Kamaths Ourtimes Ice Creams, better known as Natural Ice Cream, has come a long way from the time I started it nearly 30 years ago. Perhaps my real journey began in school when I assisted my father in selling fruit and developed a fondness for fruit. I wasn't a bright student-I barely managed to clear the 10th standard from a Kannada-medium school in Mumbai. So when I turned 19, my family decided that I would help out my elder brother, who operated a south Indian restaurant in the city.
It was here that I first thought of serving something unique as a dessert-a blend of fruits in ice cream. Being the youngest in the family, my suggestions were often turned down, and so was this one. But I was convinced about the concept, so when I parted ways with my brother 10 years later, I decided to open my ownice cream parlour. The timing was not entirely favourable.
I had just got married and did not have the money to start a business. But my wife Annapurna supported and encouraged me, so I borrowed around Rs 4 lakh from friends and relatives. With this I bought and refurbished a 250-sq-ft outlet at Juhu, where most of the Bollywood and small-screen celebs reside. That's how the first outlet of Natural Ice Cream was launched in 1984.
There were no ice-cream outlets in those days and, unlike today, ordinary people didn't go out to have desserts; only the rich did. To form a broader customer base, I decided to serve pav bhaji and follow it up with my special ice creams. The place was very small and most of the cooking had to be done at my home. My wife managed the tedious task of grinding the masalas and making the curry. We also started blending fruits such as mangoes, custard apple, jackfruit and tender coconut. The customers lapped it up.
A year later, I stopped serving pav bhaji and dedicated all the resources to the ice cream business. Theturnover in the first year was just around Rs 1 lakh, but we did not lose hope. I employed five or six people to make ice cream in the traditional way and these staffers doubled as waiters. What worked in our favour was the word-of-mouth publicity.
In 1986, I was watching The Sunny Days, a TV programme anchored by cricketer Sunil Gavaskar. During the interview, Vivian Richards, the former West Indian cricket captain, mentioned that he had been to the Natural Ice Cream outlet and liked the Sapodilla (chikoo) and custard apple ice cream. It was such a thrill, such an unexpected back-thumping for us.
However, we have faced enough challenges too. In 1994, a key staff member decided to quit and set up an ice cream unit in the same area.
I realised that unless I expanded and made my brand's presence felt, my business would end. So I took a loan of around Rs 65 lakh from Saraswat Bank and bought a 5,000-sq-ft space at Mira road, a western suburb in Mumbai.
This acted as my factory unit. I then employed 15-20 people and started making ice cream on a bigger scale. I also decided to distribute five franchises in Mumbai. My turnover in 1994 grew from a few lakhs to around Rs 3 crore.
Today, we have 100 outlets across the country and serve around 100 varieties of ice cream. We travel frequently, constantly seeking new recipes, and many of them are developed in my kitchen. Some have even been suggested by our customers.