Showmanship and ice cream seem like an odd combination, the delicate dessert not lending itself well to rough handling even by a toddler. However, you can see them gel at a Hokey Pokey Ice-Creams (Hokey Pokey) counter. The Mumbai-based chain of ice cream parlours was one of the first (in 2008) to not just pound and mix ice creams with various toppings such as Oreos and gulab jamuns but do it with a flourish on a frozen stone slab.
To take its interactive ice cream counters beyond its own stores, the brand has tied up with 25 outlets of the coffee chain, Barista Lavazza, across the country. When it eventually extends to cities such as Delhi and Kolkata, customers will get to mix their icecreams with halwa and shondesh (Bengali sweetmeat) too.
Its model has already been replicated by a few, both local and national players. HUL had launched the chill grille, an ice slab for similar theatrics at 30-odd Swirl parlours in 2011-12. HUL, of course, had seen a slowdown in its ice creams business last year and players with distribution in general stores have reeled under massive power cuts, and the subsequent problems with storage, according to analysts. However, Hokey Pokey's parent, Drums Food International, has drawn up a picture-perfect plan to spread wings, despite a smaller footprint (14 stores so far) compared to other icecream parlours. The friends, Rohan Mirchandani and Milap Shah had joined hands with chef K Ganesh, to come up with the brand, and the latter two remain as sounding boards for Mirchandani,
Mirchandani, now the CEO of Hokey Pokey Ice-Creams, who bought himself a one-way ticket in 2012 from New York to India to put his start-up back on track, says, "Initially we did not have a clear vision in place, we had other parallel committments and have faced challenges early on as a result. But then, one of my professors at Wharton reminded me that this was the time for brands to be born in India, even in FMCG. You won't see it happen anymore in the US. I knew I had to come back to build the brand." Hokey Pokey needed to get into different verticals. While its parlours provided the brand experience, for scale, it had to distribute its boxed products in FMCG retail channels. "That has a lot more scale," says Mirchandani. The brand is slated to hit modern trade in Mumbai by July, on a pilot.
The expansion plans come on the heels of a thorough shake-up by Mirchandani on his return. "When we were not around, we had problems with the user experience, training the staff, and even production." However, one thing that the brand came to be associated with was the display antics on a stone slab. "My starting point was the stone because that is what our brand was known for. For the first few months, I spent all my days in the factory, which we had started a few months into the business, refining the product." The ice cream flavours, which had 16 per cent milk fat (true to ice creams as opposed to frozen desserts with vegetable fat), were further fine-tuned. While the new flavours like the Lavazza Coffee Cream came off the Barista tie-up, Mirchandani came up with Dark Belgian Chocolate by melting his favourite chocolates in the factory and getting chef Ganeshan to recreate it at affordable rates.
Hokey Pokey has 20 flavours that can be mixed with various condiments for many more permutations. However, while scoops of the basic flavours come for Rs 50 apiece, a fancy creation (taking after Ben&Jerries Ice Cream) comes for Rs 85 a scoop (in a waffle cup). "Our audience is the customer who drive up volumes at my franchise stores in Ullhasnagar, and even at our own Korum mall store in Thane. While we have afficionados in Bandra too, more than the customers in such posh locations where I am one of many, these places provide us the customers for whom we can be their ultimate premium ice cream brand," observes Mirchandani. The plain scoop pricing puts it in the range of a Baskin & Robbins while its tubs will cost Rs 200-300 for half a litre, distinctly higher than volume players like Amul's (Rs 100 and above). However, when you pick up a Hockey Pockey box from a store near you, you won't have a pick of its basic flavours but its creations that are made at its stores.
Mirchandani says the brand's sole focus on the stone is what sets it apart. "We tailor every aspect accordingly, unlike other much larger players, for whom this would be just a part of their business." While the constituents (16 per cent milk fat) are imperative to withstand pounding on the stone, the brand also has to overcome the unfamiliarity of customers with made-to-order assembly.
Subway had to have staple menu items in addition to its assembly options for the Indian customer to get them acquainted first. Mirchandani says, "One of our avid customers had given us the feedback of how hard she found getting her friends to the store because they did not want to think about what all they wanted in their ice cream." Kids may find it fun but not all grown-ups.
So, Hokey Pokey has set-creations to familiarise the customer with the possibilities and most importantly, not intimidate her on her first visit. Store staff are trained to nudge first-timers to try ready creations rather than mull what goes on the stone.
Hokey Pokey has reached out to audiences solely on social media so far, including a campaign featured in the MITSloan Management Review. It had scanned big data to find everyone who had ever tweeted about it, and sought out 8-10 handles with influence to invite them to try out its new flavours. The campaign (Mar, 2010-June, 2011) clocked a 49 per cent increase in brand awareness and 40 per cent increase in sales over the previous 16 months.
However, interactive parlours are catching on fast with other ice cream players. Vadilal has gotten off the block with parlours for its artisanal gelato brand 'melt in', with imported display machines that "create an ambience for the customer to interact with and see the product in," says Rajesh Gandhi, managing director of Vadilal Industries. Hokey Pokey will have to watch out for much larger players now.