Delhi, Bangalore, and Jaipur, a handful of “community managers” help them with this. The company has already set up operations in nine cities and expects to expand beyond. So, it will need to increase the number of managers in order to keep the quality in check.
The real question, though, is whether Authenticook is a fad that people try once and then trade in for their favourite restaurants? Deshpande may have an answer already. Some 27% of its users are repeat diners and they don’t come back just once or twice but between 15 and 20 times, he says.
But with only around 300 meals sold so far, it’s still early days.