Indian street food bites back …

For those of you who wince at the thought of street food anywhere – how about transforming your perception by eating your way along the buzzing streets … of India?

Next year, Delhi will host the Commonwealth Games and there are some smart entrepreneurs who are re-writing the rule book by sending out their food on clean as a whistle carts.  It could be chaats from Northern India; Nimkis from Bengal; Vada Pav from Bombay, Appams from South India or even momos from Ladakh. The key to it all is hygiene – very much the idea behind a scheme in Thailand that certifies street food vendors as safe to eat. Street food is on the up.

As the recession has deepened all over the world, fine dining has become a thing of the past and eating at home a no frills imperative. So, the idea of nutricious and economical food from all over the culinary world on a cart in a street near you could have legs – provided the hygiene factors are taken well care of. Think of the street theatre and the festive spirit that could raise this culinary experience to even dizzier heights! 

In India, eating a la cart is rooted in the strong traditions of street food all over the country. Walk through any of the major cities and there are streets where local, national and international fare fuses into an experience that draws you back. In Mumbai, for example, dishes like bhel puri and pao bhaji have long been the stuff of legend and in his book, Maximum City, Suketa Mehta calls Bombay the “city of vada-pao”, vada being a spiced dal fritter sandwiched between two pieces of pao(bread). Office workers buy this on the route to work like New Yorkers grab a toasted bagel. In Calcutta, there is the traditional soft, airy luchis; slow cooked potatoes flavoured with cinammon, cardamom and asafetida. And all of these street offerings fuse along railway platforms on endless journeys across this vast country as the cry goes up “chai garam” (hot tea) and the smells drift in through the crowd.

Now, a trend is building to formalise many of these offerings into a la cart experience that is likely to grow in sophistication without losing that essential ingredient – the street. Hot Dog was one of the first new ventures to launch carts on popular high streets and malls. Then, there was “Hot and Juicy”; Yo Chinas “Yo-on-the-go”, Street Foods of India owned by Zorawar Kalra and Ferns & Petals “Chatak Chaat” – their food can best be described as taste bombs.

 Worldwide, restaurant takings are down by an average of 20%. Many restaurants – even those of signature chefs – are closing. So, what about these small format food chains? Chilli Seasons new food initiative, A La Cart, has recently launched a pilot in Delhi. It serves innovative Pan Asian food including satays, pita pockets and wraps with a distinct gourmet flavour.

Watch out for all sorts of up market High Streets and other such venues transforming the food on offer. Suddenly, the informal world of food could go mainstream and this could transform the logic of several Business models.

Anyone for Glastonbury?

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6 Responses to Indian street food bites back …

  1. Malcolm Harper says:

    This is fascinating stuff, putting the producer in the driving seat, empowering the small vendor and all that. One merit is that it by-passes Reliance, Shoppers Stop and all that. But, ‘cutting out the middleman’ can only achieve so much. Big retailers, such as the above and many more, and the likes of ITC and HIL, really do run the show, and will, like it or not. Can we not achieve even more if we can show them that they can benefit from buying from small producers, by developing value chains back into the moffusil and beyond. Pepsi is buying potatoes for Frito Lays from marginalised tribal farmers in Jharkand, Spencers buys fresh produce from small farmers in Gujarat and all over, and such relationships need not be exploitative. Take a look at the (admittedly few) examples in my recent ‘Inclusive Value Chains in India’, and let’s try to persuade other powerful players to learn from these experiences.

  2. Abhijit Ghosh says:

    AMUL, Anand, India

    I would like to share my story on AMUL – an emerging dairy cooperative in Gujarat province of India. It is here that I did my fieldwork over some 8 months. Among other things, one thing that AMUL has mastered is its procurement which entails collecting milk (typically 2 liters or less per member) from about 600,000 members spread out in 1000 villages of Kheda district. The question that comes to mind is how does AMUL do it? Simple…or at least looks simple.

