A decade ago, when it comes to eating outside food, there was either the fine dining restaurant or the street side food which meant that either one goes for an expensive meal or get satisfied with the cheap. The growth of the food truck business phenomenon in India is a derivative of a similar business module in the USA. The reason behind this burgeoning preference is that on-the-go food has become the preferred lifestyle due to busy schedules. Food is no longer perceived or limited to being consumed at home or sitting at one place.
The food truck or the mobile kitchen business in India has huge potential as it is still in its nascent stage. In India, it is estimated to be growing at a rate of 8.4 percent annually.
Do you know the man behind the first food truck in India?
On 3rd September 1977, the bright yellow and white painted food truck named Hawker opened its counters at the gates of the Art Faculty, Delhi University temporarily, and a month after which it shifted to a pavement in front of D school, better known as Delhi School of Economics. A concept like this received positive reviews and crowds thronged around the truck. The man behind the concept was Aroon Narula. The money was good, the meals on wheels concept rocked and it attracted a lot of media attention. For twelve years, Aroon made Hawker a brand that both young and old loved.
The food truck business has attracted a lot of investment in the last few years. Many have popped up and not just the metros but food trucks have become an excellent low-cost investment, quick return business model in the small towns or tier 3 cities.
However, since this is regarded as an unorganized sector with no specific regulations or guidelines and no central or state-assigned regulatory body overlooking the working of the food truck industry in India, getting things organized especially licenses etc is a major challenge for the business owner.
What is the current scenario
Food trucks are, and always have been, mavericks, bringing restaurant cuisine to where no chef has cooked before. But with Covid-19 rampant, times are tough. Their usual customers, pedestrians strolling the streets and office workers checking out for lunch are confined to their homes.
Food trucks were born out of a need for change: restaurant rents were high and food trucks were a way to reach a wider range of customers in a less expensive way. Ten years after the food truck boom, trucks are being forced to think outside the box yet again. Now, trucks are driving into residential neighbourhoods and parking outside hospitals, peddling their dishes to a whole new crowd to stay alive.
Never have Sunil Jha ever saw a zero revenue day at his food truck, The Mouthful which was a crowd-pleaser for the public of Ranchi. “Covid had been disappointing; I never thought I will see such bad days. I have been running this food truck for five years now. You will never see my stove off. Sadly, with no customers turning around, I had to change my entire menu and had to park it outside hospitals, so that I can provide cheap basic meals to the patients. But this cannot run my house,” Jha commented.
“While we too fall under the f&b industry, no one is there to talk on behalf of us. We are scattered because we are ignored by the associations and the government for long,” Shubhankar Bose, an owner of a Chinese food truck in Kolkata expressed further mentioning that he will be permanently closing his service by this month-end.
Waiting for customers to return
Some food trucks are striking deals with essential businesses to let them park in their lots, while others have pivoted to providing mobile groceries. Many trucks are parking along highways and rest stops. With roadside restaurants shut, many truck drivers are without places to grab a hot meal on the road. For essential workers hauling across the country, it’s been a welcome sightseeing a food truck on the barren highways.
“Food trucks are uniquely set up to survive Covid-19. We are a business built out of spaces with no room for diners, a particularly relevant concept given the current climate and the perceived future of restaurants. The need of the hour is for the customers to understand this,” Jha said.
Additionally, they can offer the convenience and safety of customers being able to pick up hot food nearby without an additional delivery person in between. And they can serve communities that may have fewer food options or are outside delivery zones for many restaurants. However, large-scale events, festivals, concerts etc bring in a bulk of a food truck’s income. With those a thing of the past for the foreseeable future, operators warn that looking ahead is full of questions.
Hospitality sector watching the boom
Many hospitality giants have used the Covid situation to tap on this burgeoning market. And are witnessing a great response. Indian Hotels Company’s (IHCL) food delivery platform, Qmin, recently launched Qmin Food Truck. Catering to the need for on-the-go meals, the food truck will service business districts and large residential neighbourhoods. The first truck has been introduced in Mumbai and will soon be available in other metro cities across India including Bangalore and Delhi, followed by tier-two cities.
“Qmin as a brand has seen consistent growth and expansion and is now available across 16 cities, delivering from over 65 IHCL restaurants. The Qmin Food Truck will address the need for quick and easy meals for those on the go,” Jehangir Press, Commercial Director, Qmin had commented.
Similarly, for many Marriott hotels in India, Marriott on Wheels has become a saviour from the hard times, while many Marriott GMs agreed that it has helped to garner revenues. With the state curfew in place and dine-in experiences at restaurants currently on a halt, Goa Marriott Resort and Spa recently launched its first-ever mobile food kiosk, GBC on Wheels, in Goa. Launched in 2019, Marriott on Wheels is the global hospitality giant's first food truck in India.
While the majority of the food truck businesses are in a huge mess, it will be interesting to see what the future holds. The future will bring changes to the food truck world but the owners would like to see food trucks be accepted and treated as equals to brick and mortar restaurants.