Cooking up a storm to make the most of the home-bound consumer demand

Topics cooking | Food labels | Haldiram's

For many, it was a battle meeting the sudden spurt in demand in the early days of the lockdown.
In a group of 1,327 Indians participating in the Covid-19 Co­nsu­mer Se­ntiment Survey by BCG-Fa­cebook from Ap­ril 30-May 3, only 14 per cent said their spending on eating out would re­tu­rn to normal when there is some control over coronavirus and restaurants open up, while 39 per cent said it would take at least a few months for them to restart eating out. Also 43 per cent are expecting a de­crease in their overall spend, including eating out, over the next six months, says the report released in May.

Add all this and what you have is an unprecedented opportunity for ready-to-eat (RTE) and ready-to-cook (RTC) product manufacturers. A dipstick by Bu­siness Standard showed their sales have gone up by at least 30-40 per cent between March and May. Ramanathan Anand, partner, Deloitte India, says while there was a lot of resistance to the RTC and RTE products in India even until a few years back, the unexpected lockdown has turned the trend on its head. “Work from home has led to a greater requirement for ready-to-cook and ready-to-eat products,” says Anand. “The biggest problem with the RTE-RTC segment was trial. Covid has helped in generating the trial. We expect 10-15 per cent of the consumers will sustain the habit.”

There were two clear trends visible during this period. In the early days of the lockdown RTE-RTC food suppliers were treading cautiously owing to labour and supply chain issues, but as things started becoming clearer and restrictions on the essential products segments were eased, they lapped up the opportunity with both hands for launching new products and ramping up distribution.

For many, it was a battle meeting the sudden spurt in demand in the early days of the lockdown. So Haldirams, for ins­tance, went all guns blazing with a handful of SKUs that were distributed widely. The Kolkata unit MD Sharad Agarwal says, “During the lockdown we were trying to fulfil the demand of the existing RTE portfolio — mainly north Indian cuisines like dal makhani and paneer butter masala, and so on.” Agrees Danesa Raghulal, executive director of Elite Foods and Innovations, one of the largest food companies in south India with nine manufacturing facilities across India, including a unit for organic products in Thrissur, Kerala. It ramped up production of its RTC portfolio and reduced focus on the snacking range.

P C Musthafa, co-founder and CEO of iD Fresh Food, which offers a range of fresh foods, including idly/dosa batter, parotas, chapatis, says, “We focussed only on key products to get the maximum output from workers. We saw 20 per cent month-on-month growth in sales in the last three months.” Pre-Covid, the brand was supplying 12 products in 47 Indian cities, but in the last three months it sharpened focus on only four-five SKUs across 21 high-demand generating cities. “Our RTC paratha has grown almost 50 per cent,” he adds.

Now, even as the lockdown is being eased, consumers are wary of venturing out or even accept home delivery of prepared food. Hence, brands like Haldirams and Mother’s Recipe are focussing on introducing newer recipes but with a mantra — healthy and homely. “This is the right time to foray into homely dishes like bhindi masala, dal tarka and aaloo gobi, which can be eaten every day,” says Haldirams Agarwal.

Mother’s Recipe has added new variants in categories that have seen high demand. “We are focussing more on ready-to-cook gravy mixes as it’s going to take restaurants time to get back customers. We will be adding products that can be consumed every day like egg curry or potato-based gravy. We are also adding   pani puri and bhel puri chutney,” says Sanjana Desai, executive director of Mother’s Recipe, which has seen 15-20 per cent increase in sales in the RTC segment in the last three months.

Desai thanks her robust research and development team, which has been able to predict demand and taste preferences. “We didn’t have to rope in product consultants for that. Some of these products were already in the pipeline and would be launched by next month.”

The problem these brands are facing now is the sharp jump in raw material pri­ces, besides the shortage of skilled la­bour. Training new workers takes time and adds to costs. “The first month of the lockdown was very stressful, but our sales people and distributors were very suppo­rtive in pushing out the products to the retailers. I too joined the sales managers to deliver orders to the retailers. We also tied up with Swiggy, Zomato and Dunzo to reach out to the final consumer, supplying directly to housing societies. In the last fortnight, things have stabilised.”

Mother’s Recipe, which has production units on the fringes of Pune, Vadodara and Kolkata, did another thing to keep the production lines buzzing. Since Gujarat was not as badly affected as was Maharashtra, it shifted a lot of its production lines from Pune to Vadodara. “We had to do a lot of juggling internally. Our relationships with raw material suppliers played a big role in keeping up the production,” says Desai.

For Haldirams, the main problem still is labour. “We are still at 20-30 per cent capacity. We are constantly in touch with our workers, arranging buses for them to come back so that we can start production in full force,” says Agarwal.

What is helping brands like Elite is the high level of automation at the production units. “Safety measures introduced early on and building confidence among our people to continue to work during this difficult period helped. Besides, our strong logistics network and multi-state production facilities made the movement of raw material and finished products somewhat easy. Since we are also suppliers to the government of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, we didn’t face too many hurdles,” says Raghulal.

Experts also foresee packaging innovations emerging from the crisis. Retort packaging, in which semi-finished food is packed, itself was a big step forward. It has been in circulation for over 60 years since it was invented by the US army. Pronam Chatterjee, co-founder and CEO of BluePi Consulting, also predicts industry partnerships. “Someone will sell rajma, someone the gravy. All you have to do is mix them together. Combination of ingredients that almost matches your home recipe is bound to emerge in the convergent food space. That may not come from the same manufacturer and mix and match might happen at the local point of delivery.”

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