‘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
"Sir, will your idli be plain, Kanchipuram, or Guntur?” a smartly-dressed woman at the counter near one of the departure gates of Hyderabad Airport asks me. I glance through the witty one-line descriptions of each variety of idli and go for the Kanchipuram idlis which come with their own set of flavours (cumin, ginger and pepper).
"One kanchipuram...," she whispers into a microphone next to the counter. Turning to me, she adds, “Today, we have sambar in vengaya Tamil style or tomato Kanara style. Which one would you prefer? And shall I make a combo with filter coffee, buttermilk or Coke?”
I blurt out my choices from the digital screens which display the menu. I notice that they have special takeaway options for idli sambar. After paying Rs 90 for my idli-Coke combo, I move two steps ahead to the delivery desk. I see a tray (with tissues, Coke and a straw) awaiting me. Within 30 seconds, a plate of steaming fresh Kanchipuram idli and a bowl of vengaya (small onion) Tamil sambar rests on my tray. I add two types of chutneys from the ‘chutney bar’. It has many varieties from coconut, tomato and tamarind chutneys to esoteric ‘podis’.
As I enjoy my fresh, aromatic, tasty idli meal, I notice similar-sized stalls of a Pizza brand, a burger joint and of course, the place I described above - the Idli Factory.
In their construction and layout, all three stalls are nearly identical: An order booking counter with a touchscreen kiosk manned by uniformed youngsters, a visible kitchen area, a capped-and-gloved staff, disposable containers, tissues, bright food pictures, menus, day’s specials and more.
I realise that our humble idli stands alongside the burger patty and the pizza base, around which a whole world of food choices and modern delivery methods have come up which make casual dining a happy activity for families across the globe.
Global brands like McDonald’s and Pizza Hut have taken the casual, functional eating occasions to a level of excellence. At a cross-cultural platform, they bring in standardisation of products and service, hygiene, transparency of process, branding and a very contemporary ambience.
They also establish in our minds a new price point for casual dining: Rs 50 for a simple burger and Rs 100 for a snack meal. We get used to new price points and with all the modernity and good service, we don't give much thought to the value we get.
It is important to realise that no vada-pav or idli eatery, starting from Udipi prices, can hope to scale the Rs 40 price point. Those price points (and customers who have no problems in paying that price), are a result of global players in this space.
At a 100-rupee price point for an idli and coffee, any Udipi diner worth its salt knows that it can create a completely exciting world of taste, ambience, choice and service. Courtesy McDonald’s and its global peers, customers are more than willing to pay Rs 100 for an idli meal too!
That’s when our Udipis and Darshanis can morph into Idli Factorys or Banana Leaf Cafes. They know their splendid recipes and fresh food formulae for generations together. The pots and plates and backroom methods change a bit and we have idli-dosa joints, chat-and-bhel counters and ice gola stalls in malls and elsewhere, which can attain global standards with ease.
At a highway halt at Muzaffarnagar near Delhi, McDonald’s and Haldiram’s are located within a common facility. They share a common parking lot, security area, restrooms and housekeeping services. Both have a very modern decor. Their prices too are similar.
Their menus are completely different, though. Haldiram’s even has a special Vrat (fasting) menu during the fasting week of Navratri in North India. This is a popular highway stop for people driving in and out of Delhi. The parking lot is full; this place is busy! At the same hour of the day, the number of people eating at the Haldiram’s side of the facility is double that at McDonald’s.
The shape of the Indian casual dining opportunity is now crystal clear. Thank you, McDonald’s!