Even before QR-code menus in restaurants became ubiquitous thanks to early pandemic warnings about covid-19 spreading through surface contact, Pune-based food-tech startup AirMenus was working on using them to enhance the ordering experience at restaurants. The company started in January 2020, helping restaurants create elaborate digital menus with a greater level of detail than could be put on typical paper menus—the idea came from the “photo-menus” in Quick Service Restaurants (QSRs) in the US and South-East Asia that include images of dishes—but the pandemic hit soon after, and no one was eating out any more.
“That’s when we decided to pivot by doing essentially the same thing—helping restaurants, home chefs and niche food brands digitise so that they could sell directly to their customers—but by also providing a direct ordering platform,” says Luvin Paryani, co-founder of AirMenus and a hospitality professional who runs his own restaurant, The Rooftop Project, in Pune.
Unlike a Swiggy or a Zomato, which charges a commission from restaurants for delivering orders that come through their platforms, AirMenus charges restaurants a flat subscription fee per month for creating digital menus and helping them receive orders directly from consumers. They help with delivery too but not by maintaining their own fleet of delivery executives; instead, they help restaurants integrate their ordering protocol with the APIs of delivery service providers like Dunzo so that the whole process, from receiving an order to finding a delivery agent, becomes seamless and automatic. API, or application programming interface, can broadly be described as a software intermediary that allows two applications to talk to each other.
The pandemic has seen a huge boom in small food businesses—and fuelling that growth is technology that works for them. If you are wondering why these businesses need specific solutions when they can get on to bigger, more established platforms like Swiggy and Zomato, the truth is that not only are the commission rates too high for them, their needs are different from bigger commercial kitchens. “We spoke to over 100 small businesses before we launched and realised that they need help not just with ordering but with creating online menus, procurement of raw materials, and API integrations with delivery companies,” says Gagandeep Singh, founder of the Bengaluru-based startup Helo Protocol.
It seems like an idea whose time has come, with companies like AirMenus, Helo Protocol, Thrive, DotPe and local players like the Bengaluru-based Ping.Store network stepping in to serve this niche.
AirMenus currently works with over 1,600 brands across the country and is expanding to non-food businesses, such as those that make and sell handcrafted items. Helo Protocol is working closely with home chefs and small home-run food businesses to understand their tech needs and tailor solutions. “We eat thrice a day and we all want to try new stuff without burning a hole in our pockets. Home chefs and small food brands that understood this during the pandemic, when many established restaurants had to close temporarily, did good business and now many of them want to expand, which is where we come in,” says Singh.
Say someone in your neighbourhood started off by selling baked goods through a WhatsApp group with 20 members from the same colony. They would publish the day’s menu every day on the group, members would place orders and pick them up on their own. But once the business takes off and achieves some scale, it’s not possible for a chef to run it this way.
These new tech companies help the maker create personalised menus, manage orders and deliveries, get feedback and keep their business flexible (many of these businesses change menus frequently) through dashboards. Some, like AirMenus, also provide micro-websites to these businesses on their own domain (for instance, airmenus.in/thesoulcompany). Others, like Helo, help them stay within the digital environment that contains the largest catchment area of their customers, like WhatsApp, without asking the customer to open a separate browser window or—worse still—download an app in order to place an order. It’s all done through custom-built APIs.
“We were approached by Swiggy and Zomato but we wanted to get the backend supply chain right first and grow slowly,” says Saritha Hegde, founder of Not Just Hot-Sauces and More, a Bengaluru-based kitchen that makes wok sauces, dipping oils and condiments. “Initially, I and my team of two managed everything ourselves, taking orders on WhatsApp and Instagram and delivering through Dunzo, etc. But around six months ago, we joined the Ping network, and it has helped not just streamline the ordering process but helped with discovery as well, as they put our products on their homepage, where they feature makers,” says Hegde.
According to Somanna Muthanna, co-founder and CEO of The Soul Company, which curates events and pop-ups in eight cities, the best thing about these pandemic-born-and-bred services is that they are super quick on their feet. “So even though AirMenus, for instance, doesn’t do ticketing, they created that platform for us for events. When you do complex events involving, say, several chefs at the same venue, as we do at our pop-ups, it becomes very important to have that tech integration,” says Muthanna. “You can’t separate technology from the food business any more.”