NEW DELHI: An American wit had once described cheese as milk's leap towards immortality. For a lot of entrepreneurs in India now cheese is milk's leap towards prosperity - the market for cheese is Rs1,250 crore currently and forecasted to grow at an impressive 20% annually.
And it's going to get cheesier. There are 3,000 cheese varieties globally, experts say. India's stores and delis offer about 40 varieties. The scope for growth is huge. Europe and even the US, those in the cheese business say, are saturated markets. India could be the next big thing.
Here's a small but telling example of how far the cheese business has travelled. Pune-basedParag Milk Foods used sell milk, butter, ghee etc under the brand Gowardhan. From 2008 onwards, it's a player in the cheese business, with the brand name Go, selling cheddar and mozzarella, and planning to introduce emmental.
The 'Gowardhan to Go' story tells us that urban India's long affair with tinned processed cheese is getting over. The current brisk growth is being driven by metropolitan Indians discovering 'real cheese' - both mass market and premium, and both foreign and local brands.
A lot of that cheese is going on top of the pizzas that sell here. India is Domino's Pizza's third larget market, after the US and the UK. Domino's sources all its mozzarella locally. "We are working with multiple companies... regional cheese processors have invested in additional factories and growing along with us," CEO Ajay Kaul said.
Direct cheese consumption is growing as briskly. Global firms and brands like Kraft Cheese, French cheese maker Fromageries Bel and Arla Cheese have found India as appetising as Indians have found their cheese. Flander, one of the oldest regional players in India, has shifted from a 6,000 sq ft farm on the outskirts of Delhi to a 25,000 square ft factory at the Bahdurgarh industrial zone.
The most exciting story, though, is that of relatively new local cheese-makers.
Puneet Gupta, 40, set up Exito Gourmet three years ago to sell "Impero" brand of cheese to high-end retail stores such as Food Hall, Le Marche, Sugar and Spice and Hyco.
A private-equity firm - Gupta won't name the PE - has acquired 20% equity in his company. "From manufacturing 10 tonne cheese in a month we are now doing 30 tonnes and expect it to grow steadily by 20%," said Gupta. And he's getting adventurous. His new product is a flavoured ricotta made from sheep milk whey, gouda and cheddar cheese.
Mohit Khattar, CEO, Godrej Nature Basket, which runs 29 stores across six cities, says that 7%-10% of daily sales came from cheese and sales grew 55% in the past four to five years "We are catering to a market ready to pay money for good quality product" he said. Godrej Nature Basket offers not just the relatively familiar varieties like gouda, parmesan and edam. Brie and goat cheese -chevere - are also going to be on offer.
Cheese is a hit in Future Group's gourmet-format Foodhall stores. Avni Biyani, concept head of Foodhall, said cheese sales were growing at 30-40% in her stores. And even premium stores like Foodhall don't depend on imports. Not just Exito Gourmet but Pondicherry-based Mango Hill also gets shelf space.
Not that premium imported cheese has no takers. Anoop Chopra, marketing head atDairy Craft India Ltd, says Parmiggiano Reggiano, which sells for Rs1,700 per kg, gets plenty of customers.
So, what's Amul, whose processed cheese was once pretty much the only cheese in India, doing to cater to the new market? First,Amul says its processed cheese is still a winner. It's doubling its processed cheese capacity to 100 tonnes. Second, it says it's no slouch when it comes to 'real cheese' - Amul is selling gouda and emmental.
Lack of enough good quality milk and uneven quality of storage and processing facilities are holding back a bigger boom in the cheese business. Cheese entrepreneurs hope these constraints will lessen over time. So should urban Indians. There are 2,000-plus cheese varieties we still don't get in this country.