On the Food trail with Sanjeev Kapoor

20 Aug,2013

 

 

The Sanjeev Kapoor is now more than that of a chef. He’s a one-person industry. Unarguably the biggest name in Indian food today, he started out rather humbly like any smart chef with a good hotel. A cookery show called ‘Khana Khazana’ on Zee TV changed all that, and Mr Kapoor became a household name in the country. The rise and rise of the Zee network also made the chef attain dizzying heights on the popularity graph. But what really cemented his status in the business of cooking was his attention to grow allied businesses.

 

From cookery books (over 150 of them!) to restaurants (Khazana, The Yellow Chilli, Signature and Sura Vie), kitchen implements and gadgets (Wonderchef), blended spices, ready-to-cook mixes, pickles, chutneys, food impresario, guest/judge at various events and shows (including the popular MasterChef on Star Plus) and his very own food channel, Food Food. The list of his achievements, could go on, and we suggest a visit to his website at http://www.sanjeevkapoor.com/Chef-Sanjeev-Kapoor.aspx for a detailed account.

 

As he embarks on a few brand new shows on the Food Food channel including the ‘Out of the World’ series which goes to Africa in Season 1, he takes time to speak with MxMIndia on how the channel is doing, his recipe for its success and plans for the future. Excerpts from the interview:

 

It’s been a little over two years since FoodFood started its operations in India. How has been the journey so far?

Very good, in fact we’ve done better than what most people expected out of us. I remember no one gave us a chance when I first talked about it. “Are you mad, no one will watch. It’s an afternoon half-hour kind of a concept and you are taking this to 24-hours? No way!” they said.

 

There are times when I tell people that I have started a new food channel and they will say, oh, which channel is it on? I just tell them that it’s a new channel. So much so that initially when we started the tagline was ‘FoodFood – Khushi ki Recipe’ which was changed six months later to ‘India ka favourite TV channel’. That was done to send a strong message to people that we were a TV channel. But yet there were some who didn’t know that and we didn’t have so much money to burn and tell them in a big way. So from there to now, the journey has been fantastic; today people cannot ignore us.

 

One is sure you have now started reaping the benefits from the digitization exercise but in hindsight, do you think you could have started earlier or later or for that matter even more recently as the economics would’ve worked out better?

See, economics is always a call and having a partner like Astro, it becomes a joint call. In fact from the start they wanted this to be much bigger and there were many shows that we did and I said that I don’t want to do it and they said how can you come to know if people have not experienced something till you give that experience? Whether it will work or not, how can you say that? I said it’s a very expensive way of doing things where you first put up a show and if it does not work, then you replace it. So because we launched in an analogue regime we had to broadbase and so we took the mass route and spent a lot of money on that. Currently, we are clearly the number one lifestyle channel across channels today in terms of numbers.

 

But TLC is bigger …

We do about four times their viewership.

 

And in revenues?

A ten-year-old story is different from that of a two-year-old. Where competition is concerned, we know how they look at us. Also with NDTV Goodtimes, despite having such a lineage and good investor backing how come they can’t get viewership numbers as us? Though I can tell whether this show will work or not and whether you can get viewer response or not. So because we did it, we could counter the situation and now it is a big entry level barrier for everyone. everyone was thinking of getting into food after digitization But with the position of strength that we have and the loyalty that we have, it’s very difficult for anyone to replace or displace us. If we started with this, we may have saved some money but to get this kind of stickiness what we have today is just something else.

 

The position of strength that you are referring to is obviously yourself because you have been the key driver of the channel. Btw, did the fact that you were also involved with Khana Khazana on Zee in any way take the thunder away?

Never, we were monitoring the numbers from Day 1. We all know how discerning viewers are and the one thing that worked for us is that we always went with original programming. While people may think that the shelf-life of programming is very long but the relevance changes very quickly and viewers can feel that what is taaza and what is baasi in an instant. For instance, the butter chicken I made 10 years ago may have been very different from the way I do it today…. So words spread fast and it’s a no-brainer. Let’s say Food Food was not there, would they have benefited? Yes, they would have. But in a scenario when there is a better option and you don’t have to do much more to get that better option, then you go for that better option.

 

You’ve had a mixed journey at FoodFood where you tasted success with a few big programmes that did very well while others may not have worked as well. What has been the key learning in all of this?

When we first started I was very clear as to what would work but at the same time if we have to grow the category – and that’s a perspective which Astro brought in – we had to make it big. So we tested with big shows like the one with Madhuri Dixit and all of that. Though the idea was not to do a show it was the endorsement that it’s not just food it is lifestyle. So we tested everything. So right now we can predict this will work or this will not work but at that time also I knew what would be the outcome…

 

To use food lingo, what according to you has been the recipe for success for Food Food?

