Using food to break social and cultural barriers

Dhiman Chattopadhyay and Tanmoy Mitra talk to a former Microsoft director who is using the jackfruit to bring India closer on the dinner plate and to Prince Thomas, Aditya Dhull, Mohit Narwal and Chandy Thomas -- four enthusiastic Mumbaiites in their 20s who are trying to make strangers social by urging them to raise the flag of friendship

James Joseph, founder of JackFruit365, freeze dries the fruit to make it available round the year

Through the stomach, to the heart
It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday and the regular crowd shuffles in to the small but popular Bandra eatery, Crepe Suzette. It’s packed, as you’d expect. But on one corner table, a young couple is huddled around their laptop munching sandwiches. Next to them on the table, a small flag catches our attention. It smiles back at us and says ‘Hi’. There are similar flags on each table, some upside down, others right side up.

Aditya Dhull, Chandy Thomas, Mohit Narwal and Prince Thomas started Making Strangers Social to Indians over a drink or a meal by making them share their table with strangers.

“The right way up means the person is happy to share his or her table with a stranger,” the waiter tells us. Intrigued, we find out more. What we discover bowls us over. There is a quiet, almost silent revolution sweeping across Mumbai. With every passing day thousands of people walking into some of the city’s leading cafes, pubs and restaurants every day, are being greeted with a jam jar and a flag that urges them to share their table (and even their meal) with perfect strangers. Mocha, Woodside Inn, Crepe Suzette, The Daily, Café Zoe, Hard Rock Café, Jam Jar and many others are already on board. Others are signing up. And fast. Making Strangers Social promises to go well beyond food. It could well make Mumbai a friendlier place to live in and visit in the days to come.

So what’s the idea? Started by four young men in their mid- 20’s, Making Strangers Social (MSS) is the biggest venture of the month-old enterprise Treetins India. It’s aim — to connect thousands if not lakhs of Indians over a drink or a meal by making them share their table with strangers. Sounds improbable? Walk into any of the cafes on board till now, to believe it. But how did these kids hit upon such a simple yet novel idea? And how does it work?

Strangers in the mirror
It was during one of their regular chilling-out sessions at the Crystal restaurant in Girgaum that former college pals Prince Jacob Thomas, Aditya Dhull, Mohit Narwal and Chandy Thomas had their eureka moment. They were enjoying their homemade kheer at the eatery when they realized there was a log queue of people waiting outside.

Yet, tables like theirs had at least two chairs free. “Why cant people just share a table and eat. Why can’t they say start a conversation with a stranger while waiting for their order? Why can’t we be more social? It struck us that we could do something to help restaurants optimize space and more importantly, make an increasingly unsocial Facebook-controlled world, more physically social,” recalls Prince, as we catch up over coffee and bruchetta at Bandra’s Mocha Mojo, another chain that now has the MSS flags blowing in the wind across its branches.

It wasn’t easy getting this far so quickly. But these guys were genuine risk takers. “We all had the entrepreneurial bug biting us for a while. This was the chance we were looking for,” admits Aditya. Within days, all of them quit their respective jobs, from a leading media house, a PR firm and from a top ad agency, and dived headfirst into giving their idea shape. And Treetins was born. Treetins? Crazy as it sounds, it’s an anagram for ‘interest’, says Chandy, arguing that it goes with the core motto of their enterprise — Let’s make strangers social.

But clearly they weren’t prepared for the overwhelming response to their idea. “Initially we thought we would just put up a few posters at one of two restaurants if they agreed to our plan and see how it goes. But the response was just amazing,” chips in Prince. On day 1, Prince and Chandy went to Ramesh Sethi, owner of Alps Restaurant in Mumbai to pitch their idea. “Not only did he love our idea, over a two-hour chat he advised us how to grow a startup like ours,” recalls Prince.

Tanushree Sharma, Rajneesh Sharma and Shivraj are happy to share their table with a stranger at Bandra’s Mocha Mojo

Around the same time Aditya and Mohit also struck gold with a café in the western suburbs. “Suddenly we were in business,” laughs Chandy.
Within days the idea had spread like wildfire and the likes of Woodside Inn, The Local and Kyani Bakery had signed on as had Mocha, Hard Rock Café and Café Zoe. “Mr. Farooq from Kyani was very open to our idea saying he usually keeps his doors closed to such marketing initiatives but the idea of Making Strangers Social was something he was really kicked about,” they say in unison.

