Growing up in the southern Indian city of Chennai, Praanesh Bhuvaneswar had a local butcher who would reserve the best cuts of freshly culled chicken for his family. But after he moved to Bengaluru, where he works in marketing, Bhuvaneswar couldn’t find a meat supplier that he trusted. He had to haggle over prices with butchers and couldn’t be sure of the quality. “I find it hard to bargain to get a great cut of chicken. Sometimes the pieces they would give would be sappa (not good),” he told Rest of World.

Then came the Covid-19 lockdowns across India in 2020, and Bhuvaneswar turned to ordering online via a startup called Licious. Licious’ mobile app opens up to pictures of a variety of chicken products, ranging from thighs and minced meat to biryani pieces and kadaknath chicken, displayed on a white background with a red “add to cart” button. Bhuvaneswar’s favorites are chicken thighs and chicken breasts. Once he places an order, they’re delivered — cleaned and vacuum-packed in a cardboard box decorated with an illustration of a Licious customer’s face — within 90 minutes. It can cost 50% more than buying from a brick-and-mortar butcher, but he knows what he’s getting. “I know they are expensive,” Bhuvaneswar said. “But my order is predictable. Doesn’t matter if it costs 10 or 20 bucks more.”

Buying meat in India isn’t traditionally a pleasant experience. Fresh meat is usually purchased from a roadside butcher or a wet market, which can be messy and unhygienic. It’s typically sold in black polyethylene bags that hide the contents, due to a social taboo about meat consumption. More than 70% of the population eats meat, but vegetarianism is commonly associated with ideas of “purity” and is often used as a marker by upper-caste Hindus, to distance themselves from historically marginalized castes and reinforce social hierarchies. Restaurants often advertise themselves as “pure” vegetarian, landlords sometimes ban meat from their properties, and some offices bar employees from eating meat at work. Several Indian states have a ban on eating beef, in deference to the spiritual symbolism of cows in Hinduism.

Other taboo products, including condoms, alcohol, and sanitary pads, are also commonly sold in black bags. “I think the ‘black bag’ is a perfect cultural symbol of the place that [a] meat marketplace has in the minds of an Indian consumer,” Abhay Hanjura, co-founder of Licious, told Rest of World. “There is this extremely deep, almost fetish-like involvement with [meat], but there’s also this strong disassociation with the category because of what it connotes.”

6 million tonnes The amount of meat consumed in India in 2020.

Source: OECD

Hanjura said that the taboos around meat made it hard for Licious to raise investment when the company launched in 2015. “The VCs in India are vegetarian capitalists. Their personal biases, generally, cloud their deal-making ability,” he said. One VC company offered a $6 million investment but then pulled out after one of its investors objected on moral grounds, according to Hanjura. “Most of the VCs that we met in our early years were giving us ideas on how we should do paneer (cottage cheese) instead,” Hanjura said.

Licious now has more than 2.5 million users across 27 cities, according to Hanjura. As well as chicken, it sells mutton and seafood. The company has raised nearly $500 million in investments, including from Singapore-based Temasek Holdings and Japan’s Nichirei Corporation, and is valued at more than $1 billion. It has been joined in the more than $40 billion Indian meat market by other startups, including TenderCuts and FreshToHome.

With average order values relatively high at 600 rupees (around $7.70), the unit economics of the business look attractive, but Licious and its competitors face significant logistical challenges. The companies need to ensure standardized quality for their products and to build integrated cold chains to keep meat fresh, even in a Bengaluru summer, where temperatures routinely exceed 30 degrees Celsius.

Licious supplies around 50% of its own chickens and sources the rest from accredited farms. It has 40 chicken farms in the outskirts of Bengaluru, its own 125,000-square-foot meat processing plant (larger than the size of two football fields), and its own facilities to clean and prepare seafood. The company said it developed its own delivery bags that can keep meat and seafood at a temperature between 0 and 5 degrees for up to seven hours.

It is this consistency of quality as well as the wide choice of products and the buying experience that have kept customers like Bhuvaneswar coming back. He now orders 500 grams of chicken every four days and has joined Licious’ “Meatopia” loyalty program, which gives him free delivery on larger orders. “This may be a thing that’s particular to me: But I love the packaging. Packaging is awesome,” said Bhuvaneswar. “These guys sell meat like an Apple phone.”