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Gopikrishna Lingala, co-founder of LeanSpoon, which serves up meals on which nutritionists and chefs work together

Meals for you: LeanSpoon knows to customise diet

Civil Society News, Hyderabad

Ordering in is bigger than ever before. Everyone’s buying food that comes home and is ready to eat. But what if you have health issues and just about any kind of meal will not do? Or if you are plain worried about your weight? Or if you like to eat well but not heavy and at the same time low-calorie is not good enough?

Well-balanced meals you can rely on from one day to the next are hard to find. Invariably, you have to get into your kitchen to put together something that works for you. Not so in Hyderabad, where LeanSpoon, a small food business, has been sending to homes, offices and hospitals meals that meet specific needs.

So, if you have diabetes, hypertension or are dogged by obesity, LeanSpoon designs a diet which puts in what you need and leaves out what you don’t. You won’t have to run your kitchen if you don’t have the time or the inclination. Breakfast, lunch and dinner will turn up exactly as it should be made for you.

LeanSpoon offers ‘parameterised nutrition’. What this means is that the meals it puts out are not just healthy in a generalised way, but balanced in terms of specifics: carbohydrates, proteins, fats, sugar, salt and micronutrients like magnesium and potassium. It recognises that each customer is different. Some may have serious health conditions and others may be merely contending with everyday lifestyle problems.

You could, of course, just order the food you like without seeking specialised advice. But LeanSpoon’s unique proposition is the opportunity to speak with a nutritionist about what could be just right for you. The nutritionist then works with the chefs. It is a dynamic relationship in which a nutritionist is always available and often proactively in touch with the customer to see if a meal plan is working or if changes are required.

Is this too clinical and similar to what you would get in a hospital? Not really. LeanSpoon tries hard not to be boring or severe. From the branding to the options on its menu to an emphasis on flavourful cooking, the effort is to meld goodness with appeal and have customers placing orders because they like what they get and not just because their bodies need it.

“With a diet, it is the execution that takes the most amount of time. You have to understand calories, you have to understand nutrition, you have to know how to cook,” says Gopikrishna Lingala, who founded LeanSpoon along with his wife, Saneesha, roughly three years ago.

“Most people lack these skills and we felt we would be able to fill the gap. At the end of the day, 80 percent of any health programme is related to diet and can be addressed through it along with exercise, sleep and stress management,” says Lingala.

Each meal is attractively and hygienically packed 

With urban stress levels growing, it is a ready market and Lingala sums it up by rattling off the ailments with the ease of a practised salesman — “hypertensive or pre-hypertensive, diabetic or pre-diabetic, overweight, stress at work, don’t sleep well. The combination is fairly typical for everybody.”

“But the reason why it happens may be different. It may be lifestyle, working at night, a bad diet. Improving one’s lifestyle can’t just be the solution. It has to be specific. So that is the nutrition advice we provide,” Lingala explains.

“Elevated thyroid levels, PCOD, vitamin deficiency, magnesium deficiency. We try to figure out what has to be pushed up or down, depending on the specific condition. And that dietary allowance gets converted into meals,” he says.

“We look at the past, present and future dietary allowance for the individual. The dietary allowance is broken down into macronutrients and micronutrients. Macro is about fibre, fat, carbohydrates and proteins. What blend and at what time of day. Micronutrients is where it gets really interesting. The challenge is to provide a healthy dose of micronutrients in the course of the week,” he says.

LeanSpoon supplies 600 to 800 meals a day, which includes individual customers, hospitals and offices. There are two meal plans: ‘Pro’ and ‘Healthy’. Most customers are for Pro, which comes with professional advice on nutrition. The nutritionist provides a ‘Health and Risk Report’ and a ‘Goals Report’ for what you want to achieve over the next 15 days or in months to come. Under the Healthy package you just choose for yourself.

Chefs at work

Both packages involve taking a subscription in advance for a fixed number of meals. A Pro customer pays Rs 15,000 for 50 meals and Rs 25,000 for 100 meals. A Healthy subscription is Rs 3,500 to Rs 4,000 for 20 meals.

On average, a meal works out to Rs 250. The meals have to be ordered within a time period, but LeanSpoon is generous with waivers and holds on to its customers, who do drift but come back. Some of them have been consistent, like the third one they got when the business started, who is still with them. There are working couples who order breakfast, lunch and dinner from LeanSpoon, spending up to Rs 3,000 a day.

LeanSpoon employs four nutritionists and 10 chefs. As founders, Lingala and wife Saneesha are very hands-on. But then it is a business that came out of their own need as a young couple to have meals that truly suited them.

Back from an overseas job in Colombia where they lived in Bogota, Lingala found himself spending 14 hours in the office in Mumbai. Meals were the first casualty in his hectic schedule. Saneesha was pregnant and her thyroid levels had gone somewhat out of whack.

As the pressure built up, they knew they had to do something about their diet. “We tried to stick to home meals and cooked ourselves. We do cook well, but it wasn’t what we needed. Next, it was, hire a cook, fire a cook and we found we were getting nowhere,” says Lingala.

From their own experience came the idea of starting LeanSpoon and relocating in 2015 to Hyderabad where they had the support of both their families. With capital of about Rs 2 crore and space on two floors of a building owned by Lingala’s family, they began experimenting with their idea.

The first six months went in trial and error as they served up meals for free and made their mistakes. Then the business began to take shape. Now LeanSpoon employs about 80 people, including delivery boys.

With a monthly turnover of around Rs 20 lakh, they are beginning to break even but significant profitability is still a long way off. Typically, customers bring in customers and in this way LeanSpoon’s base has continued to grow. An institutional customer like Fernandez Hospitals has outsourced all its meal requirements to LeanSpoon and seems to have no regrets.

Right now the personal touch matters a lot. A customer who calls in might just get Lingala himself on the line. Sometimes, when a customer does not order the number of meals in a subscription within the stipulated period and comes back months later to renew, Lingala just extends the old subscription. Going forward, how such bonding will build loyalty and, finally, scale remains to be seen. For now, LeanSpoon is a healthy idea doing nicely in ways that matter.   

The LeanSpoon team

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