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The Unlikely Chef

Hebbar’s Kitchen, one of the most sought-after channels for vegetarian recipes on social media, is a testament to Archana and Sudarshan Hebbar’s hard work and passion for food

Who would have thought that the genesis of a vibrant food content empire like Hebbar’s Kitchen could be traced back to the banality of boredom? But that is exactly what pushed Archana Hebbar to start the tiffin service-turned-content channel about 9,000 kms from her hometown Udupi in Karnataka. Today, Hebbar’s Kitchen has close to 20 million followers spread across Facebook, YouTube and Instagram and more than 15 brand endorsements under its belt.

Archana, a software testing professional, moved to Melbourne in 2015 to join her husband Sudarshan. When her visitor visa restricted her from doing much work-wise, she decided to take refuge in dishing out Udupi-style vegetarian food for the ones missing home-cooked meals. While her tiffin had its takers, the Hebbars decided to start a simple WordPress blog to document recipes.

This was also around the time when Buzzfeed’s Tasty channel was creating a lot of buzz with its short videos on recipes from international cuisines. “It was thrilling to see how they were growing. We thought, ‘Why shouldn’t we try this?’” says Sudarshan, an IT consultant.

That excitement led to execution. They shot their first video in their kitchen and uploaded it on Facebook. “The response was better than what the blog was getting,” says Archana.

Knowing nothing about videography, they started their content journey from scratch. The two started conceptualising, planning recipes and shooting the videos as a team. Sudarshan became the channel’s videographer over the weekend. Archana started with traditional dishes like masala dosa, bisi bele bath and slowly moved to the more innovative ones such as bread 65, idli manchurian and so on.

Initially, they weren’t regular with the videos but that changed after the viral rava dosa video. Sudarshan also talks about the entry of Reliance Jio, free internet and the subsequent online boom. “It all came together, giving us more inspiration to be serious. That’s when we decided to invest in it,” he says. The couple upgraded from an iPhone to a DSLR, chose an advanced editing software and started posting regularly.


But why Facebook? “It was untouched at that time from an Indian cuisine perspective,” says Sudarshan. “We were there at the right time,” Archana chimes in. Today, the Hebbar’s Kitchen Facebook page has a loyal following of over 11 million. In fact, for most of 2017, their page was the most-watched food channel on the social networking site, as per Vidooly, an online video analytics & marketing agency. In February 2017, it was even the third-most watched channel only behind news giants like The Times of India and Aaj Tak.

At that time, Hebbar’s Kitchen still wasn’t big on YouTube. They’d post videos there just to embed them into the blog posts. “We didn’t know we could make money out of it,” adds Archana. Five years later, the channel has over 6 million subscribers and has received over 1.5 billion views on close to 2,000 videos. Their audience majorly comprises women from Tier-1 and 2 cities, mostly the working ones looking to fix a quick meal for their nuclear families.

Currently, their focus is on their website, Facebook and YouTube with everything else being on the periphery. But they do want to focus more on Instagram, where they have over 3 million followers, with curated content in the coming days.

With great viewership comes great commercial responsibility. Over the years, The Hebbars were approached by several small brands but it was a deal with Veeba Food in 2017 that set the business ball rolling for them.

“We were thrilled! We always saw ads on TV but never thought that one day, we would be doing something similar with brands,” says Sudarshan.

Over time, they realised what the deals were really all about and set ground rules. Their location, however, makes the deals tricky. It isn’t easy for brands to send samples to them from India, they say. But that isn’t something they’re ready to compromise on.

“Whenever we post about some brand, we make sure that we try it and only if we’re happy, we go for it,” says Archana. Once they find the brand and the product satisfactory, different recipe ideas featuring the product are shared with the brand for its approval.

“Dealing with brands is not easy,” he states matter-of-factly. “They have a different mindset and we have a different one. Sometimes, the mindsets don’t gel and we just have to let it go,” Sudarshan adds.

He recounts a deal with a vegetable sanitiser brand during the lockdown. “The brand wanted the video to look like an ad but that’s not what we do. For us, our recipes are at the heart of our videos and we plug the brand and its products very subtly,” Sudarshan says.

While the pandemic hasn’t ended yet, Hebbar’s Kitchen’s deal with the said brand did. “At the end of the day, it didn’t work out as there were major disagreements,” recalls Sudarshan.

After Veeba, Hebbar’s Kitchen went on to work with some well-known brands such as Nestle (Maggi), Cadbury, Chings, Quaker Oats, MTR, Sunfeast (Dark Fantasy), Rotimatic, Shan Foods, SSP Asafoetida and Panasonic. They’ve also worked with celebrity chef Sanjeev Kapoor’s brand Wonderchef Home Appliances, Mantra Organics and Naturals, Tupperware, among others.

The duo remembers how the Rotimatic website had crashed because of the influx of inquiries after they’d released the promotional video on their channel. “I had to reroute the traffic to my website but that is the power of social media,” says Sudarshan. One other brand that they enjoyed working with was Pakistan-based Shan Foods. “They were really nice and not bossy like some Indian brands that have the ‘I’m paying for you’ attitude,” says Sudarshan.

Lamenting the issue of clearing of the invoices, he rues a bitter experience with an agency that took eight months to clear their payment and how he had to follow up every 15 days. They now ask the brands to clear invoices before they go live with the videos.

The lockdown changed things for the young couple monetarily. With everybody locked up and looking to try their hand at cooking, Hebbar’s Kitchen saw a massive bump in viewership. That was when they started naming their price. To give us an idea, Sudarshan says that today, they’d charge over Rs 20 lakh for a 10-video deal, something that would have cost brands somewhere around Rs 5 lakh before the pandemic.

“But we don’t look forward to brand deals much,” adds Sudarshan while talking about their income through their brand. They have a blog, a Facebook page, a YouTube channel and even a mobile app that take care of that.

For budding content creators, Sudarshan has a few words of caution on brand deals: “It’s not easy”. He is of the opinion that even though the deals get you good money, you end up spending more time and energy on videos that you can’t even monetise as per Facebook and YouTube policies.

While the couple’s 1.5-year-old daughter Avni takes up a lot of their time these days, they know they can’t stop now. Apart from the money, Hebbar’s Kitchen also feeds its eight-member team in India that helps with the original channel and two new channels —Hebbar’s Kitchen Hindi and Hebbar’s Kitchen Originals.

“If the engine (Archana) stops, there will be a reciprocal effect on everyone. So, we can’t stop now,” says Sudarshan.


The Hebbars’ Favourite Brand Associations

  • MTR – for being a Karnataka-based brand close to home and closer to their hearts.
  • Rotimatic – for their promotional video leading to a buzz that crashed the brand’s website.
  • Panasonic – for running as smoothly as the mixer they were promoting.
  • Shan Foods – for the fact that they dealt with a Pakistan-based brand that wasn’t as ‘bossy’ as some Indian brands.
  • Veeba Food – for being their first brush with a big commercial brand.