Founder Mitra Raman got the idea for Buttermilk Co. because of a craving for rasan: a tomato-y South Indian stew and her favorite food. Raman’s mother gave her the ingredients in a bag — all Raman had to do was add water and boil. The results were so good that Raman, who was working as a software engineer at Amazon at the time, decided to launch a company which sold ready-to-eat South Indian meals that tasted good and cooked in a flash.
In March 2017, she did just that. Buttermilk’s vegetarian packaged meals are made with fresh ingredients in a shared kitchen space in Seattle’s International District and shipped nationwide in refrigerated boxes. (As of now, their food is only available online.) Once delivered, the meals can be stored in the fridge for 5-7 days or frozen for up to 3 months. When you’re ready to eat, just add water and microwave for 5 minutes, and you’ve got a piping hot bowl of rasan or chana masala.
Buttermilk just might have come along at the right time. Buttermilk’s single-serving pouches, which average around $5 each, are perfect for young-ish folks who live alone and spend too much time in the office to worry about grocery shopping or — God forbid — cooking, but who don’t like the idea of ordering delivery every night. It’s also smack-dab in the middle of two large trends in millennial dining: “authentic” ethnic food, and convenience/instant gratification.
Though the dishes are derived from actual South Indian recipes, Rasan said that she works hard to make sure all of Buttermilk’s dishes are approachable to all consumers — not just those who grew up eating them.
To increase their appeal to an audience who might just be dipping their toe into South Indian cuisine, Buttermilk has a few themed starter packs as easy entry points. For example, the 5-pack “I Can’t Do Spicy” combo ($23.50) is meant to dispel the myths that all Indian food is searingly hot. There are also packs geared towards travelers constantly greeted with an empty fridge, and those who want to expand their Indian food experience beyond curry.
On the other side, there’s also the homesickness angle: which is what prompted Raman to start Buttermilk in the first place. Indian food is pretty complex to prepare, requiring a good bit of time and a well-stocked spice drawer. Not everyone has the time/desire/know-how to make a giant pot of sambar, even with the guidance of a meal kit. And for South Indians who have grown up eating homemade khichdi and daal, the offerings from the local Indian joint might not sate their cravings for food like their mom used to make.
Buttermilk solves all of these issues with a speedy cook time and low price point, making them faster and cheaper than ordering delivery (until UberEats comes out with those drones, at least). All of the meals are also vegetarian, which capitalizes off of the recent boom in demand for plant-based foods.
I had a chance to sample some of Buttermilk’s upma (a wheat-based porridge) at a Seattle Made’s Food and Beverage event this June and thought it was delicious: lightly spiced, fluffy, and different than anything I’d ever tasted. I did not grow up eating South Indian food, but I found myself passing by their sample table another time to snag one more taste. It was delicious and something I would never make myself, but I found myself thinking about the dish for days afterwards. I could totally see myself stocking my office fridge with a few packets for lunch, or keeping them in the freezer to replace my typical emergency meal of a frozen burrito.
As of now, Raman is Buttermilk’s only full-time employee. She work with recipe curators and has a few part-time employees to help with cooking, packaging, and shipping. Over the next few weeks, they’re looking to hire a food scientist to work on making their dishes healthier (another trend!) while preserving their taste. Her company was also accepted into the Y Combinator Spring 2018 cohort and pitched at Demo Day earlier this week, after which they started fundraising.
“We know this isn’t something you’re eating everyday,” said Raman. Our research shows that, for the most part, millennials are cooking or ordering delivery instead of reheating meals. But the high quality of Buttermilk’s offerings — as well as their reasonable price point and badge of “authenticity” could make them an exception to the rule.