Food for Thought - Part II

The Times of India - 2005

In my previous column, I had wondered why the processed food ready to eat / ready to cook market had not blossomed, despite consumer conditions being fertile in terms of changing attitudes and lifestyle. I had concluded that it was due to suppliers not being able to get their product performance - price equations right, so as to create greater value for the consumer compared to existing traditional options and still be financially viable.

Thinking about it some more, I am coming to the conclusion that the "in-home convenient eating" market has also happened, only we don't notice it because it's format is different from branded packaged retort packs!

There are more and more women supplying dabbas of home made food in everyone of them big cities, with Bombay in the lead; their consumers are and not just to bachelors and hostel dwellers but homes as well.

The Maharaj or the lady who specializes in making chapattis and moves from home to home is another example of this - only she is a mobile human chapatti maker and not a polypack of chapattis. There are the roti-subzi kendras scattered in the more middle class suburbs of Mumbai, where you can get home cooked basic everyday food for a very reasonable price. At Hyderabad, for just Rs.17/- per meal and a deposit of Rs.500/- for the tiffin dabba, you can get a full basic meal, and, as one delighted housewife said to me, "no need to wash the dabba also". Ditto for Calcutta. Everyday food at a small neighbourhood place to take away or eat there. There are also several addresses in each city known to people who know, where you can collect your daily food or have it home delivered.

So the cook who cooked in your kitchen has been replaced by the cook who cooks in her own kitchen and supplies it to you; and by the cook at the professional kitchen (the value space is a 'langar' or 'community kitchen', not a restaurant).

So, effectively, we have a 'ready to eat' market created by "micro kitchens" and "micro dining rooms", localized and just like cook made it!

Similarly we have micro scale idli and dosa batter supply chains, 'home made' pickle makers, farsaan makers and so on. The "no brand", "outsourcing of the kitchen" model is here to stay and is steadily expanding the size of this pie. What will be the future of this "cottage sector" with the compelling proposition of "Just like home made …… so what if its not in my home" and attractive prices made possible by a low cost base?

Will it be the pioneer that loosened the rigid traditional ways of doing things but who lost out to more organised scalable business? Will it lose out to restaurant chains of standardised, predictable quality and taste, served in state of the art containers?

Will it lose out to a standard taste, national brand, in modern packaging that finally gets its price-performance point right? Will it lose out to take away big kitchens (Hyderabad House in Hyderabad is one example of this) in Food Bazaar displayed neatly in steel and glass containers? Somehow I think, somehow I think not. If Value = Benefit minus total cost to the consumer, then on the total cost, micro scale kitchens and micro scale dinning rooms will always be ahead. Lets take the Benefit part. The dominant consumer logic of this food category has always been that Bazaar Bought, Standardised = Cold and Clinical, therefore guilt inducing when you constantly feed it to the family. On the other hand Home Delivered = Warm and Wonderful, therefore halo shining! There is a consumer constructed myth here. (A Myth is a term used by cultural analysts to describe logical models consumers use to overcome contradictions.) The myth here is that bazaar bought is not cold and clinical, is only slightly less warm and wonderful than homemade, because it is made, on a small scale, at somebody else's home.

The cottage scale and the "no-brand", "not every one knows about this "nature of the offering is, in fact, what it has going for it.

If I were a food company or a food retailer, I would grow my business by targeting and mentoring this sector and enabling it to grow.