South Indians take their idlis seriously. They are used to seeing it white, disc-round, steaming hot, ideally fluffy and surrounded by chutneys, sambar and a sprinkling of spiced chilli powder soaked in gingelly oil. Until R.U. Srinivas decided to reconfigure them.
As CEO of a Chennai-based BPO with over 120 days of international travel, Srinivas (52) used to crave for hot, fresh idlis. “Even if I travelled business class I was compelled to eat what the airlines served me and at their time of choosing. During a Delhi-Chennai Air India flight I was once served lachcha paratha with navratna kuruma for breakfast. Imagine the plight of my south Indian tongue,” grumbles Srinivas.
That had him exploring if fresh food in a box was a possibility. So, Srinivas attempted a variant of what his grandmother used to do when the family travelled. Idlis by the dozens would be coated in a thick layer of paste made with that spiced chilli powder and gingelly oil and wrapped in banana leaves and newspapers. They would easily survive for a day, even two.
Working on that formula, Srinivas discovered that round idlis weren’t amenable for efficient packing. Why not change their shape? And thus was born rectangular-shaped idlis, six of which could be placed in a cardboard box almost the size of the Camlin geometry box one used to take to school. To increase the curiosity about the box’s contents, he named them ‘Madras Bars’—and launched them in 2014, first through select retail outlets, at a few canteens of IT companies and airport food counters.
When The Hindu’s Metro Plus featured his idli story, there were howls of disapproval from traditionalists about the way the venerable idli was getting disfigured. But the convenience of the product soon caught the fancy of housewives, who could just shove a box of Madras Bars into schoolbags.
Today a pack of six Madras Bars sells at Rs 90; when Srinivas discovered that railway passengers still preferred their idlis round, he packed five mini idlis at Rs 25 with the same recipe. Srinivas, though, had one thumb rule—his Madras Bars would have no preservatives. The thick paste of gingely oil and chilli powder would do the job of preserving the fermented and steamed idlis. If the idli remained fresh for a day in a non- air-conditioned atmosphere (like tea shops), that would suffice, as he would make a fresh batch every day at his ‘idli factory’ and send them out. “The retailers were simply asked to return the unsold stock, which would be dumped.”
Srinivas, an MBA from Oklahoma State University, says his goal is to make fresh South Indian food as easily available like other FMCG products. The single biggest challenge is to increase the shelf life of idlis. “I would rather invest in packaging technology rather than take the short cut of adding preservatives,” he says. He has experimented with the latest retort process for preserving food (similar to pasteurisation), but found that the texture of the idlis were affected. He has not given up experimenting.
With a funding of Rs 2.5 crore from friends and family, his idli factory operates out of a house on a quiet street in Mylapore with just 15 employees. “We churn out up to 4,000 idlis a day that get packed, other than what we supply through Swiggy orders. We are still limited to Chennai and if we need to expand geographically we need idlis that last. For that I need to go where no grandmother has been before,” quips Srinivas.