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The way we eat now: Seven ways the pandemic changed India’s food scene   

Speaking to experts across the food landscape in India, from chefs to restaurateurs, F&B brands and food consultants, the Lounge team has identified seven distinct trends that promise to change the way we eat, forever

Are QR code menus here to stay? We hope not.
Are QR code menus here to stay? We hope not. (iStock)

When you last went to a restaurant, what changes did you notice, apart from servers wearing masks and those annoying QR code menus that serve no discernible purpose? Perhaps you observed that your favourite watering hole has added a new outdoors section because most people are asking for open-air seating, or that your go-to burger shop now has a solid vegan and vegetarian section on the menu, or that the uppity fine-dining restaurant in your neighbourhood which used to be strictly lunch-and-dinner-only now offers all-day dining?

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The Geist Brewing Factory beergarden in Bengaluru. There is a distinct preference among diners for open-air, non air-conditioned spaces, says CEO Narayan Manepalli. 
The Geist Brewing Factory beergarden in Bengaluru. There is a distinct preference among diners for open-air, non air-conditioned spaces, says CEO Narayan Manepalli.  (Geist)

Cataclysmic global events have a way of accelerating change and the covid-19 pandemic, which impacted all businesses but had a devastating effect on the F&B business in India thanks to multiple lockdowns, restrictions and the challenges of maintaining diner safety and hygiene, has changed the way we eat—at home and outside—in visible and subtle ways. “While dining out is not going anywhere—because you don’t just go to a restaurant to eat, you also go for the experience—one very clear trend is the way even fine-dining places quickly pivoted to creating delivery menus,” says Chetan Rampal, former partner at the Olive Group of Restaurants. “This was a long time coming. Fine-dining places don’t change their rules unless something drastic happens and places that would earlier be snobbish about delivery and takeaway were forced to change their mindset. Now that they have those processes in place, they are hardly going to stop them overnight even when diners are back,” adds Rampal.

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Also read: How to plan fuss-free menus for intimate house parties

“Clean eating” is one very clear trend that chef and restaurant consultant Sabyasachi Gorai, who has been involved in multiple restaurant projects across cities, from Saby’s Deli in Delhi to Dank in Chennai, has identified. “What is the provenance of the food on my plate? Diners are increasingly asking this question, definitely more frequently than they were before the pandemic. Sustainable, regional, local—these are all ways to describe what I call ‘honest food’; earlier, these were just tag lines but now there is a wholesome emphasis on it by chefs themselves,” says Gorai.

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Speaking to experts across the food landscape in India, from chefs to restaurateurs, F&B brands and food consultants, the Lounge team has identified seven distinct trends that promise to change the way we eat, forever. Most of these changes are welcome and exciting, with the exception of the dreaded QR code menu—that really should go.

Home menus get a boost

Tempayy Yellow Curry made using a fermented soy plant- protein rich ingredient from Hello Tempayy
Tempayy Yellow Curry made using a fermented soy plant- protein rich ingredient from Hello Tempayy

From premixed tadkas waiting to sizzle in the pan to oriental stir-fry kits that barely require 10 minutes to put together, the ready-to-cook segment has exploded during the pandemic, and experts believe it’s here to stay. According to an August 2020 report, The New Normal: Meal Occasions In Asia, by Euromonitor International, convenience has remained a key factor in the Asia-Pacific region.

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Simpler and quicker meal solutions are in demand, “especially in multi-generational homes where cooking daily meals for the entire household might cause fatigue”, says the report. For, while people continue to cook at home, given the focus on immunity and healthy eating, they are more than willing to lighten the burden with aids such as partially prepared food, pre-cut ingredients and all-in-one seasoning. “Across Asian markets, these soft drivers are forecast to play a huge role in the demand for ready meals up to 2024,” notes the report.

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Brands launched in 2020-21 have moved away from frozen, preservative-laden ready-to-cook meals. Increasingly, the products are clean and conscious. So, you have tadkas for curd rice, sabudana khichdi, roganjosh, besides curry pastes and spice mixes by El the Cook, made with premium spices, pure cow ghee and cold-pressed oils. Masterchow, a startup for Oriental sauces, kits and merchandise, has come up with stir-fry sauces and kits for Kolkata-style chowmein made with hyper-local ingredients. In March, Vegolution, a Bengaluru-based startup, launched Hello Tempayy, bean-based marinated, easy-to-cook cubes that can be adapted across cuisines, occasions and cooking styles. Last year, Wakao Foods tapped into the popularity of jackfruit, the most easily available superfood in India, to launch ready-to-cook raw jackfruit and burger patties, and ready-to-eat butter jack barbeque and teriyaki jack. Most of these are available online as well as in retail stores.

