Bollywood’s milk round: How an online milk service has created India’s celebrity milkmen
An online subscription service which delivers milk to Bollywood stars has helped an entrepreneurial farming family build one of the biggest dairies in India.
Parag Milk Foods processes and hand-delivers chilled milk from its dairy farm in Manchar to almost 50,000 consumers across some of India’s biggest cities.
Sold under its Pride of Cows brand, the service — which is only available by invite — has won high-end fans including actors, celebrity chefs, bloggers and well-known businesspeople.
And to be part of the exclusive clientele list, all of them are prepared to pay Rs120 (£1.40) per litre, three-times the usual retail price of milk, to get their hands on a bottle.
Addressing milk safety
The success of the business comes from the brand’s ethos of selling high-quality, traceable and safe milk from cows they claim are the most pampered in India.
India is the world’s largest producer of milk, contributing to 20% of global milk production, as well as being the largest consumer of diary products, with 99% of households buying milk and cheese.
But keeping up with demand has led to some unscrupulous practices by certain processors. In 2018, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India found almost 70% of milk products sold in the country didn’t meet its safety standards.
The agency found that solutions were being routinely added to bulk up milk bottles, with the most common adulterants including detergent, caustic soda, glucose, white paint and refined oil.
In response, consumers started to seek out products which were guaranteed to be safe, which is where Parag Milk Foods has stepped in.
Recognising the opportunity to develop premium products thanks to India’s expanding middle class, the company set about developing an invite-only doorstep service, the first of its kind in the country.
“We see milk at your doorstep as the next evolution in the Indian dairy market,” says Akshali Shah, whose father Devendra set up the dairy farm 1992, originally processing 20,000 litres.
“We’re offering a high-end service which promises to be a step-up from other milk on the market, and it’s something people are prepared to pay for.”
The creation of India’s celebrity milkmen links back to Devendra’s first herd of Holstein Friesian cattle. Having secured a loan to buy a farm and animals without help from his family, over ten years he steadily increased cow numbers to 3500 head.
But while he was proud of his expansion, he was concerned that average cow yields on the farm — like other dairy farms in India — lagged far behind producers in the rest of the world.
“The average yield per cow in India is 1500 litres,” says Akshali. “On many farms there are problems with hygiene, nutrition, cow comfort and healthcare, and a lack of knowledge about scientific practices which were all preventing cows from maximising their potential.”
Keen to address the problem, in 2005 Devendra set up a research and development centre alongside the dairy, with a view to educating farmers on how to produce high-quality milk using the best global production practices.
As well as installing high-tech dairy technology from Europe, including a 50-point rotary parlour, the family hired a team of nutritionists to help them optimise cow diets. Today cows are fed a ration of alfalfa, corn silage and concentrates which are grown especially for the farm under contract to ensure their quality.
Animals are electronically tagged to pick up early signs of health issues, while physical checks are carried out three times a day during milking, with any unwell cows are given homeopathic and Ayurveda treatments — a form of Hindu medicine.
The family’s strict attention to health has helped them cut the need for antibiotics to such an extent that they recently became the first antibiotic-free herd in India — an important accolade in a market where consumers are concerned about safety and quality.
Milk by invitation
Having driven so many improvements within their own herd, the Shahs realised their milk quality had improved so much that it was superior to anything else on the Indian market.
And with an expanding middle-class increasingly interested in premium, quality products, they realised they could capitalise on it.
“In 2012 we turned our R&D centre in a commercial one and set up India’s first ‘brand by invitation’, where we invited people to be part of the dairy,” says Akshali.
“It’s a subscription model, and to become a customer you need to get referred by other customers. It adds exclusivity that people want to be part of, and they are prepared to pay three-times the price of usual milk for it.”
In a country which struggles with freshness due to poor infrastructure and problems with quality — last year 70% of India’s milk was found not to meet food safety standards — Pride of Cows focuses on traceability and freshness.
Every stage is managed and tracked by the dairy, with milk delivered by GPS-tracked cold storage vehicles to one of 22 depots in four cities.
The bottles are then hand delivered by a team of 1200 delivery boys in insulated bags to almost 50,000 consumers, who order their milk using a smartphone app.
Insta-worthy customer base
To build a premium consumer base from scratch, the family made a list of their top-100 dream customers, including celebrities, social media stars, socialites and business people.
“We approached them and told them about the service, and very quickly those 100 people led us to our first 1000 customers,” says Akshali.
“We are primarily targeted at discerning milk lovers who are prepared to pay for quality,” she adds.
“They are mostly urban sophisticated housewives with high disposable incomes who think their families deserve the best.
“Our brand communicates the idea of moving up in life. The concept is you’ve taken that step up, so now the milk you drink should be as good as the things around you.”
Given the product’s elite status amongst wealthy shoppers, subscribers regularly post photos of their milk on social media — helping the dairy promote its milk with very little effort.
“We also send out limited edition packs during festivals and special passions, which encourages people to share photos on Instagram,” Akshali says. “Buying the milk creates a statement for them.”
Having built up a strong customer base in India, the family now want to expand the brand further. In January the dairy agreed a deal to airlift milk every day to Singapore and Dubai, where discerning customers are also keen to buy into the Pride of Cows story.
It might not sound an environmentally sustainable model, but Akshali claims the dairy has excellent green credentials, generating its own electricity through biogas and fertilising feed crops with manure.
Known as a zero-waste farm, the business also sells milk in recyclable bottles, which it collects and makes into shoes and t-shirts which are donated to under-privileged communities.
“It’s been a seven-year journey, but we’ve doubled our yields and touched more than a million households during that time,” Akshali says. “For a bottle of milk, it is an incredible achievement.”
A version of this article first appeared in Farmers Guardian.