There’s no place like home. It’s the inspiration behind The Buttermilk Company, a home-style Indian instant meal service founded by former Amazon engineer Mitra Raman. The inspiration for the company was drawn from her time studying computer science at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. For the first time, she was away from her hometown of Seattle but also — perhaps even more devastatingly — devoid of her mother’s comforting home cooking.
“I missed her rasam,” said Mitra. “A soup dish I usually mix with rice and okra. Not many restaurants have it and it’s hard to make from scratch. Even Indian grocery stores would carry brands that consisted of just powders so there was a lot of work involved. They all taste like they would at a restaurant — heavy and not homemade. Mom gave me all the ingredients for rasam in a bag. ‘Add add water and tomatoes and you’re done, she said.’”
It wasn’t long before she was back in Seattle, however, close to her creature comforts. After completing her undergraduate studies, she was hired to work at Amazon HQ, where she helped build Amazon Go — an arm of the giant that was just a year old at the time.
“After two and a half years at Amazon, I got an itch for starting something,” said Mitra, patiently stirring a fragrant combination of cumin and mustard seeds in the Buttermilk kitchen in the International District of Seattle. “But I needed the right reason and the right idea,” she added.
How to Spice Things Up After Working with an Established Company
Mitra was no stranger to “starting something”. She had an entrepreneurial itch her whole life. From selling lemonade as a tike to car washes and crafting wares and jewelry in middle school, she always had a hankering for business. So without hesitation, she started to bring the idea for The Buttermilk Company to life — first by applying and getting accepted to Y-Combinator’s class of Summer 2018.
Prior to that, she had soft-launched Buttermilk in October of 2017 and quickly learned that building a product that was packaged and shipped to individual homes was wildly different from developing software.
“For the first few months, I was the cook and the fulfillment manager. People don’t really think about getting into the nitty-gritty and doing all the cooking. You need to be able to do all that and still find time to raise money and hire.”
One of the biggest lessons in Y-Combinator was the tenacious approach and hyper-focus on growth. “With that in mind, I was all about PR and launched in all the publications. One of the biggest pieces of coverage launched when my kitchen manager quit, I had to go to India for personal family matters, and there was no one around that I could usually rely on. We were so behind on orders. That was really tough. We had a lot of unhappy customers. You never want to get an email from someone that says ‘Where’s my order?’”
“It forced me to be a bit more realistic,” reflecting on her past year.
In the beginning, Mitra wasn’t so sure about how far she could take her idea. “I assumed that it was this little food thing. ‘How far could it go? It isn’t a big enough deal,’ I thought. I was boxing myself and the company in. Applying to YC forced me to have conversations about what the company could be, and helped me see the potential. If you only have one vision, then you’re only going to work towards that. That self-reflection — that this isn’t just a food brand — helped me see that there was so much more to it.”
Breaking Through Bias
Female-centered venture funds making headlines have led us to believe that the challenge of raising capital as a woman is diminishing. But Mitra encountered a very different shade of bias when she found herself seeking cash for her business.
“Fundraising as a not only a female founder but a solo founder has been challenging. The Valley is really against solo founders. It makes me question the reasoning. Many startups fail because the founders don’t get along, so you wouldn’t think there was such a stigma against solo founders. Being solo — to some VCs — translates to not trusting your ability to work with others. It’s upsetting because it’s just not true.”
These challenges have not dampened Mitra’s grit for building the company. Buttermilk now serves up meals for thousands of customers across the U.S. She’s also cranking up the heat, so to speak, on specific products to make it easy for customers to adjust each meal according to their dietary and taste preferences (like omitting certain ingredients or increasing spice).
*Images by Kirsten Mohan Photography.