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Also read; Why pop-up restaurants picked up in the pandemic

Siddharth Ramasubramanian, founder and CEO of Hello Tempayy, says people may be looking to make cooking easier “but heating pre-packaged palak paneer in a microwave was not what a consumer was looking for. Moreover, in Indian culture, a badge of honour is still attached to cooking.”

The trend in India is slightly different. While Westerners are willing to make the taste trade-off for health, Indians are not. Having said that, consumers have started editing their pantry for conscious and tasty foods. “There is great pride in the fact that this ingredient looks good, I can make it taste good and it feels good on the inside,” adds Ramasubramanian. That resulted in the company launching Hello Tempayy, an option for vegetarians or casual non-vegetarians who are struggling to find convenient vegetarian foods. The marinated tempayy cubes can be added to a kathi roll or stir-fried with veggies and Sriracha sauce. “And it is affordable (priced at 130-150 for 200g) so that it can become a household staple. We are not a mock meat but a clean vegetarian ingredient. Tempayy, which is compressed fermented soybean, has on-tenth the fat of paneer, it is low in carbs, high in fibre and absorbs sauces, unlike tofu or paneer. And it is fermented for 36 hours, hence is gut-friendly,” says Ramasubramanian, who has just launched the brand in Chennai, after Hyderabad and Bengaluru, and is looking at expanding to Mumbai and Delhi early next year.

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This move towards conscious eating also resulted in Sairaj Dhond starting Wakao Foods. “It’s just that no one bothered experimenting with it (jackfruit) until now,” he says. The R&D was done last year, with the distribution network set up in Goa, Chennai and Mumbai initially. It’s now a pan-India operation. “The pandemic changed a lot of beliefs. People realised that we need to move to an alternative source of meat, a more natural source of protein,” he says. “Jackfruit is extremely versatile, with a high content of fibre, vitamins C and B, potassium, and more. We are working to keep this food as natural as possible, without adding any preservatives.” While the jack patty can offer a fun spin on a vegetarian burger, the teriyaki jack can be added to stir-fries and the butter jack to tacos and curries.

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The return of all-day dining

Blah at Bandra Kurla Complex in Mumbai offers an all-day brunch menu and disco balls to infuse the feeling of being at a party even during lunch-hour
Blah at Bandra Kurla Complex in Mumbai offers an all-day brunch menu and disco balls to infuse the feeling of being at a party even during lunch-hour

In December, Kuckeliku Breakfast House opened in Mumbai’s heritage neighbourhood of Colaba to serve croissants, waffles and eggs all day. It ran full, with people opting to work from a charming breakfast house rather than a Starbucks. Then the Lovefools restaurant opened in a vintage Bandra bungalow with an outdoor dining area. Finding a seat there on weekends became next to impossible. A few kilometres away is the corporate hub of Bandra Kurla Complex; one of its buzziest new entrants, Blah!, offers an all-day brunch menu and disco balls to infuse the feeling of being at a party even during lunch-hour.

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There is a shift to fluid menus, with breakfast doubling up as lunch, and a seamless integration of indoors and outdoors as restaurants re-imagine newer experiences for fully vaccinated guests.

“I feel every time people go out now, this (a restaurant) is the only place where you feel normal. Because you can’t wear a mask when you are eating,” notes Pawan Shahri, director of Chrome Hospitality, which runs Blah!. They opened in September with a menu that Shahri describes as “global comfort food”.

Breads are integral to this day-dining experience. Their roti bun coated with coffee caramel, for instance, is as soft as a feathered pillow. Apart from the food, they have paid close attention to the interiors to infuse a bright outdoorsy vibe, with swings used as seating and an indoor aerial herb garden. “All of this adds an element of freshness, which is what we want for our guests,” he says.

