It all started with a (friendly) debate over onions.
Manav Thaker and Sajal Rohatgi, both Atlanta transplants, connected through the city’s business ecosystem. What started as a conversation over the best type of onions (Thaker is team yellow and Rohatgi is team red, for the record), developed into a longer chat about recipes from across India and the experience of shopping at Indian grocery stores in the US.
The consensus from the debate: Ingredients matter.
When the two launched the Indian grocery delivery app Subziwalla three years ago, pandemic-related shopping was certainly not on their minds. But the team knew access to quality ingredients from specialized grocers was important to the Indian community in Georgia and across the United States.
“Groceries are very personal,” Rohatgi told Hypepotamus. “There is a trust you have to build. A lot of people don’t understand that in the industry itself. They think if everything is going online, groceries should as well. Obviously, the pandemic helped with that, but it is such a personal event. You want to see how your tomato or banana looks.”
While many younger consumers might feel comfortable with services like Instacart or shopping at larger chains, Subziwalla curates specialty items from brands, wholesalers, and distributors nationally. These items are ultimately packaged and shipped from their Atlanta warehouse.
The platform delivers key ingredients, spices, and snacks that are standard in traditional meals, staple grocery items, and even a few Atlanta-based brands Icecream Walla and The Chai Box.
In November, the team rolled out Subziwalla Kitchen, which offers next-day delivery of homemade dishes like mattar paneer and khichdi. The team has brought on local chef Rajan Mistry for all the current recipes.
The team also worked with Decatur’s Chai Pani restaurant to launch their take-home brand “Chai Pani Take Home.”
DELIVERING THE TASTE OF HOME
Meaning “vegetable seller” in Hindi, Subziwalla is designed to remind its core customers of the food delivery options they might be accustomed to in India.
During its first three years in operation, multigenerational households in the suburbs made up a large portion of their customer base. The team reported about a 40% customer retention rate as they gained new users mostly through word of mouth.
The pandemic helped that number skyrocket to over 60%.
Seemingly overnight, the team expanded its warehouse crew from just a few people to 25 in order to keep up with demand. The team has started to ship across the country as families looked for ways to safely streamline the shopping process without sacrificing quality.
Founders Thaker and Rohatgi say that having an acute understanding of customer needs and food preparation pain points helped them gain a loyal following.
Originally from India, Rohatgi worked on Wall Street prior to moving to Atlanta for his wife’s job at Georgia State University. Thaker, who worked in the hospitality industry, brought his background in building a sustainable business with repeat customers to the grocery space.
“You don’t have a business unless you retain your customers,” said Thaker.
While they’re proud to be an Atlanta-based company, the decision was made early on to place the customer service team in India to provide language and cultural-specific help for regional items.
This focus on customer support — along with the new focus on safe food delivery options — has put the company in a unique position moving into 2021. The team told Hypepotamus they feel confident that the “COVID bump” will only propel growth in 2021 and beyond, as people experience the convenience and ease of service on the platform.
To date, most customers drawn to Subziwalla have been those familiar with the ingredients and those accustomed to cooking Indian food at home. Moving into 2021 and beyond, the team is looking to attract even more customers who may be interested in trying the cuisine but might feel overwhelmed by the thought of shopping at a specialized grocery store.