Creating An Indian “Apron”

Taking on meal-kit leader Blue Apron, Akhil Shah’s Chutney Chefs sells easily made Indian dishes with a personal thank you note from the 25-year-old CEO.

At his parents' home in Edison, 25-year-old entreprenur Akhil Shah demonstrates how easy it is to prepare one of his Chutney Chefs authentic Indian meal kits.
At his parents' home in Edison, 25-year-old entreprenur Akhil Shah demonstrates how easy it is to prepare one of his Chutney Chefs authentic Indian meal kits.
Photo by James Worrell

Sitting in his office, which today is a table at a Panera Bread near his parents’ home in Edison, Akhil Shah is busy on his cell and laptop. “You know,” he says, “people haven’t really caught on about how different we are.”

That isn’t surprising. Armed with a 2012 bachelor’s in business administration from Rutgers, Shah in 2015 launched Chutney Chefs, a meal-kit delivery service modeled on trendy Blue Apron, but offering authentic Indian food. With little budget, Shah relied on Twitter, Instagram, Google Plus and Facebook ads.

“We had a lot of luck with local newspapers featuring us in 11 different states across the Northeast, because they loved the product,” he says. Today, customers are spread across 10 East Coast states. Only 30 percent are Indian; few are in Central Jersey, where authentic Indian restaurants abound. Shah, who lives with his parents, is both Chutney Chefs’ 25-year-old CEO and its sole full-time employee.

Shah figured his core customer would be like him: a young, single professional. He designed the kits to require less prep than Blue Apron. But instead of emphasizing that, he initially adapted Blue Apron’s appeal: a wholesome meal and a cooking lesson.

Then came the epiphany.

“My generation? We’re busting our butts working,” he says. “We don’t know how to cook, and we don’t have time to learn.”

Moreover,  Indian food is complex. “It’s ludicrous,” he says, “how many spices you have to have to make Indian food.” Shah’s parents emigrated from Mumbai in the 1980s. His father, Mansukh, is a wholesaler for 300 “dollar” stores in the tri-state area; his mother, Neelam, is a part-time travel agent and an avid home cook; and his younger brother, Nikhil, is an Air Force airman first class studying mechanical engineering at New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark.

“I knew there was a market for exotic cuisine,” Shah says. So he retooled his pitch to emphasize ease of use. “Three things separate us from Blue Apron,” he says. “One, we don’t require you to subscribe. Two, our menu items are always available.” [Blue Apron’s website boasts, “Recipes never repeated in the same year.”] “And three, I don’t make you work as much as Blue Apron. With me, you don’t even have to own a cutting board.” As with Blue Apron, shipping is free.

There is a fourth difference. “About a week after they receive their order,” Shah says, “I reach out to my customers with a hand-written thank you card [with phone number]. Most of the time, I don’t hear back. But when I do, I have great conversations and ask a lot of questions about their lifestyle and what I can do to improve their experience. They are usually really impressed that the founder reached out to them directly.”

Shah freely admits he isn’t a cook, but says, “You just have to have expert cooks making the food for you.” He does. In college, he worked as a waiter and party expediter for 5ive Chefs, a large Indian-food catering company based in Plainfield that also runs two Edison restaurants, Spice Zone and Chef’s Table. Now 5ive Chefs creates Shah’s meal kits.

The Indian food Americans know best (which, for now, forms the bulk of Chutney Chefs’ menu) comes from the far North, the Punjab, as opposed to Shah’s ancestral home of coastal Mumbai, in Central India. One of the simplest Punjab dishes the company offers is chicken makhani ($13.97 for a kit that produces a 13-ounce portion). It basically involves cutting open a vacuum-sealed pouch of raw, marinated chicken, baking the pieces on a sheet, and stirring them into a pan of gravy (just add water) you heat on the stove. Dishes with vegetables come pre-cut.

“I’m itching to add new stuff,” Shah says. “But we have to grow before we can expand too much.”

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