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Cloud kitchens move beyond the metros

From Shillong to Bhavnagar, Indore to Palakkad, ‘ghost kitchens’ have sprung up during the pandemic as young entrepreneurs cater to the demand for home-delivered food

Stephanie Pariat, a dentist by profession, started Breaking Bread, a cloud bakery in Shillong.. Photo courtesy: Stephanie Pariat
Stephanie Pariat, a dentist by profession, started Breaking Bread, a cloud bakery in Shillong.. Photo courtesy: Stephanie Pariat

On 6 June, Stephanie Pariat, a dentist, launched Breaking Bread, a cloud bakery in Shillong. It all started in May, when the city was under lockdown and most shops were either closed or selling only the bare essentials. Her husband Jonathan, a South African, was missing fresh bread. So he suggested the couple make sourdough at home. This personal project grew rapidly in scope, with requests coming in from family and friends in the neighbourhood. Over a month, it expanded its reach further.

Pariat and her sister Melanie decided to turn professional, formally launching their cloud bakery, Breaking Bread, on Instagram. “The phrase ‘to break bread with someone’ means to share a meaningful connection over a meal, often bringing together two people or groups who have been apart,” says 29-year-old Pariat. She hopes the name conveys this feeling of warmth and forges bonds during this time of social distancing and isolation.

Over the past eight months, since the covid-19 pandemic began its sweep through the country, several young entrepreneurs from tier 2 and 3 cities have started cloud kitchens. Some are entirely new to business, others have had prior experience of running different businesses. Some, like Pariat, are professionals.

Archana Vohra, director, small and medium business, Facebook India, says the pandemic has prompted many businesses to pivot. Even restaurants, hit severely by the pandemic, have converted themselves into cloud kitchens, focusing on deliveries and takeaways as people confined to homes order in for a respite from cooking duties. Minus the overheads of dine-in spaces and salaries for serving staff, these ghost kitchens can operate out of non-premium locations with lower rentals, often working with a staff of just three or four.

The pandemic may have offered a bigger opportunity but the future for cloud kitchens was already bright. Internet-focused advisory firm RedSeer Management Consulting estimated the market size was $400 million (around 29,400 now) in 2019. In fact, in a recent report, RedSeer described cloud kitchens as the “secret sauce to survive in the post-COVID restaurant market”. India’s Booming Cloud Kitchen Opportunity And The Challenges In A Tight Market, an October 2019 report from Datalabs by Inc42+, which reports on the Indian startup ecosystem, estimated the projected market size of cloud kitchens at $1.05 billion by 2023.

The key drivers of this growth lie outside metropolitan cities. Though most kitchens are pricing their dishes economically to increase reach, social media is helping them to establish a connection with consumers and make their brands visible. It’s also economical. Using Facebook, WhatsApp or Instagram for outreach saves entrepreneurs the expense of setting up a website or digital operations.

“We see cloud kitchens using Facebook and Instagram not just in metros but also in tier 2 cities such as Bhopal, Indore, Lucknow and Bhavnagar, among others,” says Vohra, adding that “digital” is a great equaliser. When small businesses use social media, they get access to the same opportunities, reach and tools as large businesses in metros. “Nowhere is this more relevant than for small businesses from small towns,” she adds.

The Belly Treats kitchen was set up in Indore in June this year once the authorities began to allow deliveries. Photo courtesy: Eshan Neema
The Belly Treats kitchen was set up in Indore in June this year once the authorities began to allow deliveries. Photo courtesy: Eshan Neema

And they are using these tools innovatively. So you have Camcook, a cloud kitchen in Lucknow known for its smoky butter chicken, using the hashtag #YouAskWeAnswer to respond to customer queries about hygiene and safety. Belly Treats in Indore, Madhya Pradesh, has been sharing live feeds from the kitchen, responding to queries on its delivery systems and offering reassurance on hygiene. People watch the videos on WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram, spreading the word among family and friends.

At Vox Kitchen in Palakkad, Kerala, WhatsApp has emerged as the major ordering platform, making it easier for the team to chat with customers and make recommendations. Almost 90% of social media queries have led to orders.

The number and timing of orders reflects consumption habits. For instance, Indore doesn’t have a lunch culture, so most orders on weekdays come for light evening meals and dinners. In Guwahati, people crave post-work midnight meals. What’s common, however, is that order numbers go up on weekends, rising to 200 per day, from 70-80 on the other days. Most focus on multi-cuisine menus, offering comfort food like wraps, rolls, biryanis and momos.

Some cloud kitchens are helmed by those with prior experience in the hospitality industry, who bring in a certain level of professionalism and understanding of quality standards.

Belly Treats, for instance, is run by Eshan Neema of Surya Hospitality. He completed a master’s in hotel management from Les Roches Switzerland, and went on to work, among others, with the Bajaj group of hotels and The Oberoi, Bengaluru. When he returned to Indore in 2014, he started Surya. Today, he has the franchise for Farzi Café in the city and also manages the catering for the government-owned Residency Club.

