Even dogs have to eat...

by AFP/Phil Hazlewood, Feb 1, 2009 | Destinations: India / Mumbai

MUMBAI, January 28, 2009 - Wasiff Khan has an admission: he used to be scared of dogs, not unusual in Mumbai where strays can have a bite worse than their bark. But Khan runs a deluxe dog food delivery service.

The 29-year-old founder of Homecare Dogfood laughs about it now, as overcoming his fear has seen his unusual business take off, with the pets of Bollywood A-listers and top executives among his select clientele.

Just like Mumbai's army of "dabbawallahs" who deliver tiffin boxes of home-cooked food to hungry humans, uniformed Homecare Dogfood drivers criss-cross the city every morning with meals for man's best friend.

"The dogs know that the food is coming. They jump up. It's so nice to see that, to know that they are waiting for the product. They don't need to see a watch. They start barking. They're very intelligent animals," Khan told AFP.

His story began four years ago when he was a struggling commerce graduate, drifting from job to job without any clear sense of direction.

He first thought of starting a catering business but realised he had neither the experience nor the skills to make it work in a such a competitive field.

Then he noticed the large number of dogs being walked along the seafront and tree-lined streets near his home in Mumbai's upmarket Bandra West district.

"It was like a eureka moment, like a light bulb that came on. I thought, 'why not do food for dogs?'" Khan said.

Friends thought he was mad because they knew he was scared of dogs and had never had one as a pet. Undeterred, Khan had name cards printed and set about knocking on doors to gauge interest.

Dog owners leapt at his idea. So he took down details of their pets, from their breed and size to what food they ate, researched dog nutrition and spoke to animal health specialists.

"I then understood that for their owners, dogs are like a son, daughter, brother or sister. Owners treat them with so much respect," he said.

His first meal -- a simple mix of meat and rice -- was tested on neighbourhood strays. When they suffered no ill effects, the food was given as free samples to the pet owners he had spoken to.

The food proved a hit with the dogs, and dozens of owners signed up for a daily delivery service.

Dogs eating better than many humans

In a country where the gap between the haves and have-nots is one of the widest in the world, Khan is catering for animals that live, and eat, better than many of his countrymen.

Indeed, India is home to nearly half of the world's hungry, according to the World Food Programme.

Some 40 percent of the country's 1.1 billion people live below the global poverty line of less than 1.25 dollars a day.

The daily meal that Khan provides for the pampered canines of India's commercial capital costs more than those 420 million people earn.

In the early days of his business, each dog's dinner sold for 15-30 rupees (30-60 US cents) and in the first month, from an initial outlay of just 5,000 rupees on food and petrol, he doubled his money.

Khan said he pursued potential clients like a man possessed, once even chasing a car with a dog in it on his scooter to get the owner to sign up.

As a modest start-up, Khan kept costs low. He used his mother's kitchen to prepare the food and enlisted a helper to deliver the meals on a bicycle to save on petrol costs.

After four months, he hired a nearby kitchen, took on more staff and got rid of the bicycle. In its place he bought a motor-scooter and fixed a pizza delivery-style box on the back with the company logo, a long-eared cartoon mutt licking its lips.

Gradually, his reach expanded from Bandra to cover much of Mumbai's vast urban sprawl.

Branded uniforms and proper packaging were introduced, helping to establish his product as a recognisable brand.

Now, after dealing single-handedly with everything from cooking to sales and marketing and public relations, Khan employs 24 staff and has an annual turnover of 750,000 rupees, feeding dogs from chihuahuas to Great Danes.

Meals now cost 50-100 rupees -- similar to the price of single dishes on an average restaurant menu. Beef, chicken and goat dishes are available as well as vegetarian options for pets in some Hindu and Jain households.

A "premium" range using only the choicest cuts of meat and best ingredients is in the pipeline.

Khan admits his achievement is impressive for someone who doesn't hold a masters' degree in business administration (MBA) and didn't even have a detailed business plan.

He recently received an award for his innovation and revealed he has had some "very tempting offers" from potential investors as well as interest from New York to set up a similar venture there.

An India-wide franchise is on the cards, while he is also looking to sell his product in retail shops.

One thing Khan says he doesn't need is a pet.

"I don't need to keep a dog in the house. I take care of them for my clients," he said.

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