It's natural. It's yummy. Those who have tasted it, swear by it. The unique feature of the ice creams manufactured by Natural Ice Cream is that they contain no artificial flavours, no preservatives or stabilisers, only fresh fruit pulp or dry fruits.
Started as a 300-sq-ft ice cream parlour at Juhu, a northwest Mumbai suburb, in 1984, the brand is a runaway success. It now has 89 franchise outlets across West and South India: 47 in Mumbai, 29 in the neighbouring urban clusters of Navi Mumbai, Thane and Pune, and the rest scattered across select cities of Maharashtra and neighbouring states. Ten more will be opened in the current financial year. Natural's revenues have grown from Rs 14 lakh in 1986 to Rs 40 crore in 2010/11. The franchises may be many, but the manufacturing hub is just one, located in another Mumbai suburb, Kandivali. Every morning, a fleet of trucks rolls out from the factory carrying the ice cream to all the Natural outlets, thus ensuring quality is not compromised.
On a May morning, the air around the factory is thick with the aroma of Maharashtra's most prized summer fruit - the Alphonso mango. Mango pulp is being extracted in the fruit processing unit by rows of uniformed workers. All surfaces are sanitised, but there are no machines in sight. The fruit is peeled manually, de-seeded by hand, chopped and pureed. Similarly, for the dry fruit flavours, freshly bought dry fruits are peeled, crushed and pulped.
"Machine-made fruit ice cream needs additional artificial flavours and colouring in the final product," says Chairman, Managing Director and Founder of Natural, R.S. Kamath, 56. "That is something that I fundamentally disagree with."
The store at Juhu has been renovated and expanded repeatedly, and is now more than three times its original size. "It is a landmark in the area," says a beaming Kamath. It all began after Kamath broke away from his elder brother's ice cream business, Gokul Ice Cream, in 1983. "I took my share of the inheritance and set up Natural," says Kamath. From the start he was at enormous pains to keep to quality - a trait he maintains to this day. Seasonal fruits are bought in bulk daily from the market, with only the best quality ones being chosen. The extracted pulp is heated, to get rid of unwanted bacteria, and then stored in aluminium-sealed packages.
Kamath, who from the start involved himself in every aspect of manufacture and distribution, says he has experimented with 60 different kinds of fruit. (In case of non-seasonal fruits, however, Kamath has no choice but to buy pulp and get it machine processed.)
The atmosphere at the factory is taut and business like. "We handle eight hours of high pressure to produce 14 tonnes of ice cream daily so that others can cool off," says Girish Pai, who heads both retail and production. (The factory's capacity is 20 tonnes.)"I credit my team entirely for the brand's ever growing popularity," Pai adds.
|Mouth-watering success story|
Natural Ice Cream, which began as a small, single store in Mumbai in 1984, now has 90 franchise outlets
Natural uses only fresh fruit or dry fruit, milk and sugar - no artifi cial flavours or preservatives
All its ice cream is manufactured at a single factory in Kandivali, Mumbai
To expand further, Natural now intends to start more manufacturing hubs, the first one in Chandigarh later this fi nancial year
Natural is equally careful with the quality of the milk it uses. Buffalo milk brought daily to the factory in tankers undergoes elaborate treatment to maintain the prescribed bacteria count, and is then thickened by reducing the water content. The process, called Falling Film Evaporation, uses a triple cylinder machine to bring the milk's temperature to 30 degree C, before cooling it down to four degrees and then heating it to 90 degree C in four minutes. Cooled again to 4 degree C, it turns into condensed milk - the way it is needed for ice cream production.
Condensed milk, fruit puree and ice churn together in a machine freezes the ice cream to minus 4 degree C within six minutes. The temperature is then lowered to minus 18 degree C using a spiral freezer. Finally the ice cream is packed in boxes and loaded into crates along with plenty of dry ice to keep it from melting, before being carried away in temperature-controlled trucks for the day's consumption.
The means Natural uses to enforce quality control, however, impose their own limits on the brand's expansion. All the temperature control in the world cannot preserve the taste - and more importantly the freshness - of ice cream beyond a specified number of hours, during which Natural's trucks can cover only a finite distance. This explains why Natural's outlets are largely in Western India, and it has no outlet yet in the national capital, despite the obvious business opportunity Delhi presents. "The National Capital Region has remained an elusive destination," admits Pai.
But the scenario may soon change. Though Natural officials are reluctant to share details of their financial relationship with the franchises, they do reveal that plans are afoot for a major change in operational strategy. The man responsible is Kamath's son, Srinivas, who was inducted into the business in 2009. Srinivas, 27, believes that since it is dealing in perishable products such as ice cream, Natural has to set up manufacturing units in other locations, if it wants to keep expanding.
Srinivas wants to set up 'mega shops' in faraway cities and towns, which will both manufacture Natural ice cream and sell it. "Raw material will be supplied from here, as well as trained workers who will make the ice cream at the mega shops," says Srinivas. "Frozen, non-perishable fruit pulp and processed milk can be stored for a maximum of four days without harm. That is enough time to transport them to wherever the mega shops are opened."
Machine-made fruit ice cream needs additional artificial flavours and colouring in the final product. That is something that I disagree with: R.S. Kamath, Chairman and Founder, Natural Ice Cream
Again, in a change of strategy, Natural intends to open only one shop in these faraway areas. "Instead of investing in multiple franchises, Natural will have just one mega shop per town," Srinivas adds.
Natural will also impose its conditions: the outlet must have at least 2,000 square feet floor space and must be located in a central area. The first such outlet is set to open later this year in Chandigarh; depending on its success, more such shops will follow.
Natural is in no hurry to get to Delhi, but it has big plans when it does. "Delhi is a very big market. To meet its demand, we'll have to double our existing capacity," says Pai. Natural's ambitions go even further. "Our founder wants Delhi to be the launchpad for Natural's global ventures, especially in West Asia," he adds.