He had planned to pivot to a cloud kitchen in November last year but couldn’t owing to other commitments. “Then the lockdown happened, and I was able to invest time and effort in the planning,” says Neema. He started Belly Treats in June, once the authorities in Indore began allowing home delivery. Today, the kitchen, spread across 1,000 sq. ft, offers tandoori and Chinese dishes.

“People don’t go out for lunch meetings. But they like having light meals in the evenings. So, between 3-7pm, we deliver rolls, sandwiches, wraps and cold coffees, which are immensely popular,” says Neema, who works with a staff of seven in the kitchen, practising social distancing norms, and a delivery team of four.

Their Geetha Bhavan neighbourhood is home to another cloud kitchen, started by Aayush Jaiswal in July. Jaiswal, who says the pandemic has made it all too clear that just a dine-in model won’t work, runs three brands—Momo Jomo, Dessert Monk and Cheesy AF Pizzas—from there. “People are looking for hygienic, contactless and delicious food options,” he says.

Aayush Jaiswal runs three cloud kitchen brands in Indore, Momo Jomo, Dessert Monk and Cheesy AF Pizzas. Photo courtesy: Aayush Jaiswal
Aayush Jaiswal runs three cloud kitchen brands in Indore, Momo Jomo, Dessert Monk and Cheesy AF Pizzas. Photo courtesy: Aayush Jaiswal

Since the simplest route for a cloud kitchen to reach consumers is via social media, he opted for brands with focused storylines and cuisines that would appeal to millennials. His cloud kitchen is particularly busy on weekends, getting around 200 orders a day. The number falls to 50 on Mondays and Tuesdays. “The orders pick up as the week progresses,” he adds. A customer can club orders from all three brands in one order.

Cloud kitchens also allow entrepreneurs to focus on ingredients, given that other operational costs are low. In Guwahati, The Two Guys Kitchen, which opened last month, claims it uses the best meats and produce. It has been started by Mohammad Shahid Alam, 29, a former front-office executive at hotels like the Holiday Inn Express in Chennai. “I always wanted to open a cloud kitchen in my home town. I have seen it work so well in the metros,” he says.

Even though The Two Guys Kitchen is currently operational from 11am-11pm, he plans to extend the timings beyond midnight. “A lot of professionals in the city are working from home right now. They work till 1-2am and want to eat something after finishing work,” says Alam, whose best- selling dishes include momos and chicken biryani. Operating out of a small kitchen, measuring 360 sq. ft, he manages with three cooks, three helpers and two delivery persons. They receive 50-70 orders on weekdays, with numbers going up on weekends.

Like Alam, most of these entrepreneurs prefer to manage the deliveries to maintain control over quality and hygiene. “Also, food aggregators charge 23-26% commission, a cost which ultimately the consumers have to bear,” says Mohamed Zunnoon, who started Vox Kitchen in Palakkad with his cousin, Mohzin Aslam, on 3 June after two months of preparation.

He too keeps control of deliveries, charging fuel costs of 6.5 a kilometre. Most dishes are priced at 120-189, with the most popular being the special Nidhi Parotta, with a range of vegetarian and non-vegetarian fillings. “Ninety per cent of our sales are converted through social media,” says Zunnoon, who is new to the F&B industry—he owns textile showrooms across Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala.

A food enthusiast, he started Resto Cafe in Bengaluru earlier this year but had to shut it when the lockdown started. He headed home and started Vox in his own kitchen, with two chefs. “We have got a great response and I now plan to take a bigger space of at least 2,500 sq. ft with a staff of 16 people,” he adds.

The cloud kitchen format allows for interesting collaborations as well. For instance, Pariat does a Friday special collaboration with budding chefs and bakers. The idea is to create international meals. Due to the pandemic and a global lockdown, many people who were globetrotters have been restricted to their homes. “People want to continue experiencing the world through food. And through our collaboration, we have given people a taste of Germany, Poland, South Africa, Ethiopia, Greece, France, and more,” says Pariat. She is also experimenting with indigenous grains such as black rice and sorghum in her signature multigrain sourdough. “I was first introduced to sourdough by a very talented homechef, Colette, in South Africa. From her, I learnt the use of only natural ingredients such as wild yeast. I don’t use any commercial yeast,” she explains. Hailing from a medical background, she understands the importance of good hygiene, and for this reason, she refuses to sell her bread to grocery stores, in spite of repeated requests. She only takes orders online, to be baked fresh. Such is the popularity of her products that she gets orders from as far as Mawsynnram, upper Shillong and even Jowai.

Many of these entrepreneurs firmly believe this is the way forward. “With covid-19 cases rising, we might end up with strict restrictions again, and dine-in services will be affected. But people will continue to get food delivered at home. That makes the ghost-kitchen format very relevant,” says Neema.

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