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Born to Be a Grocer

Thank You McDonald’s; Welcome Idli Factory

South Indian Fast-Food Heavenly dosa by Washington Park

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!

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Thanks McDonald,they have taught we Indians how to manage our eatery and also compete with them without compromising our taste,ingredients but definitely by making a vast makeover in ambiance.
Damodar, Very nicely written article, capturing the fact that Indian food, if it gets some basics right, has sky as it's limit. A Bangalore joint that is going places (literally - since they've now moved out of Bangalore) is Mast Kalanadar. With 25+ outlets, and good North Indian food, this should be a nice story, too.
Hi Samir, You will be glad to know that Forbes India has done a story on Mast Kalandar in early 2011. Here is the link http://forbesindia.com/article/work-in-progress/a-north-indian-restaurant-in-south-india/22502/1
Thanks!
Hi Samir, the biggest enabler is that the customer is now ready to pay a better price. Apart from better incomes, the efforts of global players hv helped open customers' minds. The real opportunity will be discovered in Indian food....by either global players or powerful locals like Mast Kalandar or Adigas. I think we are very close to inflection point here. Am glad you liked the argument I make. Thanks.

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Offline comments received....Paradise Biryani of Secunderabad is going pan India. Adiga's of Bangalore are simplifying and expanding model. Rajdhani thali of Bombay already has a national footprint. Naturals Ice Cream is expanding....all with fresh, global capital and modern practices! I'm lovin it!
Dear Boss...Sanskriti, Malgudi and many just outlets in Mumbai Malls follow the similar pattern. Its amazing to note that how Indian outlets 'modernize' in terms of SOP, MacDonalds and Pizaa Hut 'indianize' in terms of flavor...should we call this GLOCAL again?
Deep, scaling up is a lot of business science. Global brands have an advantage there. Many a Sanskriti, Rajdhani and Naturals will have to learn this from scratch. It helps to have global brands to learn from. Thats my point. On the other hand, it is difficult for proven global brands to localise, without making their own set of mistakes here. They need to unlearn a lot of things and that's not easy. So you are right, the market will be a melting pot for a while...
Gali paranthe wali, UPSC chaat wala, Rajender ka dhaba in Safdarjung Enclave, Karol Bagh Roshan di Tikki, Sarojini Nagar ke Pakorey in monsoons are still the moth-watering ideas in Delhi but perhaps old world..unable to follow your line "At a cross-cultural platform, they bring in standardization of products and service, hygiene, transparency of process, branding and a very contemporary ambiance." Now, a second generation Delhi entrepreneur with 50 years of flour milling but no food retailing experience envisions to launch pasta kiosks aimed at youth-on-the-go..Thank you, McDonald's! Very accurately pointed by you, his role model is not Haldiram but McD for speed, taste, experience ..Rs. 50 or Rs. 150 or even Rs. 350 for the chicken pasta ...anything for speed and taste ....the new consumer is also time starved when hungry Sir, casual dining to "speed dining" evolution is on the expressway !
Atulit, of 100 people who run 'local gem' food ventures, only 1 or 2 will possibly scale. Getting taste and consistency right in a large distrubuted business involves a lot of science and hard work. In the BIG Indian opportunity, there can be a market for all kinds. As for me, I would bet on a gol gappa bar, anokhe pakorey, idli factory, wrap shayp kind of ideas. Modern, cool, fast, standard but asking for no taste change from their customers....
Nandagopal Mannam
Damodar, Everything is fine we are prepared to pay anything but the the taste is pathetic idli, sambar and chutneys all are awful. If you have not eaten good stuff probably you may not know the difference. So the place,making presentation only matters idli factory scores.
Nandgopal, I find it a contradiction to discuss taste in the context of McDonalds. Consistency, standardisation, reliability, fun, yes. But taste, nah! And in the context of idli's, for freshness and tastes I would still trust a Darshini or Udipi more than any mall joint. In that sense I agree with you. Getting taste consistancy right at a scale, is indeed as complex as 'rocket science' and the global brands have perfected it over the years. I believe the 'Banana Leaf Cafe's' will get there. The sense of innovative choices and often good taste delivery by these new places leave me very optimistic on balance....
While McD played the role of a catalyst to stimulate casual dining... What would you say about the home grown Cafe Coffee Day that probably started the coffee culture? That too at a price point of 100+. They've been around for a while now. Also, a separate thought-the demographics of the people who are eating at Haldirams and Idly factory. Would they be middle aged people who have come to accept the "revised" price points of snacking , yet haven't gotten used to the taste of Mcd's and Pizzas and prefer dahi bhallas and idlis over a McVeggie?
Even I expected demographic difference, but found same number of kids at McD, as at Haldiram's. Mom eats dosa and kids dislike it and prefer pasta, is too simplistic a view. Younger folks want modernity and 'cool quotient' in the offerings. I think bisleri golgappa with six flavours and fillings to choose from, is cool...
Cafe Coffee Day and Barista are pioneers. However, their modernity comes bundled with asking us to change what we eat or drink. New kinds of coffee instead of the usual chai or kaapi. Lettuce, corn spinach sanwiches, cookies, etc etc. In this aspect, a CCD is closer to a McD. The new Haldiram's, Idli Factory or Banana Leaf Cafe's ask for no palate preference change. To that extent, their task is simpler and therefore opportunity bigger, in my opinion..
WOW!! Such a wonderful read. Very interesting......
another beautiful insight sir,well observed,already shared it and yes our indian food retailers have already started following this!when I saw outlet of 'KALYAN BHEL' in pune on macd lines,I was amazed two years back and now today many people following the trend........people do not mind spending rs.55/- for bhel puri if served in a nice ambience.......thanks again!
Nilesh, has upgradation and premiumisation of eateries started happening in places like Amravati, Nagpur also?
Yes Damodar ji,all Haldiram outlets in nagpur are totally upgraded as per modern retail format and in AMRAVATI also we are seeing this as next generation in business is tech savvy and global and customers also demanding 'metro experience'! Day is not far when soon we will have same ambience and service standards countrywide as has happened in western world and developed countries of Asia.
Will share this in my team meeting. Very Good Lesson. Jahan Chah wahan Rah. Ashish Sharma
Ashish, the lesson for me : learning from Mc Donald's, having conviction about the Indian preferences and thus winning with the customer. Also knowing that without the McD catalyst, a Haldiram's would possubly not happen. Good luck!
 
 
Damodar Mall
‘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
 
 
 
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March 23, 2013 23:51 pm by Mahendra Sinha
Thanks McDonald,they have taught we Indians how to manage our eatery and also compete with them without compromising our taste,ingredients but definitely by making a vast makeover in ambiance.
January 04, 2013 17:17 pm by @damodarmall
Hi Samir, the biggest enabler is that the customer is now ready to pay a better price. Apart from better incomes, the efforts of global players hv helped open customers' minds. The real opportunity will be discovered in Indian food....by either global players or powerful locals like Mast Kalandar o...
January 04, 2013 14:54 pm by Samir Kumar
Thanks!
January 04, 2013 14:46 pm by Forbes India
Hi Samir, You will be glad to know that Forbes India has done a story on Mast Kalandar in early 2011. Here is the link http://forbesindia.com/article/work-in-progress/a-north-indian-restaurant-in-south-india/22502/1
January 04, 2013 14:13 pm by Samir Kumar
Damodar, Very nicely written article, capturing the fact that Indian food, if it gets some basics right, has sky as it's limit. A Bangalore joint that is going places (literally - since they've now moved out of Bangalore) is Mast Kalanadar. With 25+ outlets, and good North Indian food, this s...