Parwal or potol guacamole, anyone? It’s one of the star dishes at The Tangra Project, the newest restaurant at DLF Avenue in Saket, Delhi. Chef and co-founder Vikramjit Roy has re-imagined food from the communities of Kolkata. Think kosha jackfruit baos, eggs cooked in Darjeeling tea, and shrimp paturi. “For me, what matters most is that the food has to be delicious. And, being in a mall, we had to create an all-day dining menu with dishes that aren’t too heavy,” explains Roy. He used lacto-fermentation to ensure that the food is easy on the stomach. The vegetables in their salads-accompaniments are lacto-fermented, so are the kasundi and curry leaf emulsions. They may be in a mall but they have attempted to add the outdoorsy element with roof lighting that mimics sunlight.

Bengaluru, unlike space-crunched Delhi and Mumbai, has more outdoor areas. Last year, the microbrewery Geist started a beer garden which welcomes families, friends, children and pets. They followed it up with a taproom because they believed people were tired of being stuck indoors. Co-founder Narayan Manepally believes restaurants with outdoor seating, reduced air-conditioning requirements, a focus on hygiene and attention to quality, both in products and processes, are here to stay.

The rise of small food businesses

Fermenteries like Local Ferment Co in Bengaluru have thrived during the pandemic and are here to stay (pictured here, Shrub Soda in Cherry Cola flavour by Local Ferment Co)
Fermenteries like Local Ferment Co in Bengaluru have thrived during the pandemic and are here to stay (pictured here, Shrub Soda in Cherry Cola flavour by Local Ferment Co)

“Food today is more about community than ever before. The pandemic really forced us to think ‘guests are everywhere, how do we reach them in their homes?’ This is where small food businesses, from home chefs to local fermenteries and sourdough bakeries, really shone,” says Sameer Seth, CEO of Hunger Inc., which runs restaurants like The Bombay Canteen, O Pedro and Bombay Sweet Shop. “People are now happy to go to the smaller players and are curious about their more limited, specialised menus. It is now okay to do one thing—and do it really well—because the niche guy can survive now. This has been a major paradigm shift,” says Seth.

The community aspect came to life during the lockdowns as home chefs and family-run kitchens stepped in when restaurants were forced to down shutters. This reliance on smaller food businesses, whose menus circulate on WhatsApp and Facebook, continues. “Before the pandemic, we would only cook during the weekends but now it’s practically a 24x7 business,” says Bengaluru-based home chef Radhica Muthappa, who runs Curly Sue Pork, well-known for its slow-cooked pork curries, pork sausages and pulled pork burgers, with husband Uttam. “To give you an idea of the rise in demand, while earlier we would cook 3-5kg of pork per day, now we cook 10-15kg. The demand went up exponentially during the first lockdown in 2020, by almost 80%, and has now plateaued but I would say we have grown by around 70% during the pandemic,” says Muthappa.

A technology ecosystem has also come up around the small food business—B2B startups like Ping and Helo Protocol offer solutions to home chefs and local makers to share menus and order within the WhatsApp ecosystem, which is the platform of choice both for home chefs and their customers. Along with this, many cities now have guided discovery platforms that curate menus from home chefs and food entrepreneurs and regularly organise pop-ups—physical, delivery-only, or a mix of both. In Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru, The Soul Company has expanded its repertoire of curated small menus and pop-ups.

Sourdough rose phenomenally (yes, pun intended) during the pandemic, with everyone trying their hand at baking sourdough bread and ordering in from the local bakery. In Bengaluru, Local Ferment Co often gets asked if it is a brewery or a bakery—the answer is, it's a fermentary, where all things yeasty are made, from cheeses to breads to speciality drinks like kombucha, jun and ‘shrub soda’, a fizzy drink like your sugary aerated beverage but made with fresh fruits and vinegar.  

“The focus on ‘local’ has extended to all parts of the food business—from supporting local farmers by buying directly from them to supporting local food entrepreneurs,” says chef and restaurant consultant Sabyasachi Gorai.

