Gluten-free, paleo-friendly or ketogenic, whatever one’s dietary requirements these days, there is plenty available to satiate health-conscious appetites in the UAE today. This abundance was not the norm eight years ago, when Rashi Chowdhary, a nutritionist and diabetes educator, founded the Protein Bakeshop.
While trying to heal a hormonal condition she was diagnosed with in 2011, Ms Chowdhary came up with a range of recipes that were easy on the gut and also took care of sugar cravings without stretching the waistline. She turned her concepts into a bakery in 2013, selling directly to 20 grocery stores and convenience stores. Today, the Protein Bakeshop is stocked in 500 stores. At high-end to budget supermarkets as well as Starbucks, the colour-blocked boxes of the Protein Bakeshop can be seen on shelves nearly everywhere in the country.
The products are bite-sized snacks made of only four to six ingredients per flavour. Keeping with the company motto to help live a fitter life, PBS uses natural sugar such as honey or dates. The six flavours available are: Coconut Truffles; Nut Bites; Dark Chocolate Truffles; Chocolate Bites; Almond Truffles; and Peanut Butter. Protein, fat and carbs contained in the snacks are specified on each box, while calorie content ranges between 65 and 78 per snack, depending on flavour.
“It was the first ever grain-free bakery in the UAE. When I went to register the product at the DHA [Dubai Health Authority], they did not agree for a while because they did not have all the ingredients on their list. Coconut flour, almond flour, whey protein, arrowroot flour were not even listed in their system,” says Ms Chowdhary, 34.
Saad Umerani, 31, founder of venture capital company Enable Future, pestered his nutritionist and friend to transform her baked nibbles into a consumer goods product. “I was fed up of seeing Rashi do nothing about her great products,” says Mr Umerani, who eventually coaxed her into a collaboration through a verbal agreement that he would take care of business while she baked.
Both share a vision of turning people’s relationship with food into a happier one by creating healthy food that is both tasty and convenient. “The traditional food pyramid is really the culprit behind making us living substandard lives. Childhood obesity, kids with autoimmune conditions … If we change the way we eat, we can truly change the way we live our lives.
“I discovered a whole new way of eating. In order to make sure I don’t have a relapse, I followed a very different set of nutrition principles like eating more good quality fat, going grain-free, focusing more on gut health rather than the calories in my meal,” says Ms Chowdhary.
She then prescribed these guidelines to her clients in her nutritionist practice who were struggling with diabetes, stubborn weight or other concerns such as polycystic ovary syndrome.
“Everyone seemed to be doing drastically better than they ever did with my old principles,” she says.
Annoyingly, snacks in stores were not conducive to this modified style of eating. Mr Umerani believes healthy eating fails to become a habit because many products do not taste good, but “Rashi’s creations were special'.
The venture capitalist in him saw the potential. “I knew if she could get it out to the people, they will love it. That’s exactly what happened,” he says.
The co-founders had no experience in consumer foods or retail. “We really had to work hard and hustle”, Mr Umerani says. It took a year to formulate a business model that would interest investors, “who are family, friends and fools”, he says, sharing a joke about the way start-ups are typically funded. He also became the chief executive of PBS.
Ms Chowdhary enjoyed a first mover’s advantage in the UAE and had two production units - one in Dubai and one in her home city of Mumbai, India. “But juggling between two cities was really not easy,” she says. Mr Umerani says the product taste also differed due to the quality of ingredients in the two countries, so to keep brand credibility intact, PBS shut down its Mumbai facility and now ships from its single manufacturing unit in Dubai.
The nutritionist has marketed the product by educating her clients and through social media channels, but the venture capitalist has applied another strategy to scale. “Being seen was our biggest marketing. Think about it, you see my product everyday physically and can actually buy, as opposed to seeing me on a poster somewhere ... our strategy was visibility in our customers’ daily lives,” says Mr Umerani.
PBS mapped customers’ shopping behaviour and placed themselves in the line of sight. “We wanted to be accessible and visible and that was our simple marketing,” he says. Being stocked by Starbucks from May won PBS a larger market presence. “We have 15 times in revenue since we did our first round of funding in January 2018,” he says, without specifying a figure.
The products are available in the UAE, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Pakistan and Singapore. The chief executive plans to expand PBS further in the Middle East, enter North America and revive sales in India soon.
Ms Chowdhary is testing new products, details of which the duo are not ready to unwrap yet.
Q&A: Rashi Chowdhary, co-founder, Protein Bakeshop
What successful stat-up you wish you were part of?
I would have loved to be part of Bulletproof. I get a lot of my inspiration from its founder Dave Asprey.
What skills have you learnt in the process of starting your own company?
The biggest lesson was accepting that you need people to help you reach your vision. I used to micromanage everything and thought I could do it all by myself. If I didn’t know something, I thought I could learn and do it better. I had to let go of that. I’m glad I did. Realising I can’t be good at everything has been my biggest learning.
What is the next big dream you want to achieve?
It is a personal goal rather than a professional one. My next big dream is to live consciously so I don’t miss the little things in life that give me joy. With the team Saad has built, I know our foundation is solid, so fulfilling professional goals is more a matter of time than a wish or a dream.
What is your view on healthy living?
Healthy is a state of mind. You will not find it in the next diet you take up, the next bestseller you read, nor it is what your favourite Instagrammer is telling you. Also, healthy is certainly not what you see on the weighing scale. Evaluating your relationship with food will tell you how healthy you are. Being aware of how you feel about yourself, having energy and enthusiasm to do things you absolutely love will tell you how healthy you really are.