8th January 2017. Tamil Nadu. Chennai. This was a historic day when around 2,00,000 young people gathered at Marina Beach for 15 days in solidarity to legalize Jallikattu, a traditional Tamil game played during the harvest festival of Pongal, that involves releasing a rogue bull while crowds of people run behind it and try to stop it. These fifteen days not only saw a surge in Tamil patriotism, but also a boycott of imported products, especially aerated drinks.
Amidst the largest youth gathering in Tamil Nadu, Kalavathy Ramesh and E. Muthukumaran had their ‘aha moment’. Both of them had been working in advertising at an MNC and were looking to become entrepreneurs in the FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) sector. The wave of ‘everything Tamil’ coincided with the trending health consciousness movement making sugar-cane juice the ideal market to break into. That marked the birth of Green Crush Sugarcane Juice.
Sugarcane juice and coconut water are the two most widely prevailing natural health drinks in the state. Of the two, the former is almost always viewed with skepticism regarding hygiene and the kind of ingredients mixed in it. “That is how we derived our mission. We wanted the preparation to be as transparent as possible,” Kalavathy explains. Today that is what makes Green Crush stand apart from other sugarcane juice brands. The cane is taken out of the fridge upon order and freshly pressed in front of the customer on request.
The founders drove around the state and walked through acres of sugarcane fields, thoroughly investigating the cultivation methods. Armed with months of research the duo scouted fields for organic produce and eventually landed at farms in Southern Tamil Nadu. “We ensure our sugarcane is chemical-free. You’ll definitely be able to taste the difference!” says Kalavathy explaining how quality of the sugarcane sourced and its health benefits have always been a priority.
The agricultural cycle of sugarcane is about 11 to 12 months. The duo invested money upfront in farms in the Erode, Thirunalvelli and Nagercoil districts to create long term ties with them. Following intensive R&D along with the farmers, they began cultivating only certain varieties of sugarcane and invested in resources required to employ organic farming techniques. They then source the produce directly from these farmers during every harvest. By doing this, both parties benefit as the farmers make more profit (because there are no third party vendors involved) and Green Crush is able to procure a consistent quality of produce for their sugarcane juice.
Green Crush is running its fifth year as a bootstrapped partnership company, with six employees taking care of administration and the rest hired based on operational requirements. They initially partnered with supermarkets, but that did not work as effectively, so the partners’ employed their background in the advertising industry to design the end user experience and create a brand identity. As the product was going to be made on demand, small green and white kiosks were set up on a rental basis near ‘crowd-pulling nodes’ in the city, like super markets and school areas. These live demonstrations of extracting sugarcane juice also functioned as real-time advertisements for the brand’s motto regarding hygiene and health consciousness.
“What we found amazing was that now 5 year old children that usually throw a tantrum for ice cream and chocolate were doing the same for sugarcane juice! I think that can be seen as an achievement,” gushes Kalavathy while talking about her customer base. “Believe it or not, there are also some people who can not even live a day without sugarcane juice! Especially right after the lockdown, we used to get calls from these customers everyday asking when we would open our kiosks again.”
Being a Chennai based company has mostly been advantageous for the brand. Kalavathy explains, “People here understand the kind of effort that goes behind making sugarcane juice, so they understand its value.” In fact the coming years saw a spike in sugarcane juice stalls around the city trying to sell similar concepts. In order to stand out, Green Crush spends a lot of time on experimenting with a combination of flavours with ingredients like ginger, lemon and spices that also have added health benefits. This summer, Green Crush has released a refreshing sugarcane sherbat to help beat the heat. “A Lot of customers are young people who not only frequent our kiosks but also give suggestions about flavours and help make our product cater to the people better,” says Kalavathy.
Kickstarting a business in the FMCG sector in chennai comes with a growth promoting customer base and great supporting infrastructure, but there have also been times where certain state policies have affected these start-ups. For instance the ban on single use plastic in January 2019 left many vendors helpless as it meant that plastic and paper cups were not allowed to be used anymore. “Though this was an environmentally conscious decision, it would have been helpful if we were given cost-effective alternative options instead of having all of our viable options banned without a solution,” says Kalavathy, “It would have been better if they had given us prior notice and held a discussion with people from the juice and tea vending businesses regarding the impact before passing the policy.”
Nevertheless, within a year of starting, the brand had 12 kiosks at Chennai’s hotspots and were in the works to expand to 50 in the span of three years. However, with the pandemic, the expansion project screeched to a halt. By the end of the year 2020, the number of kiosks had come down to 5 with the decline of crowding due to the pandemic. However, this period saw a stronger online presence for the brand. Besides their instagram page and website, they have also partnered with Zomato and Swiggy, which has increased their sales.
The brand’s online presence has attracted franchise enquiries from cities like Mumbai, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. However, the team does not wish to open franchises at the moment as they place a large importance on the quality of the product. The brand currently only vends in Chennai, within a 10km radius around the kiosks, because the product does not contain preservatives and may perish enroute.
Looking back Kalavathy wishes that they had been more aggressive about expansion while kick-starting the business. Yet, with the demand in place, the brand sees itself spreading its base to different parts of Tamil Nadu before broadening its scope as a popular sugarcane joint catering to India as a whole.