Anchal Pandita’s Safapore serves authentic Kashmiri cuisine.
If you want to talk to Anchal Pandita about the richness of her native cuisine, Thursday to Sunday is not a good idea as her phone line buzzes incessantly for orders of tabak maaz, rogan josh, haak et al. Weekends are a flurry of activity at this small South Delhi restaurant that serves Kashmiri cuisine. Safapore is an antithesis of how we generally identify eating joints as. It is part of a burgeoning industry, which is touted to reach $1.5 billion by 2023. Welcome to the world of cloud kitchens or dark kitchens. For the uninitiated, this new trend to take Tier-1 and Tier-2 cities by storm is an offshoot of easy disposable income, convenience and frenetic work hours, focusing only on delivering food. Looking at the other end of the spectrum, setting up a cloud kitchen is a cost-effective measure as it saves restaurateurs from skyrocketing rentals, operational costs, and other overheads.
"Cloud kitchens are booming. Some of these are options available to order at home, all available at a value premium. The speed of delivery has improved, and packaging and food is delivered in a more hygienic way now," says Karan Tanna, hospitality expert and co-founder, Yellow Tie Hospitality. "With Delhi-NCR being notorious for its traffic jams, people prefer to eat in. Since the capital costs and operating costs are relatively lesser, the entry barrier is limited. Aggregators have made it easy for restaurants to deliver and for customers to order at home," he says.
Twenty-something Pandita has been running Safapore with a team of seven people since it launch in 2018. Her specialty is Kashmiri cuisine with a menu that has a handful of delicacies, rotated over a small period of time to add novelty. "I wanted people to relish our traditional food. At the same time, I was mindful of the finances required to run a restaurant. We set up the kitchen and kept the menu small, only 20-25 dishes." Pandita is happy with the response her outlet has received since she has not tied up with aggregators; it’s social media or word of mouth that gets her orders.
EASY DOES IT
Cloud kitchens are a corollary of rapidly changing home management dynamics. For a generation where both the partners/spouses are working long hours, time and dedication required for cooking are taking a backseat. "People choose the convenience of ordering online and the attractive price factor. Add to this the lack of cooking skills, and I can see the sway cloud kitchens hold. The maximum enquiries I get are related to how to cook what I consider basic dishes," says author Kaveri Ponnapa, who is reviving Coorg cuisine through her writing. "For me it is a faceless transaction, which distances me from the food I am eating."
Dark kitchens also reflect on sociological changes in terms of eating. Antoine Lewis, Mumbai-based food critic and writer, offers a look at how dining out functioned till a decade ago. "Earlier, people ate out to celebrate an occasion. The deluge of restaurants in the past few years has made food a source of entertainment now. Our life has moved indoors now. It is like everything has to come to me’, even food," he says.
Surveys done by market aggregators such as Swiggy and Zomato, in the last three years, show that breakfast is the most ordered meal followed by dinner with lunch coming in last. The Netflix’ generation remains the biggest customers of eating in. Why not? It is the easiest way to have food. No one has the time to buy, chop and cook, says 22-year-old student Vasundhra Chauhan, who orders at least one meal online every day. "I am on the move as early as seven and I come back late. Ordering food from outside is the only way I am surviving, and I prefer cloud kitchens because the food is not expensive and I am sure it’s fresh," states Bhumika Chaudhary, a copywriter. Restaurants doing home deliveries are not a preferred choice as diners believe their prices are the same as dining in menu. "Why would I pay for ambience and other frills when I am eating at my own place? This is where this setup scores. The food is affordable," says Pramod Das, a consultant.
Reports indicate that Uber cofounder Travis Kalanick is set to sweep the Indian market with CloudKitchens, which is being valued at $5 billion after Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth funds pumped in $400 million. "A consumer is willing to pay a premium cost for accessibility and with the everincreasing competition in the restaurant industry, high investments required to sustain the business have contributed to restaurateurs shifting to cloud kitchens. With lower rents, lower staff salary, the flexibility of operating multiple brands and distinctive menus is what has given cloud kitchens a boost," says Sabbir Ansari, who recently launched chef-led multi-brand cloud kitchen Eathos. The lure of dark kitchen is difficult to resist, and soon, competition will be manifold. "Dark kitchens are capitalising on an overall consumer market shift towards home delivery. Hence these kitchens have a higher and faster chance to achieve break-even; hence higher profitability and that suggests the model is here to stay," shares Manoj Kudtarkar, co-founder, QSR Brands India Pvt. Ltd.
Does it sound like the death knell for the hospitality industry that’s battling numerous challenges to sustain profits? "I feel technology has proven to be disruptive for restaurants, and we are seeing their death. The industry is directionless at the moment. It should not be surprising because historically, restaurants were never a celebrated place. It was accessed by only the upper class that would go and spend on a food-related experience," says Lewis. "On the other hand, cloud kitchens are doing a remarkable job in basics such as labelling, containers, pricing, preserving food, etc," says Kudtarkar.