A health-first approach

Butterheads, a takeaway and drive-in eatery in Chennai, offers a range of salads, bowls and smoothies
Butterheads, a takeaway and drive-in eatery in Chennai, offers a range of salads, bowls and smoothies

“People have become aware of food and nutrition like never before in history,” says Krithika Subramanian, the founder of SYNCK, a Chennai-based restaurant that recently launched Fitstreat, a health-centric food delivery service. According to an October/August? 2020 study conducted by the market research firm Mintel, one in five (22%) Indians are now “health seekers” who look for products and services that will help them live a healthy lifestyle. The report also points out that 62% of their consumers claim to have eaten more healthy food in 2020 than in earlier years, with 35% actively reducing their consumption of unhealthy ingredients.

“Everyone has had enormous amounts of time to think of their digestion, nutrition and fitness since they have been trapped in their homes,” says Subramanian. Abbas Shahzad of Butterheads, a takeaway and drive-in eatery in Chennai that offers a range of salads, bowls and smoothies, food that almost inevitably has a health halo, agrees. “Look, I am not selling this as a health food brand,” says Shahzad candidly. “It is about the taste,” he says, though the health undertone is undeniable. The produce is hydroponically grown, the dressings are made in-house without unnecessary additives, and everything is assembled in front of a customer. “The quality of ingredients is a huge factor when you look at the health angle,” says Shahzad, who has seen 6-8% month-on-month growth since he launched in July. “People have started looking into what they are eating and where their food is coming from.”

In general, there’s a more holistic approach, with people looking at overall nutritional value rather than going simply by taste. They are also, in general, more educated about food and nutrition, and how it affects health and immunity. YogaBar co-founder Suhasini Sampath would agree; their breakfast cereal segment has grown nearly 100% in the past year, she says. “People are more aware of nutrition labels,” says Sampath, who believes their use of whole ingredients and decision to keep out sugar “propelled our growth”. There is also a shift away from mere weight loss—the most common reason most people reassess eating habits—believes Manasa Rajan, /lead of?/ food product R&D, Eatfit, and a holistic health coach. It is the outcome of “the pandemic and some understanding of how the virus behaved and how it impacted them”, she says, adding that people are more aware of what it means to be “healthy”. Of course, the definition of healthy varies considerably: for some, it may be a home-cooked meal; for others, it could mean eating a salad-based lunch.  All in all, people are more curious and aware of elements that help with health, she says. “A large part of our business is now coming from subscriptions,” she points out, which indicates a commitment to eating better. Salad subscriptions especially have gone up drastically, she adds, something Shahzad confirms too. “I see more people choosing to eat a salad.” who

Admittedly, there have always been some consumers who have counted calories, been aware of macronutrients, had a laundry list of superfoods: think turmeric latte, moringa-spiked smoothies and chia-seed pudding. But their numbers have increased.  “People are planning better and are more mindful of what they eat,” agrees Bengaluru-based celebrity chef Jason DeSouza, who believes the approach has changed. “Everyone had that notion that healthy food was expensive, and it automatically went into a bucket that catered to the niche clientele,” he says. Today, however, people realise that minor tweaks to regular home-cooked food can help: fewer carbohydrates, enough protein, adding a raw salad or vegetable. “The pandemic has been an eye-opener for people.”

Cocktail-forward menus

The Living Room at Masque is a dedicated space, within the restaurant, to showcase its beverage programme
The Living Room at Masque is a dedicated space, within the restaurant, to showcase its beverage programme

A gun was pointed at my negroni glass. Before I could react, it ejected a large quivering bubble that rested precariously over the drink. An orange peel was squeezed and the bubble burst into a swirl of smoke. Within 10 seconds, the theatrics of mixology with my elegant lavender negroni at Sette Mara in The St. Regis Mumbai had shown that bars are back. The flavour blaster or the bubble gun infuses a drink with drama, flavour and aroma. As bars reopen, mixologists have upped their game.

A week ago, Mumbai got a new drinking destination. The Living Room at Masque is a dedicated space, within the restaurant, to showcase its beverage programme. It abides by their ingredient- and technique-focused philosophy and each cocktail undergoes molecular processes for sublime yet dazzling drinks. As co-founder and chef Prateek Sadhu says, “It’s something close to magic.”

Consider the guava-based drink Gamble. One would expect a pink tint, like the fruit, or perhaps a guava slice garnish, but it’s a completely transparent cocktail served over clear ice. Take a sip and the flavours of the fruit will bloom on the tongue, the result of a chemical alchemy that uses liquid nitrogen to extract hyper-concentrated flavours of guava. Now, their seasonally changing menu offers cocktails with berries and herbs from Ladakh.