There are many aspects like figuring out what is the TG that you are going to target. One way is to target everyone or you can do it in a focused way. So currently the set which has affinity to a certain kind of content is a fixed set, can you change them easily? No it’s like changing a daily newspaper; it’s like changing the way they have their tea… some would change very slowly rest may or may not change ever or either you get a new set or you go as per what they want. Also, digital is completely different from the medium of television. The way TV viewing in India is that you know why it is being watched how it is being watched or consumed; it’s predictable. It’s not tough at all so if you focus and understand who it is for it all fits in well. When I was doing a show for Zee TV and I can tell you that this comes naturally to me. Likewise, if I am doing an article for Bombay Times I know what and who is it for and similarly for Dainik Bhaskar or for a New York daily. The same is the case for a radio show.

 

With television, most Hindi-speaking markets are similar and are not very different from each other. It’s primarily a medium of entertainment that’s why we get the biggest numbers in GEC. If a channel like Food Food thinks that we can replace entertainment, it is not that easy. We can break the clutter at best which we are doing. We will do that job till it matures properly. So currently our focus is more learning, more input and information with part entertainment. The entertainment quotient will increase and that’s why you are seeing a Master Chef kind of thing but the basic platform is entertainment and that’s why entertainment to them is more important. As for us, we are more information-led not entertainment-led because the entertainment dynamics are very different for them.

 

Have you been able to monetize Food Food well enough?

Well, in reality, we have just about started real selling of the channel. In any new category, people take time before they can start giving you any premium. Our thing was very clear – we didn’t want to be sold as an aloo-pyaaz kind of thing. The last month was our highest in terms of sales.

 

Is this advertiser-funded programming the future for a channel like yours or is it also more spot sales?

Currently we do more maximum spot sales, but I think that integration and customization of needs of advertisers works well in our kind of category and even globally. So we will follow the global trend here.

 

What about onground activations?

 That is something in which we are probably the best in the country. This is something I started with as a mandate almost 15 months ago. About 2.5 years back, we did an event in three months. So one day I said let’s do 20 events a month over the next six month. Last year, for one or two months, we did some 89 events in Delhi.

 

And are these events for advertisers?

At times it is advertiser-driven and at times we say that even though there is no advertiser but to constantly do things for the channel offline because that’s the connect we want to build with our audiences. We are not a Star Plus that we can spend so much money on mass advertising; you have to play it slowly. Let’s reach out to smaller number of people but they will be loyal and today we get invitations from where they do everything. We did some 40 events all over India for Tata dal, which no other TV channel can even think of.

 

In terms of the way you are progressing, what are some of the new shows that one will see on your channel? Also, what about shows for other international markets? How does that work out with FoodFood?

Essentially, what we have realized in the programming mix is that one of the things that clearly seems to work is straight learning – that works the best. Even Star India knows this. At MasterChef they would do a recipe section on weekends and till last year that got higher ratings than the main show on which they would have spent 40 times. That’s India for us, but you have to balance it out.

 

So you do things which are large, expensive but for brands they are important. It’s like in a restaurant I will serve prawns and crabs and things like that and talk about that. Marginally, the sale is less but yet you do that because in your mix you need that and it gives a message to users that this is premium product. It’s like all these GECs burning their money in reality shows leading to huge losses. So we said that we don’t have money for losses and realized that at the same time perception is also important.

 

I think from the advertiser’s point of view everyone wants people who could afford more. So we also decided this is where we want to go and move up and so this show can beam out of Africa. It’s like that when people are used to seeing Sanjeev Kapoor in the studio, so if I go out, would that work? That is a common reaction that we get from viewers. They want to see something like that but it’s too expensive because my time is expensive and the productivity is also much lower so our channel also can’t really afford that. So we have to do this for the channel but since learning works we have integrated learning in that. So there is on-location cooking that happens which also creates largeness around a product.

 

Like?

For instance in Chai time with Chef Ajay Chopra, we’ve spent a lot of money in the packaging. There are 20-30 models shot in a five-star. So people get that upmarket, upscale feeling.

 

Are you looking at doing more international-based content or Indian-based?

Currently, we are only looking at content which is only relevant to us – in India. International content unfortunately has not relevant; there is nothing that is available globally which would cut ice in a real sense with Indians. In food, the way we eat food is very different. We are a largely vegetarian country and there is no content of good quality that is available where there is no beef, no pork and is largely vegetarian. Would our viewers watch it? They would but they would not have the respect for it. So the easiest way is to produce content yourself.

 

But some of the content on TLC etc gets a lot of advertising…

They do get lot of advertising because it’s ten years old. In fact one problem that I have with that kind of programming is that it’s old in concept.

 

So you are looking at Africa to start with and then move on to other countries…

That’s correct. We are looking at other places too.

 

How long is the series?

It’s a 15-part weekly series to begin with. We will do about 13-15 parts every series.