As more cafes signed on, Prince, Aditya, Mohit and Chandy, all aged between 25 and 27, suddenly found themselves scouring Crawford market for jars, flags and play dough. “We needed a marketing tool and we decided on a small flag that would say ‘hi’ and sport a smiley. We put the flag inside a small jam jar with a bit of play dough inside, so that it would remain upright when put up.

On the glass, we pasted our message of making strangers social and highlighted the advantages of sharing a table. Suddenly people walking into eateries realized this was not just about optimization of space but also about getting to know a stranger, perhaps making a friend for life and at the very least about sharing a conversation over food. We were apprehensive at first, but both the owners as well as the diners loved the idea,” says Prince.

College friends Ankita Bhonsle and her friend Niyati put their flag up, a consent sign to share the table with a stranger

“Riyaz Amlani of Impresario, Jeremie of Cafe Zoe, Meldan D'Cunha owner of The Local at Khala Ghoda and Nicolo Morea owner of Elbo Room in Khar encouraged us and are doing as much as possible themselves to promote the idea through their Face Book pages,” Mohit chips in.

Keeping it simple
The idea actually is so simple that you wonder why no one else thought of patenting it earlier. Every participating restaurant gets to keep one of the jars with the flag on each table. Any customer occupying a table has the choice of raising the flag. Keeping it upside down tells others the table is fully occupied or that the occupier wouldn’t want to be disturbed.

A straight flag waving the ‘Hi’ on the other hand would mean the diner is happy to share the table with anyone else. “Some people would still rather wait for a complete table to be free. But many Mumbaiites go out for a drink with a friend or sit in coffee shops and even restaurants alone, working or simply relaxing. Many would not mind having someone to talk to over a meal or a drink.

After all a café or a pub is meant to be a social place. It’s just that we have forgotten to be social in an era where social interactions are almost always virtual and not real,” says Prince. And as the message on the jar says, you could well end up sharing not just a conversation or even food but a wonderful friendship!

The team is now creating a business plan, having tasted success at a pace, which has surprised them. “It’s all over Facebook and Twitter. We are getting requests from Delhi, Pune and Bangalore asking us when we will take the concept to these cities. We are now hoping to get sponsors and funding,” adds Chandy.

For most FMCG, F&B or hospitality sector firms, it’s an absolute no-brainer that a small advertising spot on those jam jars could bring huge bang for their buck, given their zooming popularity. Merchandise to promote ‘Making Strangers Social’ is also on the cards – again an advertiser’s dream. An umbrella website is also on the cards and their Facebook page (why aren’t we surprised) is already being talked about. Clearly the four young entrepreneurs are on to something good.

Jack in the pack
The humble jackfruit has slowly but surely made its way into the kitchens of five-star hotels in our country, Leading chefs are coming up with exclusive jackfruit dishes — jackfruit pies, jackfruit kebabs, jackfruit cakes, jackfruit spring rolls — to name a few. The credit for this silent food revolution goes to James Joseph, a former director at Microsoft India and currently the Founder & Brand Ambassador of JackFruit365.

Jackfruit Lasagne cooked using Jackfruit365

Joseph’s focus was to introduce a healthy, nutritious diet, which could be made available throughout the year. He began experimenting with jackfruits as a substitute for apple and potato, as the fruit is high in nutritional values and has several health benefits. He rehydrated freeze dried jackfruits, both fruit and raw bulbs, using the freeze-dried process to prepare popular breakfast, lunch, dessert and dinner dishes which currently use potato or apple.

Joseph’s big challenge was to convince the elite chefs of five-star hotels about the benefits of introducing jackfruit in fine dining recipes. Chefs were reluctant to use jackfruit in fine dinning for three reasons: Lack of availability of the fruit all through the year, the strong smell of the fruit easily spread across the kitchen affecting other flavours, and the sticky gum inside made it quite messy to handle while cleaning and cutting the fruit.

But these reasons did not dither Joseph from his quest. The health benefits associated with jackfruit were too good to be ignored and also the wisdom passed down through generations through his 80-year-old uncle, who said that a Jackfruit tree in the yard extends the human life by ten years, during the short season it works like a bottle brush for your intestinal walls.

Joseph realised that he had to find a way to make jackfruit available throughout the year, and that’s when he thought about the freeze-drying technique and the rest is history. He launched his website and named his product ‘jackfruit365’ to emphasize that the fruit is available through the year.