For an elevated drinking experience, cocktails mimic the ethos of food menus, focusing on the ingredient and technique. Comorin, a three-year-old restaurant and bar in Gurugram, Haryana, that shook things up with its sous-vide G&Ts in 2018, launched in-house bottled sodas and ales in the months following the first lockdown last year. This year, it infused ales with fresh mulberries, peach and grapefruit. Varun Sharma, beverage manager, says they follow the same technique as beer-making to carbonate the ales, putting them in kegs under high pressure. He has now made a sweetener, oleo saccharum, with grapefruit peels and mishri dana (rock sugar).

Substituting refined sugar is on the agenda of most mixologists. The Living Room’s head mixologist, Ankush Gamre, depends on fruit or vegetable reduction to extract sweetness. In Bengaluru’s Copitas, a bar at the Four Seasons, beverage manager Sarath Nair takes note of the shift to health-conscious choices in cocktails. “Whether it comes to sugar substitutes or curiosity about ingredients and spirits, guests want to know what goes into their drinks,” he says. Copitas opened in February 2020, a few weeks before the lockdown, and visitors would enquire about new spirits and tonics. Cut to 2021, however, and guests know exactly what they want. Nair says, “Now, I have guests who ask about the whisky in Old Fashioned because they have made this drink at home when bars were closed.” If people have learnt to create cocktails, what brings them back to bars? Nair draws parallels to watching a movie in a theatre: “It’s not only drinks, they are looking for a complete experience.”

Plant-based menus

Black Bean Tofu Scramble with Waffles at Araku Coffee 
Black Bean Tofu Scramble with Waffles at Araku Coffee  (Araku)

Plant-based diets have been in the news, and how. Last month, Imagine Meats, a venture by actors Genelia and Riteish Deshmukh, launched nine mock-meat products, such as biryani, seekh kabab, keema, chicken nuggets and burger patties, in the ready-to-eat category. Two weeks ago, American chocolate and confectionery manufacturer Hershey’s announced that it was launching more non-dairy milk options in India. And the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has introduced a new vegan logo to help consumers easily identify and differentiate from non-vegan foods. 

The menu at Bengaluru's Araku Coffee, the first cafe in India started by the organic coffee brand, which run extensive plantations in Andhra Pradesh's Ananthagiri district as a social entreprise, is deliberately plant-forward. While there is some meat and fish on the menu, it largely features ingredient-led dishes that put the spotlight on the freshness and flavours of locally sourced vegetables and fruits. “When we were planning the menu, we were very sure that we wanted to retain the values and ethos of the Araku brand, which is all about organic ingredients, their traceability, and their ethical sourcing. The menu choices were dictated by the produce that we source from a farm in Denkanikottai, which is about an hour's drive from Bengaluru, keeping the carbon footprint low. Naturally, it is plant-forward,” says Aditi Dugar, Chief Advisor, Araku Retail and Lifestyle, and a food entreprenuer behind avante-garde Indian restaurants like Mumbai's Masque.

The menu at the Araku cafe, developed by chef Rahul Sharma, is fresh and modern with a focus on ingredients, evident from dishes like Triple Cooked Cauli, Avocado Aioli, Roasted Eggplant with Greek Yoghurt, Plantain Soup, and Pomelo Salad. "Although we follow a cafe format for this restaurant, there is as much focus on the food as on the beverages. We were very sure that we wanted to showcase the variety of fresh produce available, and bring the concept of biodiversity that is followed at Araku's plantations, to life through the food menu," says Dugar.

The request for vegetarian and vegan food has grown, especially after the pandemic, says chef Manish Sharma, the executive chef at The Oberoi, Gurgaon’s Threesixtyone Degrees, who has created a plant-based menu to inform and inspire guests. Food delivery platform Eatfit’s Manasa Rajan echoes him. “I see a very strong interest in plant-based food,” she says, viewing it as a spin-off of content creation on the benefits of plant-based diets.

While the reasons for going plant-based or vegan can be many, health and concern for the environment seem to be top the list. “We see that people are aware and want to bring in change,” says Shreh Madan, co-founder and head of marketing, Burgrill India, which launched its plant-based meat burger, The Green Meat Pounder, early this month. “Also, a lot of people want to make this switch without it feeling like a sacrifice.”

