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Moveable feasts

mumbai Updated: May 19, 2013 01:32 IST
Sriya Ray Chaudhuri
Sriya Ray Chaudhuri
Hindustan Times
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Just back from a two-year stint in Dubai, 27-year-old freelance writer Ruma Sinha was throwing a housewarming party for her friends in November and wanted her food to stand out. So she ordered an authentic Thai spread, not from a restaurant but rather from a Thai tiffin service.

“I opted for a home caterer because most restaurants end up Indianising niche cuisines,” says Sinha. “They also don’t offer lesser-known dishes. For restaurants, it’s all about green curry and red curry. I was really happy to find a tiffin service provider in the city who was completely clued in to the finer nuances of the cuisine. At the end of the meal, all my guests were asking me where I’d found the food.”

Sinha ordered her spread from Banana Leaf Thai Tiffin Services, founded in mid-2012 by Manpreet Kaur, 37, a former executive at a travel company who had recently returned to Mumbai after nine years in Thailand.

“I had got used to Thai food, but couldn’t find those flavours anywhere in the city,” she says. “So I started this service, because I knew there would be demand for it from others like me who were yearning for the real thing at a reasonable price.”

This sense of having spotted a gap in Mumbai’s multi-crore food market has spurred other entrepreneurial foodies to offer similar services, with a number of such companies opening up over the past three years — from Mediterranean, Oriental and Thai tiffin service Foodizm to Modern European catering start-up Silver Spoon and two-woman operation Little Food Co, which offers Korean, Japanese, Mexican and Lebanese cuisine.

“Overall, Mumbai’s culinary landscape has changed a lot over the past decade and will change more over the next. A greater diversity of cuisine promises to be one hallmark of this change, and this is now visible not just in the restaurants but also in the tiffin services,” says Mangal Dalal, food writer and founding partner of Restaurant Week India. “Some of it is due to easier access to information about other cuisines, whether through television, the internet or other media. However, since food is best eaten rather than described, a lot of it can be attributed to the fact that Indians are travelling more, experiencing these cuisines first-hand and creating a market for it when they return home.”

In a city of astronomical real-estate rates, this model of keeping operations small, often home-based, and delivering to the consumer based on pre-set orders is a good way to hedge your bets in an industry where there is much profit to be made but also a very high risk of failure.

With no commercial space and no staff, Kaur, for instance, has managed to keep overheads extremely low. “I started with an initial investment of just R10,000. I cook in my home kitchen and make the deliveries myself,” she says. “Living in Powai, I have a large captive audience of officer-goers and expats at the many multinational company offices in the area.”

The cosmopolitan nature of the city makes it easier for entrepreneurs to run a niche cuisine venture. “The numbers are not large, about five orders a day, but these clients really know Thai food,” says Kaur. “They appreciate authenticity and that’s exactly why I’m in the business.”

On the plate
Silverspoon Gourmet
Gourmet catering service for Modern European cuisine
Launched in January 2012, by husband-wife duo Joshua D’Souza, a chef, and Neha Manekia, a former human resources executive

Joshua D’Souza, 30, and his wife Neha Manekia, 31, believe the Mumbai market is ready for global cuisine. “Thanks to cookery shows like MasterChef, people know about ingredients, how different meats are cooked and that European fare is not restricted to pasta dishes,” says Manekia. “But fine-dining at home is still a nascent market, which makes it a good opportunity for entrepreneurs.”

The couple’s main initial investment was renting a central kitchen in Mumbai Central where a team prepares gourmet meals for couples, groups, parties and office-goers.

“People are so open to experimenting,” says Manekia. “Even within a relatively new cuisine, they are open to trying something different.”

Demand has been rising steadily, from two or three orders a week last year to about 10 a week today. Most orders are placed about 24 hours in advance, and the couple also provides servers, crockery and cutlery for house parties.

“Silverspoon uses all the right ingredients and their vegetarian options go beyond tofu,” says Manjari Verma, a businesswoman who travels frequently and loves European cuisine but says she had a hard time finding authentic alternatives in Mumbai. “I order from them often, sometimes for just myself and sometimes for parties. It’s gourmet food, and is priced accordingly, but I am happy to pay more for authentic fare.”

Foodizm
Tiffin service for Oriental, Mediterranean and Thai cuisine
Launched in February 2013 by actor Sai Gundewar and fitness trainer Vinod Channa

On the sets of reality show Survivor India in 2011, in the Caramoan islands in the Philippines, an unlikely conversation was taking place. Two contestants, actor Sai Gundewar, 35, and restaurateur Rohit Narang, were busy chalking out plans for the former’s foray into the niche food services industry in Mumbai. Just over a year later, Gundewar’s Foodizm has taken flight, supplying an ever-increasing clientele with authentic Oriental, Mediterranean and Thai meals.

In the three months since Foodizm launched operations — with a startup capital of R8 lakh, a contract that gives them access to the Ambassador kitchen, which is used for the preparation of in-flight meals, and a tie-up with dabbawalas to distribute the daily meals — it has seen orders grow to 250 meals a day and is looking at breaking even in about 18 months.

“We ordered from Foodizm when we had guests from Singapore,” says Stafford Braganza, who works at L’Oréal India. “The Oriental meal was authentic. Our guests loved it, and so did we.”

Little Food Co

Gourmet catering service for Italian, Mexican,
Korean, Japanese and Mediterranean cuisine
Launched in 2010 by Bhakti Mehta and her mother Amita

When marketing executive Bhakti Mehta, 28, and her mother Amita, 58, launched their niche food service, they wondered whether the city was ready for their range of Italian, Mexican, Korean, Jap-anese and Mediterranean fare.

They started with just R10,000 in capital, using profits from the first order to fund preparations for the second.

“Still, it was something I wanted to try, because I have always loved good food and working with good ingredients,” says Mehta. “Also, I believed Mumbai’s population had become so cosmopolitan that authentic gourmet catering was sure to find takers.”

By 2011, the business had taken off, was recording profits and the Mehtas hired more manpower and machinery. “For the first 18 months, I cooked at home to save on overhead costs. Then we started renting a small flat to use as our kitchen,” says Mehta.

She now has a staff of two cooks and a roster of three freelance cooks whom she calls in when volumes rise.

“My guests and I love her home-style Italian food. It’s so different from the Italian fare you get at restaurants here,” says Shivani Mutatkar, a media professional who has been ordering meals and party fare from Mehta for two years. “The lasagna she makes is at par with any restaurant in Italy.”