Just back from a two-year stint in Dubai, 27-year-old freelance writer Ruma Sinha was throwing a housewarming party for her friends in November and wanted her food to stand out. So she ordered an authentic Thai spread, not from a restaurant but rather from a Thai tiffin service.
“I opted for a home caterer because most restaurants end up Indianising niche cuisines,” says Sinha. “They also don’t offer lesser-known dishes. For restaurants, it’s all about green curry and red curry. I was really happy to find a tiffin service provider in the city who was completely clued in to the finer nuances of the cuisine. At the end of the meal, all my guests were asking me where I’d found the food.”
Sinha ordered her spread from Banana Leaf Thai Tiffin Services, founded in mid-2012 by Manpreet Kaur, 37, a former executive at a travel company who had recently returned to Mumbai after nine years in Thailand.
“I had got used to Thai food, but couldn’t find those flavours anywhere in the city,” she says. “So I started this service, because I knew there would be demand for it from others like me who were yearning for the real thing at a reasonable price.”
This sense of having spotted a gap in Mumbai’s multi-crore food market has spurred other entrepreneurial foodies to offer similar services, with a number of such companies opening up over the past three years — from Mediterranean, Oriental and Thai tiffin service Foodizm to Modern European catering start-up Silver Spoon and two-woman operation Little Food Co, which offers Korean, Japanese, Mexican and Lebanese cuisine.
“Overall, Mumbai’s culinary landscape has changed a lot over the past decade and will change more over the next. A greater diversity of cuisine promises to be one hallmark of this change, and this is now visible not just in the restaurants but also in the tiffin services,” says Mangal Dalal, food writer and founding partner of Restaurant Week India. “Some of it is due to easier access to information about other cuisines, whether through television, the internet or other media. However, since food is best eaten rather than described, a lot of it can be attributed to the fact that Indians are travelling more, experiencing these cuisines first-hand and creating a market for it when they return home.”
In a city of astronomical real-estate rates, this model of keeping operations small, often home-based, and delivering to the consumer based on pre-set orders is a good way to hedge your bets in an industry where there is much profit to be made but also a very high risk of failure.
With no commercial space and no staff, Kaur, for instance, has managed to keep overheads extremely low. “I started with an initial investment of just R10,000. I cook in my home kitchen and make the deliveries myself,” she says. “Living in Powai, I have a large captive audience of officer-goers and expats at the many multinational company offices in the area.”
The cosmopolitan nature of the city makes it easier for entrepreneurs to run a niche cuisine venture. “The numbers are not large, about five orders a day, but these clients really know Thai food,” says Kaur. “They appreciate authenticity and that’s exactly why I’m in the business.”
Manpreet (Ritu) Kaur,
1601, Glen Classic,
Mumbai 400 076.