The growth of ghost kitchens

Last year, chefs like Vikramjit Roy launched cloud kitchen brands like Hello Panda and Park Street Rolls & Biryani in the National Capital Region. (above) Stir-fried lotus root and broccoli at Hello Panda
Last year, chefs like Vikramjit Roy launched cloud kitchen brands like Hello Panda and Park Street Rolls & Biryani in the National Capital Region. (above) Stir-fried lotus root and broccoli at Hello Panda

Ghost kitchen, internet restaurant, virtual or cloud kitchen—whatever you may call it, this concept got a fillip in the past year with the exponential rise in food deliveries. Last year, chefs like Vikramjit Roy launched cloud kitchen brands like Hello Panda and Park Street Rolls & Biryani in the National Capital Region. This year, brands—existing and new—are continuing to tap into this trend. Food aggregator Swiggy too has launched BrandWorks, an initiative to co-create delivery brands with its restaurant partners, to help them expand across cities at lower cost and risk.

Virtual kitchens help optimise existing infrastructure by allowing companies to operate more than one brand from a single space. They offer a win-win situation for the customer, who gets restaurant-quality food at affordable prices.

An AFP report, published on 16 September, described the trend: “Even before the pandemic sent an earthquake through the global restaurant trade, the ‘Amazonification’ of commercial kitchens was well underway, but coronavirus lockdowns and restrictions have fuelled explosive growth in Asia. Research group Euromonitor estimates there are some 7,500 cloud kitchens now operating in China and 3,500 in India—compared to 1,500 for the United States and 750 for Britain.”

With brands saving on manpower and maintenance of a brick-and-mortar dine-in space, the focus in cloud kitchens is on quality ingredients, specialised staff and experimental cuisines. A new Noida, Uttar Pradesh-based delivery kitchen, Boraan Thai, for instance, gives a modern twist to traditional dishes.

Cloud kitchen platforms such as Delhi-based ZFW operate on revenue-sharing models, providing not just real estate but also back-end support with training, vendor management and supply chain. Then there is Mumbai-based Ghost Kitchens, which operates 20 brands in Mumbai, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Vadodara and Pune, and has also seen significant growth during the pandemic, with actor Rana Daggubati investing in its creator licensing programme. It grows its own brands on revenue-sharing models. “We are becoming the OYO of food delivery,” says founder Karan Tanna. “If any restaurant or existing cloud kitchen has underutilised capacity, we can plug in the brands we handle and generate demand for them. We hope to have 1,200 internet restaurants—which means eateries listed on food aggregators like Zomato or Swiggy—running by the end of 2022. Four-five internet restaurants can operate from one kitchen.” Currently, they operate 150 internet restaurants.

This kitchen-in-kitchen format has been adopted by ZFW as well. Its founder, Madhav Kasturia, started the company in 2015 with a takeaway kitchen. In 2017, when the cloud kitchen industry was still in a nascent stage, he converted both his takeaway outlets into cloud kitchens, scaling up operations in 2019. The pandemic forced him to apply the brakes on his expansion plans. “We didn’t want to shut shop, so we started a brand, Biryani Street, as a kitchen-in-kitchen format by placing our biryanis in existing, underutilised cloud kitchens,” he says.

Realising the potential of this format, he started ZFW this year as a ghost kitchen platform. Kasturia has tied up with brands such as Baskin-Robbins, Keventers, Tibb’s Frankie to run 80-plus internet restaurants in Delhi. “We are now scaling up, adding Mumbai to our list as well, and are scheduled to launch in Bengaluru soon. There are three stakeholders in this system: the kitchen, which has a capacity to host multiple brands, we, the network, and the F&B brand itself,” says Kasturia, who raised pre-seed capital earlier this year.

It is believed the shift in consumption patterns is here to stay. Tanna, for one, expects the cloud kitchen to grow beyond staples such as pizzas and biryanis to more specialised fare. “People will continue to order more as brands will offer quality food at competitive prices,” he says.

Reporting by Shrabonti Bagchi, Avantika Bhuyan, Jahnabee Borah and Preeti Zachariah 

 

  • LAST UPDATED
    26.10.2021 | 12:39 PM IST

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