Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is often taunted by her critics for advocating what is known locally as telebhaja shilpo – a close cousin of Narendra Modi’s more-derided pakoda economics, which suggests that selling fried snacks could be the first step on the path to prosperity. But Banerjee may just have the last laugh. In Kolkata, the food business is big business. A thriving food economy, built around the city’s insatiable hunger, is encouraging quick service restaurant chains and high-end food brands, and creating opportunities for a host of food-related businesses.

Food delivery apps such as Swiggy, Zomato and UberEats are betting big on the city’s robust appetite for ordering in. “Kolkata is one of our fastest growing markets,” said Srivats TS, vice president (marketing), Swiggy. “In the past four years, we have witnessed the number of restaurant partners and orders on our platform swell significantly.” According to a survey conducted by Zomato in 2016, with an average order size of Rs 690, Kolkata topped the list for biggest online food orders. New Delhi came second with Rs 640.

The mood is just as buoyant at UberEats, which launched in Kolkata earlier this year and has been expanding its network since. “The food sector here is booming across the length and breadth of the city,” said a spokesperson. “Even with existing players, there is still a lot to be done in the food delivery here.” According to the spokesperson, UberEats is doubling its orders every month and recently expanded operations to Salt Lake and up north.

Small eateries have found new opportunities with the advent of food delivery apps. Photo credit: Avisek Mitra.
Small eateries have found new opportunities with the advent of food delivery apps. Photo credit: Avisek Mitra.

A familiar sight these days in the city’s sleepy neighbourhoods are food delivery two-wheelers and new takeaway joints. Even vintage eateries of North Calcutta are sporting a more commercial sheen. While the city has always been known for its vibrant street life and food culture – thousands of small and medium-sized eateries and sweet shops are run here by enterprising individuals and families – the carnival is spilling over now to almost every nook and corner.

Nowhere is this change in character more evident than in the upmarket township of Salt Lake on the eastern fringes of the city. Officially named Bidhannagar, this neighbourhood used to be a quiet, predominantly residential sprawl, lined with frangipani trees, fiery gulmohars, lush mango and jamun trees hugging low-rise villas and government colonies. Home to a large number of senior citizens whose children have moved to other Indian cities or abroad, Salt Lake was once missing from most business plans.

The roll is one of the city's favourite street foods. Photo credit: Satyajit Dhawale/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International].
The roll is one of the city's favourite street foods. Photo credit: Satyajit Dhawale/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International].

Changing localities

Over the past seven years or so, though, Salt Lake has evolved from being a pensioner’s paradise running on remittance money to a buzzing township with young upwardly-mobile families, Marwari joint families, government and private offices, hospitals, colleges and shopping malls all making a home here. The change was hastened when the Trinamool Congress government, headed by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, allowed residences to be rented out for commercial purposes other than just grocery and sweet shops.

In 2015, the new policy made room for a host of new businesses on purely residential plots, including beauty parlours, dental clinics, nursery schools and car showrooms. But most importantly, the amended laws allowed restaurants to be set up too. As a result, while a number of residents rented out their ground floor spaces to offices, several of them gave in to the lure of the food business.

Thanks to the marketing support provided by the likes of Swiggy, takeaway counters and small eateries have mushroomed in the last two years, with seemingly every third home along the main streets hosting some kind of a food business.

“It works for senior citizens who see this as a way to keep their premises secure,” said Krishna De Ray, a resident of HA Block, Salt Lake, that has seen a transformation in recent times. “It is [also] wonderful to have the convenience of ordering in from a popular shop which is a long rickshaw ride away.” De Ray loves her chaats and kachoris from a shop that is five kilometres away from her home.

Photo credit: Neil Hall/Reuters.
Photo credit: Neil Hall/Reuters.

When De Ray moved in from Latin America three decades ago, the only commercial establishment here was a grocery shop. Today the streets around her elegant two-storied villa have half a dozen eateries, and more are coming up regularly. Some of them are modest establishments, a couple part of a bigger chain selling waffles and mishti. The rest are glorified takeaway joints, relying primarily on Swiggy and Zomato. All of them operate from ground floor spaces of two-storied homes.

Biswanath Sahu, who holds a government job by day, sets up a roll and kebab stall in the evening in the garage space of a bungalow in BE block. He operates from 5 pm till 9 pm, catering to the small offices operating out of other residential plots in the vicinity and says that more than 80% of his business is driven by delivery apps.

