Abha Singhal always held a dream close to her heart – the dream of making a name for herself and creating a successful empire. While she wasn’t entirely certain about the “what” and “how,” the “why” was crystal clear: to defy societal norms and build her own path to success.
A Dream Beyond Expectations
Abha was determined to challenge conventional expectations that often dictate that women should be married by a certain age, maintain a stable job, and “settle down” at a particular point in life. However, her family’s expectations conflicted with her aspirations, pushing her to pursue her goals on her own terms.
“My father had supported my education, but when it came to choosing a career, I wanted to build my world from scratch. I wanted to escape the societal trap of getting married by 24,” Abha shared.
In pursuit of her dreams, Abha decided to move out of her house at the age of 23, armed with an MBA in marketing and a mere Rs 5,000. She rented a house in Mumbai with a friend and took a job that paid her Rs 22,000 per month.
A Decade of Triumph
Over a decade later, Abha stands as a successful businesswoman at the helm of Khichdi Express, a chain of cloud kitchens and restaurants that specializes in serving the rich and nutritious Indian delicacy, valued today at an impressive Rs 50 crores.
A Taste for Khichdi
Abha’s journey with khichdi began during her master’s studies in London, where her limited time and budget as a student led her to explore a simple yet satisfying dish: khichdi, a mixed lentils and rice preparation. She needed a quick, cost-effective, and filling meal, and khichdi fit the bill perfectly.
“I lived close to the college and had about an hour’s time in between classes. I started cooking khichdi as it was fast, light on the pocket, and filled my stomach. I mastered the art of khichdi during my MBA,” Abha recalled.
Upon returning to India, Abha resolved to establish her independence. She moved out of her family’s home with just two sets of clothes and settled into a one-room kitchen apartment in Mumbai with a friend. With meager possessions, including a Rs 500 mattress and a few thousand rupees for daily expenses and rent, she began working in a marketing agency, earning Rs 22,000 per month.
During her solo journey, Abha found solace in khichdi. She would spend hours experimenting with different khichdi variations, becoming a khichdi connoisseur along the way.
A Risk That Rewarded
This phase of her life changed when Abha was discovered by an advertising director, who offered her a significant opportunity. She was paid Rs 40,000 for a single day of acting, which inspired her to take her first significant risk.
“When I was paid Rs 40,000 for one day of shoot, I decided to take a chance and left my job. After all, I was getting almost double my salary for a single day’s work. I worked with top production houses, ad agencies, and did modeling campaigns for brands like Cadbury, Kalyan Jewellers, Samsung, and more,” Abha recounted.
In her modeling career, Abha decided to pursue even greater endeavors. It was around this time that she met Mahendra Kumar, who would later become her husband and business partner.
A Business Born of Passion
Abha’s story took a unique twist when she introduced her now-husband Mahendra Kumar to her favorite dish – khichdi. This shared passion for khichdi became the foundation for their future business venture, Khichdi Express.
Pooling together their life savings totaling Rs 3 lakhs, Abha and Mahendra embarked on their culinary journey. In July 2019, they opened the first Khichdi Express outlet as a cloud kitchen in Hyderabad, with just one staff member.
“As we began to plan our business, Mahendra suggested that we could start a khichdi business. This was the turning point in my life,” Abha explained.
The duo began their venture with a simple menu of khichdi offerings, ranging from classic dal, palak (spinach), and mixed vegetable khichdi to more creative varieties like cheese chilly, palak paneer, pav bhaji, kolhapuri, corn mushroom khichdi, and others. Their khichdis are priced between Rs 209 and Rs 349, accompanied by a papad, providing a wholesome meal.
An Incredible First Month
The first month of their business marked a significant milestone for Abha and Mahendra. Their sales had not only covered the expenses but also allowed them to pay their staff members’ salaries.
Abha reflected, “When I was able to pay someone a salary equal to my first job’s salary, I felt so happy. What added to the happiness was the fact that it was from the profits, and we didn’t have to take any loans or investments.”
Scaling the Business
Buoyed by their early success, Abha and Mahendra expanded rapidly. Within six months, they opened their second branch in Mumbai, and they now operate eight branches across Mumbai and Hyderabad. Their future plans include opening three more branches in Hyderabad this month.
The COVID-19 pandemic saw an increased demand for healthier food choices, particularly khichdi, which is often recommended by doctors. Khichdi Express saw a surge in orders from hospitals, isolation centers, and households.
Abha said, “We got a lot of orders from hospitals, isolation centers, and people at home. We distributed free khichdi to people on the streets of Mumbai. People would call us with instructions, asking for less spice. They would call us after their family members recovered and thank us. It was a rewarding moment. We felt great as our food could heal people.”
Lavanya, a loyal customer from Banjara Hills, Hyderabad, praised Khichdi Express for its tasty and satisfying khichdis. She discovered them through the food-delivery app Zomato and found their offerings to be a blessing for daily meals, emphasizing that they provide a complete and sumptuous meal.
Breaking Stereotypes with Khichdi
When Abha initially shared her idea of starting a khichdi business, many people scoffed at the notion, assuming that khichdi was a dish reserved for those who were unwell.
“People told me that khichdi is only eaten when a person is sick. We have proven them wrong,” Abha proudly declared.
Bootstrapped to Success
Abha and Mahendra’s journey was far from smooth. They often found themselves in situations where they couldn’t even afford a cup of tea, having invested all their profits back into the business. Yet, they persevered and accumulated valuable experience in the process.
They take great pride in the fact that their business remains entirely bootstrapped. As they set their sights on expanding further by opening 300 more branches across India and eventually going international, they are considering external investments.
Abha’s story is a testament to the power of determination and the pursuit of one’s dreams on one’s own terms. She offers valuable advice, especially to women, to step out of their comfort zones, take risks, and challenge societal expectations and norms.
“Step out of your comfort zone. Take risks and break societal taboos. You can achieve greatness only if you go out of your way. Analyze yourself and see what you’re good at. Don’t get scared and worry about ‘Plan Bs.’ Stand up for yourself and dream big,” Abha encourages.