From Amazon Engineer to Wellness Entrepreneurship: How Mitra Raman of Buttermilk Co. Made the Leap
Buttermilk was born out of my own frustration as an Indian-American who recently moved away from home. I missed my mom’s home-cooking! The only options out there are frozen meals that aren’t actually good or really expensive restaurant food. Even worse than that, the menus usually only have the same “traditional” Indian dishes, but none of the authentic dishes we actually ate everyday. When I returned home after college, I asked my mom to help me make her delicious “rasam” dish and she put everything in a bag (with her homemade rasam powder) and told me to just add water! That’s when I realized that authentic dishes didn’t have to be difficult to make or get, and we’re now solving it with Buttermilk Co.!
You have a background in computer science and software engineering. How did you make the leap to food delivery? How did your experience at Amazon help you navigate the logistics of a food delivery service?
It definitely wasn’t planned! I kind of fell into the food space with Buttermilk because I just wanted to solve the problem for myself. A few months later, I found myself talking to distributors, food scientists and packaging experts and realized that I’m officially in the food business! I was an engineer at Amazon Go/Books working on internal tools, so my direct experience hasn’t benefitted me much yet, but Amazon’s overall culture and work ethic has been a huge reason I’ve been able to do whatever I have with Buttermilk so far. They have 12 guiding leadership principles that I believe are great things to live and work by, and drive my thinking daily. Amazon also places great trust in their employees, and I think by working with engineers and managers who are more experienced than I am, I’ve developed confidence going into any situation that I may not be familiar with, and am never scared to say that “I don’t understand.”
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve encountered since launching in 2017?
Making and testing the food, delivery and tracking logistics, customer services, adhering to FDA guidelines… Almost everything! It’s hard to scale the business without being able to confidently forecast demand. We’re constantly pushing growth, and it happens in stages. When we have a huge bump, I have to figure out how to scale my team, our supplies, our delivery, etc. I’m hoping this will be a continuing problem!
Your mom’s homemade cooking was the impetus for Buttermilk. Are all of your products based off of her homemade recipes?
No! Our products are unique in that they are all crowdsourced from real people. These are dishes that someone actually has made for their family for years. I started with a few of my mom’s recipes (the upma and rasam), and the rest are developed from other people. We just completed our first crowdsourcing round and will be releasing eight new recipes from eight new Buttermilk curators soon! It’s how we can guarantee that our food will taste like home.
Your food seems tailor-made for the wellness industry, with fresh, flavorful and healthy ingredients. How did you learn to scale your business while adhering to such standards of high quality?
I think coming from Seattle, sustainability is a very important focus for me and my business. It’s a little harder to scale while keeping products at the same high quality, but it’s not impossible. As long as we keep it an integral part of our business, we will do it!
You were recently accepted into Y Combinator—congratulations! Have you learned any advice during your time there that you’d like to share with our community of fellow entrepreneurs?
So, so much. I think the most important thing that I learned earlier on from one of my advisors, Michael Seibel, was to focus entirely on my specific customer. Until then, I was trying to make Buttermilk appeal to everyone using different features of our products (ex: highlight the vegan products for vegans, Indian recipes for Indian food lovers, sustainable packaging for the eco-conscious). From then, I decided to focus on the person who would want my product the most—people like me who grew up with the cuisine and don’t live near home. You shouldn’t be afraid to go too niche with your customer demographic because those are the people whose trust you should gain, and who will be your first and best customers.
What’s next for Buttermilk Co.?
So much is coming up! The new recipes that I mentioned before and some exciting changes to our existing products based off of our customers’ feedback. I can’t wait!
Discover how this brand saw a need in the heathy food space and launched the juice scene in Boston.