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Cooking up opportunities out of crises



Lockdowns, shuttered restaurants, job losses and scared diners. 2020 was a dismal year for food businesses, including in India, where the blow came at a time when restaurants and food retail were buzzing like never before. But even in this annus horribilis, there were glimmers of hope as some entrepreneurs stepped up to the challenge of quickly changing tack, adapting to the new normal and trends such as dining in, managing, in the process, to not just sustain themselves and their staff but even grow their businesses.

Till the pandemic upended the industry, food deliveries were about high volumes and low pricing, ruled by little-known brands with kitchens that had dodgy hygiene many a times. But now that model has been overturned, with chefs and enterprises seeking to take their restaurants into customers’ homes, and investors looking to create brands that are high on quality and order values. Then, there are international trends such as ‘prestige’ meal kits, with signature dishes by the world’s top chefs. As elite diners in India seek to recreate this in their homes, entrepreneurs who foresaw this trend are well placed to take advantage.

Equally well-equipped were enterprises that tapped into the growing demand from homes for high quality produce—top-notch mangoes, organic vegetables and even exclusive mushrooms—that were earlier bought by restaurants or exported. Chefs invented catchy comfort dishes, spin-offs that can go international and do for Indian culinary culture what the bao did to Chinese-Korean cuisine. Finally, indie alcohol found enthusiastic millennial drinkers, thanks to enhanced social media marketing in an era of work-from-home.

Vir Kotak,
Hello Panda
Shipping scion, artist, and beer and wine connoisseur Vir Kotak was forced to shutter a business—Thirsty City 127, which housed a trendy bar and brewery in Mumbai’s Todi Mills—that he had been passionate about. With that, he became uncertain about his planned investments in the restaurant space in India. However, by July, as it became clear that dining-in was the new dining-out, Kotak moved to make a large investment: It was in a fledgling delivery operation started by chef Vikramjit Roy in Gurugram.

With restaurants shut during the lockdown, Roy and his team found themselves out of work. To sustain themselves, he and colleague Anurodh Samal used their savings to start a small kitchen, Hello Panda, to roll out sushi, dim sum and comfort Chinese, Japanese and Thai flavours. Singapore-based Kotak sensed an opportunity, and bought a majority stake in the enterprise. Now, they plan to take it national, along with three other sister brands. Kotak is also opening two Asian restaurants with high-end bars in the NCR, with Roy helming both, as also an Indian restaurant with chef Megha Kohli.

Although Kotak is reluctant to divulge his actual investment amount, a well-equipped delivery kitchen costs ₹20-25 lakh to set up (in non-prime locations), while a 100-cover restaurant (in prime locations in Delhi or Mumbai) costs ₹2-2.5 crore. Kotak’s moves come at a time when investments in the Indian F&B have fallen to almost nil, and established restaurateurs are struggling to find money.

“I think people will return with ferocity to dining out once it is safer to do so. And while nothing can replace going to a restaurant, high quality deliveries have come up globally as viable options. These will be demand even after the pandemic, and will be an important vertical for scalable food businesses,” Kotak says.

Shekhar Swarup,
Terai Gin
2020 has been a surprising year for Indian craft gin. With rising consumption of quality alcohol at home, Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru in particular saw high retail sales of expensive wines and whisky. Riding on this trend, six new made-in-India gins were launched this year, most of which were made by entrepreneurs inspired by the global boom in craft spirits, and targeting millennial drinkers.

The most ambitious of the new launches is Terai, which is made in Behror, Rajasthan, in small batches that use indie botanicals such as fennel, tulsi and coriander. A brainchild of Shekhar Swarup, whose family has been in the alcohol business since the 1950s, Terai captured huge consumer interest this year thanks to its refined notes, but also high-wattage social media marketing.

“We had to postpone the launch from April to October because of the pandemic. However, we decided to go ahead with our social media marketing much before that to create awareness,” says Swarup. That strategy has paid off, with retail sales going through the roof and 3,000 bottles being sold in Delhi since mid-November. “We occupied 20-25 percent market share for premium gins in the launch month itself, and there has been more demand than what we can produce daily. We are now expanding our capacity.” Terai has also been launched in Singapore, and will be going to other Indian metros in the next few months.

Risihiv and Tarika Khattar,
Top Indian restaurateur Rohit Khattar’s children were caught in Mumbai during the nationwide lockdown, away from their Delhi home. After spending weeks cooped up in an apartment, they emerged with an online retail platform called Makery.in, selling high-end, do-it-yourself (DIY) kits for gourmet food.

Kits such as Blue Apron have been popular for long internationally, but in India this business never took off because most homes cook regularly and cheaply. However, what Makery has done differently is to peg itself as a gourmet offering, not a convenience product. “While cooking ourselves, we realised that a lot of people wanted to cook interesting, even restaurant-quality food but did not know how to, and were put off by the need to collect so many ingredients,” say the siblings.

Globally, chefs such as Heston Blumenthal and Massimo Bottura retail such kits for £100 or more, and Makery’s kits also play on this idea of prestige cooking. Their offerings include pulled-pork tacos from Indian Accent, pastas from Olive, and regional specials by expert home cooks. Their website has 30,000 unique visitors and has sold more than 4,500 kits till mid-December.

Sumit Sharan,

Sumit Sharan’s love of mushrooms, and the realisation that most gourmet varieties such as shiitake or oyster were imported, prompted him to launch his business in 2019. By growing and retailing exotic varieties of mushrooms at his farm in Manesar, Haryana, he built a loyal clientele of high-end restaurants.
As the pandemic struck and restaurant demand dried up, Sharan decided to test the retail market, always a difficult proposition given its price sensitivity and low volumes. But he was in for a surprise. With more consumers buying directly from farmers, Sharan’s select customers buy his mushrooms without being too concerned about the price, and help spread the word as well.

He grows four varieties, and has roped in neighbouring farmers to keep up with the demand—Shroomery sells 40-50 kg of assorted mushrooms every week, sales up 30 percent from last year. Sharan has expanded to trading in morels as well, and making value-added products such as mushroom hummus.

He says a heartening change has been that “people are ordering even unknown varieties like cremini mushroom, though they may not be sure of how to cook these… last year, there were many who said the venture will not do well, but this year, there has been a sudden spurt in interest.”

Varun Tuli,
Wheaty & Pot Pot
Weddings and caterings are big businesses in India, and 2020 saw both flattening. Varun Tuli, one of India’s most in-demand caterers, was severely impacted, but used his infrastructure and staff to expand his delivery business by adding two more brands in the NCR, where he has two central kitchens and a smattering of restaurants.

While his existing brand Noshi focussed on sushi, dim sum and bowl meals, Tuli came up with  Wheaty (quality breads such as sourdoughs and deep-dish pizza bases), and Pot Pot (caters modern Indian food at home).

“I paid special attention to the packaging, which I designed myself using earthenware and cardboard to keep it eco-friendly and yet attractive for delivery to diners at home, who are now looking for a restaurant-style experience,” says Tuli.

So, bisibele bhaat comes in an earthen pot, with a tempering of fried chillies in a detachable tray on top; palak patta chaat is presented such that it does not go soggy; and mini appams come individually lined with banana leaf. Just like you would expect in a fine-dining restaurant.

Tuli says his delivery business has grown five to six times over 2019,when he had only Noshi as a brand.

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