    AMUL hires “transport contractors” to do this job. AMUL has a system of milk routes whereby each milk truck collects milk from 6-8 villages on its way back to AMUL. Each village has a Village Cooperative Society (primary coop) where members pour their milk twice a day and get payments for the milk poured twice. AMUL has installed specialized Automated Milk Collection System machines (AMCS) which includes a computerized system for maintaining records of milk collected from each member and the quality characteristics of the milk so collected. The milk is usually collected early morning within about 45 mninutes. Usually there are 300 members per village coop. The milk is stored in cans, and these days increasingly in Bulk milk chillers. The trucks/tankers come and get the milk stored either in cans or Bulk chillers en route to AMUL. AT AMUL, the milk is again graded, its Fat and SNF content measured and a report sent to the Accounts department for payment to the Village coop in question. AMUL re-organizes its transport routes frequently to ensure that the cost of transportation is minimized. For villages that are very far from the dairy, the milk from such village coops is sent first to a nearby chilling center (by trucks) and then from the chilling center transported to the dairy by tankers. The whole system is designed for smooth operations and ensures that village coop members deliver their milk on time given that the truck that collects milk arrives at a specified time.

  3. robjbell says:

    Thanks for this, Abhijit.The AMUL story is fascinating and not just from the supply chain angle but from the Brand perspective.

    Catch a plane in India and the chances are that the mini tubs of butter will be branded Amul. They have done a fantastic job in this area and it would be useful to understand how this could be developed throughout the Dairy industry.

    Back in the 80’s and 90’s I worked in Ireland; Sweden; Finland; Spain and Portugal on Cooperatives. The idea was to develop their branded proposition. Having spent some time in India I think that this is worth looking at as a catalyst for the much needed growth in Agri Processing. After all, whereas Brasil “adds value” to > 70% of its harvest; India does so with < 5%.

    Any thoughts on the mechanics of branding in the Amul case and, elsewhere?

  4. Abhijit Ghosh says:

    I think AMUL’s brand building was a very painful process, considering that, when they frist entered the world of brands, most people took a fancy for foreign or foreign-sounding brands.

    Many thought that the name AMUL (deriving from AMULYA which means priceless in Sanskrit)won’t fly given that most brands were foreign. But AMUL’s chairman who was a Gandhian would never accept a foreign sounding name. He insisted on an Indian name. When they launched their branded butter, AMUL faced stiff competition from two brands – one foreign and the other foreign sounding. The first was ANCHOR butter of New Zealand, and the second was Polson butter of India. Polson made vacreated butter from aged cream collected from villages. This aged cream was subjected to a vacreator which gave it a sour taste. When AMUL launched their branded butter, they made it from fresh milk and so it tasted insipid to many of the buyers in metropolitcan markets.

    AMUL understood this and appropriately added a permitted flavor to their butter so that it did not taste bland as before. Moreover AMUL’s butter represented indigenous effort and so the Commerce Minister back then supported the brand by ordering a cut in butter imports.

    Besides, AMUL also let professionals do what they did best. AMUL realized that “advertizing” was not their forte and so they gave this account to an up and coming “Press Syndicate” which gave AMUL the fresh and pure image that they always wanted.

    After 1965, AMUL’s brand got a facelift with their longest running outdoor billboard campaign – “Utterly butterly delicious” that presented the sprightly “Amul Butter Girl” in a polka dotted dress – an image that millions of Indians today relate to AMUL. AMUL has over time adapted itself and come out with lots of traditional dairy products as well as trendy health products for the health conscious Generation X.

    AMUL is today undoubtedly the market leader in the dairy products market and a lot of the credit must go to people like Shri T.K. Patel (charismatic farmer leader), Dr. Kurien (able administrator though at time autocratic), and Mr. Dalaya (AMUL’s famous dairy technocrat) – men who saw AMUL through its diffiuclt times.

  5. Abhijit Ghosh says:

    Forgive the million typos in my post…

  6. robjbell says:

    Fascinating stuff, Abhijit. You have written of the process and now of the brand building itself. I found this equally instructive. What do you think that other Cooperatives elsewhere in India can learn from this? Are there any other AMULs out there?

    Also, it is well known that as Emerging Economies move forward, demand for dairy products increases. China and India illustrate this. There is much to learn and it is of real use to explore how this end-to-end supply chain from small farmer to aggregation to process to distribution works.

    What about technology transfer – fresh or good practice and skills training? What about the equipment that can deliver a better, faster and affordable supply chain for perishables? In fact, what can be learned for fruit and vegetable produce?

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