 

And are we going to see more new shows along with this?

We are bringing in a couple of new shows. The good thing or the bad thing is that whether our shows work or not we have to bring in new series all the time. So for example, we have my show Sanjeev Kapoor’s Kitchen, Turban Tadka, Mummy ka Magic, Health Maange More etc.. but we are also launching High Tea with Ajay Chopra. The initial promos have come out very well. Then we are launching one more show which is Namaste Breakfast with Shipra Khanna, winner of last year’s MastercCef. Now you are beginning to get some talent who can hold themselves.

 

What other shows are you looking at? Are you looking at doing more documentary or outdoor-hosted shows that are the trend today?

Yes we had a show called ‘Khaata rahe mera dil’ but the problem is that the cost of producing these shows is much higher than what can be monetized from them.

 

But there is Highway on my Plate on NDTV Goodtimes that is doing well.

Yes there is only one such show that works. I would want to do something like that and I would love to do something like that but I have to find the right talent that can pull it off. Such shows are actually 100 percent driven by the talent.

 

Are you looking at any international formats etc?

See we have done all this… We have worked with the BBCs, Endemols of the world, Red Chillies…we have done all that. So we know what works today and with more ability to spend we are investing in polishing it more than just spending it on very large concepts.

 

So you are not going to have a new season of Madhuri Dixit?

Not in a rush as yet and why I say this is that if I want to do it I will do it in partnership with a GEC.

 

So are you scouting for a partner for the Africa show?

Actually we are in talks with a news channel. That should happen very soon…

 

Going forward, what would be your emphasis on the digital media? Would you be creating different content for the medium?

We are now present in all mediums so to say but we still don’t have a kickass app, which we need to do. We have partnered with some digital leaders in a sense and in the next six months we will be able to see the difference. Today, we are present on YouTube with our content and currently we have just about started our journey on that platform.

 

So you are digital-ready?

Yes, 100 percent. We were that from Day 1.

 

For your channel to be a bigger success, you obviously need to create five more Sanjeev Kapoors, right?

That’s what I have been doing.

 

But with more great success?

If it takes timem so be it. Let’s say Turban Tadka if it could stand on its feet… then we have Mummy ka Magic with Amrita Raichand, which does very well. She needs to get more focused doing this and she is someone who can do that. Now I am hoping the same with Rakesh Sethi and Ajay Chopra…and that’s the biggest challenge I have. I know that but that’s where I spend most of the time.

 

Apart from food, you are obviously into various other things. How much time do you devote to Food Food vis-à-vis your other forays?

Maximum. In fact if I were to give other businesses as much time as I give to TV, they would be doing five times better (laughs)

 

Where new projects are concerned, are you looking at any new announcements in the future?

Currently the other business that we have is largely our presence on digital as Sanjeev Kapoor. The Sanjeev Kapoor channel on YouTube is the largest; I think its Top 10 in the world in terms of number of subscribers. So I started all this at the same time. Of course our digital presence Sanjeevkapoor.com, social media etc is there, but I have started focusing little bit more on the restaurant business. Then there’s Wonderchef which is also doing exceedingly well.

 

You possibly are the biggest name in food in India. How do you look at constantly re-inventing yourself? How do you go to the next level?

Fortunately, I have the ability to think ahead which at certain times I convert it into business. With certain things I may not proceed as fast. Let’s say internet. I saw this coming many years ago so I launched the website in 1996 when Times of India had just about thought of a website. When TOI was just taking baby steps on the internet sanjeevkapoor.comwas up and running. I launched my CD-ROM when population of home computers with a CD-ROM drive was less than 50,000 in this country. Much before that I launched my first book. Also, where YouTube is concerned, I started it about three years ago.

 

So you have been ahead of the curve.

Yes, I had the ability to see. So a food channel at that time was ahead of the time. For instance  in digital before anyone was talking about Top level Domain (TLD) I have done full research and I was not willing to commit at that time a large amount of USD 400,000…that was too much money for me. If at that time I had done it I would be owning .food today in the world – first person in the world to think that.

 

For me, business is incidental. My excitement is to do new things. So currently I am working on something that is path-breaking and I am doing it because I find it fun to do.

 

You’ve endorsed a few products. Any more coming up?

In the last 20 years I have endorsed about 10 products. Only 10 in 20 years and people do 20 in a year. So I am very particular with that. I currently endorse Tata, i-Shakti  dal, I do Nature Fresh oil. I do commodities, I don’t do value-added products because I don’t know whether I would get into commodities myself but value-added I may. So I keep those things with myself. And if tomorrow I have to create those businesses then why should I give my endorsements?

 

Are you looking at any language feeds?

I want to but I don’t want to talk about it at the moment.

 

And how is the relationship with Astro and your partners coming along?

Sandeep Goyal and I are one part and then there’s Astro….

 

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