What is freeze drying?
Freeze drying is a process used widely to preserve fruits and vegetables during off season by removing water content by first freezing and then converting ice to vapour. Amazingly, this process reduces the weight of the fruit by almost 82 per cent. “Once you remove the water content from the jackfruit, a 1 kg fruit can be reduced to 180 gms," says Joseph.

The dehydrated fruit or the vegetable is sealed in high quality packets. The product does not require refrigeration. It can be stored at room temperature for a year. Chefs can configure-to-order any dish at the time of consumption as it takes only 20 minutes to rehydrate the frozen fruit. Chef Jaffar Ali of Taj Gateway, who made the signature dish, Varqui Jack says, “The freeze dried from is easy to handle and convenient to mould it on a variety of dishes instead of apple and potato. It's just like preparing milk from milk powder.”

Joseph’s own search for a way to make his favorite fruit, Jackfruit, available throughout the year and well liked by Chefs, started from a dinner which Chef Hemant Oberoi, corporate chef of Taj Group of Hotels, prepared for Michelle and Barack Obama, during their stay at Taj Mahal Palace Mumbai in 2010.
“I read about this dinner and reached out to Chef Oberoi to see if he could replicate the dinner for my clients and we had a fantastic dining experience at the Chef’s Studio. It was so good that I went on to replicate this dinner several times across India. Each dish served was a signature dish, but the one we couldn’t resist requesting a second round was the Varqui Crab,” says Joseph.

Joseph enquired why Chef didn’t use raw jackfruit bulb instead of mushroom, as jackfruit is always known as the ‘vegetable meat’ for centuries, to which the chefs replied that unavailability of the fruit all year round, it’s smelly nature and the sticky component were a hinderance. That’s when he realized that freeze drying jackfruit was the ideal process so that it would be easy for consumers to use, the seasonal fruit would be available throughout the year, without the smell and the mess created because of its sticky nature.

However, the idea behind freeze drying jackfruit, came from the son of a businessman he had befriended on a train journey. Selwin Koshy, the son of the late Thomas Koshy, the former president of Thai Carbon Black and a roommate of Aditya Vikram Birla at MIT, who runs a spice export business and is well-versed with the process, advised Joseph to consider freeze drying as a solution to his concern on storage.

Joseph outsourced the freeze-drying process to an experienced firm in Kerala. High quality whole jackfruits, both ripe and unripe stages were brought on highest food safety standards, bulbs removed and cut to cooking sizes for freeze drying. With the packaged product, he conducted trials with renowned chefs from several leading restaurants in India and abroad for a feedback.

His trials with the leading chefs was a smooth sail, they embraced it with open arms and surprised him with the range of dishes they prepared. Jimmy Kuruvila, Food & Beverages Manager at the Leela Palace, Bangalore, recalls, “I still remember the look of bewilderment on my chef’s face when I asked him to make a jackfruit pie with chunks of dried jackfruit. He tried reluctantly. Behold, he was pleasantly surprised with the result. Then all of a sudden he came up with many more ideas. Eventually, he made Danish pastries, muffins, tarts and much more. ”

Based on huge positive response, Joseph’s firm has processed over 4000 jackfruits this season and started marketing freeze-dried jackfruit to restaurants, corporate cafeterias and to households through online sales. Joseph is looking-forward to an upcoming Lucknowi royal wedding, where galouti kebab made from jackfruit will be introduced.

Social impact
The money coming from sale of every packet of freeze-dried jackfruit subsidizes five midday meals. for poor kids to poor kids at school through a sponsorship arrangement with Akshayapatra Foundation based in Bangalore. Thanks to Joseph's effort, jackfruit once considered a poor man's fruit has reemerged in a new avatar and made its way to dinner tables across India.

Jackfruit trivia
The green unripe flesh of jackfruit is cooked as a vegetable, when it is ripe and sweet, it is eaten as a fruit
Almost 80% of the Jackfruits in India go waste as there is no organized market for Jackfruit based products
Jackfruit is rich in energy, dietary fiber, minerals, and vitamins
The seeds from ripe fruits are edible, are said to have a milky, sweet taste, and may be boiled, baked or roasted
The wood of the tree is used for the production of musical instruments such as the veena and kanjira

10 health benefits of jackfruit
> Strengthens the immune system
> Prevents anaemia
> Reduces the risk of heart disease
> Supports treatment of blood clotting
> Always keeps the thyroid healthy
> Regulates blood sugar level
> Prevents osteoporosis
> Aids in vision
> Regulates blood pressure
> Prevents intestinal diseases 

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