PUSHING THE ENVELOPE
Adit Agrawal, President & CEO- Alco Foods, Alco Eats, Natty Hatty and Lahari Laminates, knows exactly what he wants. As a teenager, when he came to Michigan’s Kettering University in 2013 to pursue a bachelor’s degree in computer science and Industrial Engineering and minors in Business, Entrepreneurship and Statistics, he was well over 100kgs. Shy and underconfident, he decided to overcome his self-consciousness by working out and eating right.
Except that he could not find healthy snacking options or easy-to-cook Indian food options in stores, something he could whip up at his apartment with minimal ingredients. That set Adit thinking about the vast potential in this segment, especially since the US sees a massive footfall of Indian students every year.
As per data from the Bureau of Immigration, the number of Indian students who departed India for higher education in 2020 stood at 2,59,655. This rose to 4,44,553 students in 2021. It does not take into account the growing number of Indian expatriates and professionals in the US who would like to prepare home-cooked Indian food quickly and fuss-free.
Back To Base
In 2018, Adit returned to his hometown, Raipur in Chhattisgarh, and discussed his plans to start a food business, Alco Foods, with his father, Pradeep Agrawal and mother, Nutan. His father, who has over three decades of experience in manufacturing with expertise in diverse sectors, including power, steel and decorative laminates, gave him the go-ahead and even helped chart the manufacturing setup for Alco Foods.
“Involving the entire family was necessary because I needed to set up the entire distribution channel in the US,” Adit recalled. “I was unable to spend adequate time in R&D. Fortunately, my mother is an expert and knew the taste profiles we needed for our target customers based on my rigorous interviews with potential customers. I ensured they tasted our products multiple times until we figured out the flavour that most of our buyers would like.”
Adit started Alco Foods on 16th Jan 2019, smack during COVID, and it was tough going. One of his challenges was his inability to meet customers from the HoReCa sector in person. Fortunately, considering the prevailing situation back then, his clients were also open to discussing business over phone and Zoom calls.
“As a new company, it is tough to crack a deal with B2B customers over the phone because they did not know who they are doing business with or how our processes worked,” Adit reminisced. “Also, since we were new and they had not interacted with us before, there was a huge trust factor in understanding the business.”
Rather than get demotivated, Adit and his team decided to take the challenge head-on. They worked the phones diligently, making calls and speaking to potential buyers over virtual platforms daily. This diligence assured their clientele that Alco Foods was in for the long haul and the company’s team was willing to help them in any way possible.
Customer-Centricity At The Core
Keeping customers at the centre of all decision-making paid off for Alco Foods. “We did not focus on what our competitors were doing. Rather we trained our sights on our customers, finding out their pain points and how we can overcome this with our products and processes,” Adit elaborated.
That is how he struck on the idea of convincing customers to pick up products from Alco Foods’ warehouses for a marginal discount on their orders. This move saved the company’s delivery costs, which are highly prohibitive in the US.
“After speaking to HoReCa customers, we realized they have delivery vans and were fine with picking up products from our warehouse in lieu of a discount. It worked as a win-win for everyone, since we got advance payments for our goods, saved on delivery costs and ensured customer stickiness,” Adit noted.
In The Big League
A breakthrough for Alco Foods came when it signed up with Sprouts Farmers Market. This Phoenix-headquartered supermarket chain headquartered offers a wide selection of natural and organic foods across over 370 outlets in the US.
Adit revealed that this opportunity came through after a discussion with American grocery company Albertsons did not materialise due to internal management changes. “Albertsons and Sprouts are competitors. When the deal could not close on time, the latter swooped in because we were more of a catch for them than the over way around,” he said, adding that the handshake between Alco Foods and Sprouts felt just right since both focused on healthy eating practices.
Over the past couple of years, 25-year-old Adit has scaled Alco Foods into a large organization with a varied product portfolio. Starting with ready-to-cook Indian gravies, he diversified into masalas and healthy snacking options.
Today, the young entrepreneur is leveraging this industrial engineering and technology expertise to develop solutions that improve processes at the company’s manufacturing facility and distribution network. He would like to believe that he is just getting started in the business world and that bigger things are yet to come. The shy teenager has surely blossomed into a confident entrepreneur over the past decade.
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