Such has been a rush to get on to the food business bandwagon that the township’s civic body had to step in to ensure that eateries operate with proper licences. In June, as it started the process, 53 eateries got a licence on the first day itself.

The surge in food delivery business has also encouraged sightly more established brands to expand their business, set up franchisee outlets and partnership outposts in areas beyond the four-km radius of the delivery apps.

Chicken biryani is the most ordered item in Kolkata. Photo credit: Biswarup Ganguly/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported].
Chicken biryani is the most ordered item in Kolkata. Photo credit: Biswarup Ganguly/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported].

Hungry Tide, a niche brand that offers continental food, has four outlets in the city, the most recent one being in Salt Lake. Senior partner Sunil Jagtiani says he was encouraged to set up a takeaway counter in the township because he was confident about the marketing support he had received from a delivery app. “We have had people come to our restaurants in South Calcutta all the way from Salt Lake,” he said. “I thought why not reach the food to their doorstep so that I get repeat orders?”

New avenues

The success of food delivery apps and its ripples are being felt across the city. UberEats for instance, says it has experienced great receptiveness from the relatively younger, more active, South Kolkata neighbourhoods, where it launched initially, including Ballygunge, Park Street, Jadavpur, Bhawanipur, Gariahat, New Alipore and Tollygunge.

“Food delivery apps have created newer avenues for us,” said Shiladitya Chaudhury, who along with his brother Debaditya Chaudhury, runs Platter Hospitality that owns popular brands Chowman, Chapter Two and Oudh. Shiladitya Chaudhury says the delivery model has “completely changed large parts of South Kolkata…to cater to a younger crowd”.

Smaller establishments such as Mukti Cabin (seen here) have benefited from tying up with the food delivery companies. Photo credit: Avisek Mitra.
Smaller establishments such as Mukti Cabin (seen here) have benefited from tying up with the food delivery companies. Photo credit: Avisek Mitra.

While these apps were readily received in the more active South Kolkata neighbourhoods, the impact has been slightly different in the old neighbourhoods of North Calcutta, areas that have been traditionally less receptive to change. Many of the eateries here are old family-run ventures that have prided themselves on their artisanal character.

Mukti Cabin, a 62-year-old establishment, located in a serpentine lane in North Kolkata, was suffering due to its inaccessibility. Its loyal customers had moved out to the newer neighbourhoods. But business at the eatery, known for its chops, cutlets and other Bengali tea-time favourites, picked up pace once it popped up on the delivery apps. “My revenue has improved,” said Prosenjit Das, who runs the show here, and rattles off names of his “naami-dami” (rich and famous) patrons. Ditto for Paramount and other similar establishments in quaint pockets that seem to have acquired a taste for digital marketing.

Kolkata’s diversity in affordable eating-out options and its street food culture recently made headlines after a survey by the hotel website Booking.com ranked the city as the top street-food hub in the country, ahead of Amritsar, Ahmedabad, Mumbai and Delhi. This makes it all the more crucial for food delivery apps to do their homework as far as consumer preferences are concerned.

“We have partnered with a host of restaurants, ranging from legendary eateries, cafes, ice cream parlours and national and international quick service restaurants,” said Srivats. “Through Swiggy, these eateries are able to reach out to the untapped customer base, as it is challenging to find a table in these overcrowded restaurants particularly during peak hours.”

Round-the-clock feeding

Orders on delivery apps start trickling in as early as 6 am, says Srivats. According to UberEats, club kachoris (mini kachoris served with a side of potato in a spicy gravy) is the city’s favourite breakfast. “We see the highest frequency of orders during dinner time, followed by lunch and evening snack,” he said.

So what is Kolkata ordering in? Data from the delivery apps and the restaurant partners suggests that Mughlai cuisine, which is better known as the Kolkata-Awadhi cuisine, is a firm favourite, with chicken biryani the most ordered item. This is followed by dishes like dal makhani, butter naan and mutton biryani. Among the eateries, Arsalan’s mutton biryani is one of the most favoured dishes.

The city that wore the crown of India’s cultural capital for years could well wear the crown of its food capital as well. It may not have Michelin-starred restaurants serving classical French or progressive Indian cuisine where tables are booked weeks in advance. But it is a city that values its food. Especially when it is delivered to where the adda is.