‘Born to be a grocer’ has a different meaning for me. After the traditional career track of IIT, IIM and Hindustan Unilever, I was going to be a grocer, much to my family’s disbelief. Selling ‘daal-chawal’ as a chosen vocation for the educated son was not their idea of smart choices. I wasn’t alone. I walked down the path with R K Damani of D Mart and Kishore Biyani of Big Bazaar, both avid customer observers and business creators by betting on the Indian consumer. Customer observation and insight hunting is now an instinct with me, after over a decade of consistent aisle running in all parts of the world. To my wife’s delight I love visiting stores, but much to her chagrin, I equally love chasing women customers to see what they are buying! Food, brands and retail, my vocation, catches everyone’s fancy. I’ve stirred up some recent excitement for myself shaping food stores for different ends of the market spectrum including upmarket Foodhall and now Fresh produce led neighbourhood store RelianceFresh, etc. I’m excited by various cuisines, languages and recently, learning to play music. But through all my adventures, one thing has stood by me always, a good cup of masala chai! Meet me @SupermarketWala
If a chef comes, can talk of food be far behind? A little while back, I was at a tony little dinner after an art show in Mumbai. One of the guests was celebrity chef Sanjeev Kapoor. It was hard not to hear the food related conversation that people were having with him, about the easy availability of Japanese seaweed and their recipe for couscous salad and the great quality of herbs at organic food stores. Sanjeev listened with an absorbed look of concentration, and then whispered to me with amusement, ‘sab salad aur dressing ki baat kartey hain, par samosa chutney khaate hain” (everyone here talks of salad and dressings but loves their samosa chutney)!
Master Chef Sanjeev Kapoor of course didn’t mean what he said literally. Burmese khowsuey, Japanese tempuras, Lebanese baba ganoush are regular offerings at parties in upmarket homes. Five years ago one would have had to do a Wikipedia search to find out what Quinoa and Amaranth meant. Today, any health food fan knows what they are. Sushi kits are hot sellers at exclusive food stores like Foodhall and Nature’s Basket. Yes, global food is truly growing and becoming interesting in India. It is an important marker, a badge of sophistication for people who are climbing up the well-being ladder. You “need to know” how to say ‘guacamole’ without an accent and “need to have” avocados and asparagus in your refrigerator, if you want to signal arrival to yourself, and others around you.
And yet, Indians want their samosas and parathas while also seeking modernity, sophistication, premiumisation of what they eat and offer. From that point of view, the Indian palate wrapped up in modernity is a recipe for magic, a much bigger magic. There are many more consumers for an exotic samosa than there are for guacamole, and that is going to remain the case for the foreseeable future. Most local canny vendors of food have already understood this. The other day, I went to buy dhokla from a popular snack shop in the neighbourhood. “Sir, which dhokla?” was the question tossed at me by the counter girl, who then offered me a taste of the amazing range... cheese dhokla, sandwich dhokla, tiranga, schezwan, crisp and of course, the original khaman dhokla. The most popular varieties were cheese and tiranga! All the fancy new variants were priced 30 percent above the good old khaman; nobody cared about the price.
At a recent banquet, I was served traditional Konkani sol kadi in shot glasses. The starters included pav bhaji in martini glasses with a slice of crusty flatbread.
These days, I get to enjoy a far wider and more interesting variety of panipuri’s in all weddings, from different parts of the country, than I have ever done in my life. Indian street food has been ‘discovered’ by society all over again, albeit with a more sophisticated twist.
A huge discovery is that traditional Indian food still continues to be the biggest draw at all events. If I was looking for a much bigger phenomenon of sophistication of food, and a real mega food business opportunity in India, I should be taking the ‘but, eat samosa’ hint from Sanjeev Kapoor. Whenever anyone has cracked this magic, a marketing explosion has followed. Nestle’s Maggi was all about making noodles ‘desi’, while Lays’ Kurkure was all about making the Indian bhujia more sophisticated and ‘western’. Small entrepreneurs and shopkeepers are also climbing this bandwagon. Indian manufacturers like Haldiram’s, with their Bisleri water panipuris at their retail outlets and bhelpuri combo packs in modern packaging, have figured which way the wind is blowing.
In simpler, less sophisticated times recipe innovation and transmission happened through the conventional powerful channel of granny to mum and aunts to our kitchens. Today this process is too gradual for the rapidly exploding and impatient expectations of the Internet age consumer. The new recipe and knowledge transmission channels are TV shows, YouTube and Web pages. And the new grannies are celebrity chefs, Google ‘uncle’ and Wiki ‘aunty’. And the consumers are lapping it all up. I love it when I see “Six interesting things to do with leftover rice”, from Sanjeev Kapoor. That’s six grannies together! I clap when I’m offered the choice of branded Bombay Bhel or masala dosa rolls, neatly modified and packaged, on flights. They have to still improve their recipes, but I’m waiting; not settling for a bland lettuce and mayo sandwich!
The fact is, people want to celebrate their evolving purchasing power and tastes through exotic food, while remaining close to what they have grown up liking. To do this, they need to be helped. As in most consumer products, in this also, it needs the expertise of master chefs, food specialists, large brands and their product teams to bring in sophistication and bold experimentation. I believe the next level of magic will happen when Maggi aunty, Knorr chachi and Heinz uncle join in the ‘samosa sophistication’ opportunity. There are some signs. For instance, Pillsbury has just acquired local brand Parampara. It’s a small but emphatic start. A huge branded business opportunity is waiting in the wings. The customer is ready; but I hope the next ‘Masala Maggi’ makers are listening?