Leading the nation away from guzzling all things fizzy, Paper Boat is bent on reviving traditional thirst-quenchers.
The immense success of Paper Boat’s authentic Indian beverages can be attributed to the fact that taste and memory are inextricably bound. The startup—which boasts old-school drinks including kokum, aam panna, jaljeera, neer more and panakam—is banking on memories and achieving positive results. In fact, on a recent visit to its factory in Mysuru, I discover that the venture went from producing one million packs a month (circa 2013) to churning out almost eight million per month this year. “Taste summons memory, but context imbues it. We’re not competing with yesteryear’s aam panna. We’re competing with our customer’s memory of aam panna. It’s a much higher benchmark,” explains Neeraj Kakkar, co-founder and CEO of Hector Beverages, the makers of Paper Boat drinks.
At the heart
To live up to their promise of authenticity, the three-year-old beverage marque goes to great lengths to procure its regional recipes that still appeal to the modern palate. For example, their kala ghatta was perfected after thousands of taste trials with an outlet (near Mumbai’s VK Station) that’s been making it for over 100 years, the aam panna recipe was sourced from co-founder Suhas Misra’s family (in Lucknow), the kokum from a lady who’s been running a juice shop (in North Goa) for decades and so on. Until the 90s, these drinks were everywhere. But in a post globalisation era, with an onslaught of western beverages and concerns over hygiene (directed at street vendors), such refreshments have almost disappeared. “We consider ourselves to be a protector of recipes that may vanish in a few decades,” claims Kakkar, elaborating, “By introducing a South Indian drink (like panakam) to someone in North India and vice versa, we are also bridging the cultural gap among people. And, as our airport sales reflect, our drinks are a great identity connect for NRIs living in Europe, the UK and the US.”
The H factor
Paper Boat works closely with almost 20,000 farmers from around India—who send their produce to factories in Delhi and Mysuru—to adhere to their all-natural policy. They’ve also tied up with an NGO in Madhya Pradesh who source their wild jamuns from tribal regions. But due to high demand, some products like anar (pomegranate) are largely sourced from California-based POM Wonderful, the world’s largest pomegranate farmers. “I’d say that our drinks are healthy due to our no colours/preservatives policy, but taste is our primary concern. Some thirst quenchers like neer more have no sugar while our aam ras—made with naturally-ripened mangoes—is sweet,” shares the 40-year-old, continuing, “But what sets us apart from our competitors (think Real and Tropicana) is the fruit content in our products. For instance, our anar drink contains 60 per cent fruit product and five per cent sugar, while theirs comes close to 25 per cent fruit and 10 per cent sugar.”
Cutting through the clutter
Kakkar claims Paper Boat is currently driving the growth of the single-serve premium beverage category in India, as they’ve doubled their sales in less than three years. They’ve done so by effectively communicating ‘authenticity through memories’ instead of opting to go the ‘food porn strewn with buzzwords’ ads route. From uploading short films, centered around the innocence of childhood—like Rizwan on YouTube (which crossed 2 million views in a few days)—to sharing hand-drawn images and paper-cut art on Facebook (where almost every post amasses over 2,500 likes), which appeal to young millennials. “We don’t have the marketing budget to outshout large beverage corporations on TV. So, we make sure our sleek packaging (each with a snippet-sized story at the back) and jute bags filled with single-serve packs stand out on the shelf,” explains the Wharton Business School graduate, who worked at Coca-Cola for over half a decade until he was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug and roped in co-founders Neeraj Kakkar, James Nutall, Suhas Misra and Neeraj Biyani, to start Hector Beverages in 2009.
In the next six to nine months, an all-new range of Paper Boat drinks will hit the shelves. “We try to launch one or two drinks to commemorate most major Indian festivals. There’s phalsa (from the Himalayan region), bhel (from Orrisa), solkhadi (from West Bengal) and kanji (from Northern India). Those that gain high customer approval ratings will not get phased out (unlike their rasam and golgappe ka pani flavours),” shares Kakkar, adding that the parent company will soon launch Top Secret, a non-aerated kids beverage, that is currently sold alongside McDonald’s Happy Meals at select outlets.
Despite the fact that almost 80 per cent of their sales is limited to India’s top tier cities (due to distribution limitations) they’ve carved a niche in the single-serve premium beverage market. “We’re making strides to reach every corner of India. Since Paper Boat is already at almost every major airport/airline in the nation, next we’ve set our eyes on reaching every railway station/train. Though our eyes are clearly set on India, it is my personal dream to expand and make traditional African and Japanese beverages as well,” claims Kakkar.
The writer was invited by Paper Boat