Last month, Burma Burma launched a slew of packaged products. These include its famous lotus stem crisps, khow suey curry paste and fermented tea leaf salad dressing.
Burma Burma, however, is not the only restaurant that has begun offering its packaged sauces, snacks and dips. Delhi has the DIVA Casa Pantry and Big Fat Sandwich; Bengaluru has Hunan At Home, by the pan-Asian restaurant Hunan, and Paris Panini; Mumbai, apart from Burma Burma, has Yauatcha, CinCin and Sorrentina, among others.
While DIY meal kits have been around for some time, some restaurateurs had begun thinking of this as a way to build resilience into a food business frequently hit by policy changes even before the pandemic. Covid-19 and restaurant closures forced their hand.
While nothing can replicate the experience of visiting a favourite restaurant—eating out, after all, is a social occasion as much as a culinary one—stand-alone restaurants had to innovate to stay alive—and making their popular sauces, condiments, drizzling oils and flavoured salts available to patrons was a great way to do this. Some began keeping these products at their outlets, most allow orders to be placed on Instagram, generally limiting delivery to the cities the restaurants are located in. Some, like Burma Burma, have begun delivering across India. They are making sure they keep pricing, usually starting from ₹250, reasonable.
Ankit Gupta, co-founder of Burma Burma, says that earlier, guests at their six restaurants, across cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru, would often express a desire to carry home ready-made products. Now they can get them at home. “People are habituated to eating out several times a week and they want the same food experience while cooking at home. The ecosystem of hyperlocal delivery is amazing. People are aware and curious about different cuisines. It’s not a passing trend; these products are here to stay.”
Karyna Bajaj, executive director of KA Hospitality, which runs CinCin and Yauatcha, says that during the pandemic they have seen a spike in demand for desserts, patisserie items and condiments such as chilli oil. This paved the way for packaging and selling Yauatcha’s ever-popular chilli oils and ice cream and CinCin’s hand-rolled pastas in Mumbai.
Yauatcha launched its crowd-pleasing ice creams—honeycomb, hazelnut and praline, pecan and coffee, and chocolate pebble—there just last week. These ice creams, Bajaj notes, are already familiar to guests who have visited their restaurants. In brand-speak, they have a strong recall value, key to restaurant-driven retail products. She hopes to launch the chilli oil and ice creams at Yauatcha Kolkata and Bengaluru too.
When Nakul Chandra, CEO of Riga Foods, the parent company of DIVA, joined the group in 2019, he hoped to create a new retail business with products that leveraged the name of head chef Ritu Dalmia. His inspiration came from chefs like Momofuku’s David Chang, who offers packaged chilli flakes, seasoned salts and noodles in his name. The aim was to explore a new revenue stream as the restaurant business can be “extremely erratic”.
Also read | Hitting the sweet spot with healthier ice creams
“There are various aspects that come into play while running a restaurant, such as seasonality, rules and licensing fee varying in different states if one plans to expand, policies that come unannounced—food establishments should be located 50m from the highway in Delhi,” says Chandra. “I wanted to create a line of products which is independent and doesn’t get affected by these fluctuations. But the pandemic made us pivot much faster than we were ready (for).”
The Italian restaurant Sorrentina in Mumbai, located above Foodhall in Santacruz, placed its breads and tiramisu on the shelves of the premium food retail store. When the pandemic hit, they diversified their product offering to include crackers, dips and DIY pizza kits. The business draws inspiration from the European-origin restaurant chain Eataly, which offers a range of high-quality pantry products. Aabhas Mehrotra, executive chef at Sorrentina, has ambitious plans of being the Ching’s Secret of Italian food. They have opened a central commissary in Mumbai and dark stores, hole-in-the-wall spaces to store these products for delivery, to expand their footprint in the city. They plan to replicate this model in Delhi and Bengaluru.
Mehrotra says restaurant-led consumer goods will include alcohol too, in collaboration with alcobev companies. In fact, as 2020 drew to a close, Stranger & Sons partnered with The Bombay Canteen to launch the guava-flavoured gin-based bottled cocktail Perry Road Peru. It became the drink of the party season, tailor-made for gifting.
In two years, the market has evolved considerably. For gourmet food and ingredients also make for thoughtful—and impressive—gifts. A few weeks ago, DIVA Casa packed 250 units each of its best-sellers, basil pesto sauce ( ₹600), alio olio peperoncino ( ₹450) and almond biscotti ( ₹250), as gifts for a wedding.
There are challenges, of course: packaging without preservatives, ensuring longer shelf life, logistics. In the absence of cold chain facilities, restaurants find it difficult to deliver beyond the cities they are located in. Chandra says they have been getting orders from other cities but cannot fulfil them.
An unexpected challenge could come from home chefs, especially in a city like Bengaluru where robust sauces from chefs like Gautam Krishnankutty and home kitchen brands such as Mortars and Pestle have a loyal fan following. One avid cook, who doesn’t want to be named, wonders why she would buy condiments from restaurants when home chefs are giving her products that have a wow factor.
The restaurateurs, who are not aiming at just one city, remain optimistic. Like Chandra, who says a big consumer goods firm has approached them and they hope to be in national retail by the coming financial year.