The cooked-up story


August 22, 2014

Rashmi Pratap, The Hindu Businessline
Mumbai, 22 August 2014

It was the peak of summer and Sahil Gilani was craving Indian food as he had been travelling overseas for several weeks. Dosa was what he wanted, and it was not easy to find in Central London. After asking acquaintances, he arrived at the food court of the department store Selfridges on Oxford Street. This was among the city’s handful of eateries serving the fermented crepe. Gilani ordered a dosa and found it tasted all too familiar. He asked the waiter how it was made but the latter didn’t know. Gilani asked to speak to the chef. After demurring initially, the chef revealed his secret — he had been using the Gits brand of ready dosa mix for close to a decade. Gilani, in turn, revealed his secret — he was the director of Gits Foods.

Even at home in India, Mumbai-based media professional Ajita Srivats uses MTR Ready to Eat (RTE) palak paneer and chana masala to whip up a meal whenever the family chooses to watch cricket on TV over the weekend, instead of eating out. And when she gets home late from work, the MTR ready meals help her fix a quick dinner.

With trained chefs and domestic help in short supply, restaurants and households are turning to ready meals to serve authentic Indian food quickly and economically.

An RTE meal simply has to be heated and eaten. The choices range from gravies and dals to parathas, theplas, biryanis, vegetables, and even sweets like gulab jamun and halwa. In India the main manufacturers are MTR Foods, Gits, Maiyas, ITC’s Kitchens of India and Delhi-based Haldiram’s.

Feeding desi tastes

While the aroma of fresh idlis, upma and stuffed parathas still rule the Indian home, MTR rava dosa and Gits dal makhni are rockstars in kitchens outside the country. For Indian RTE food companies, the overseas market is the money-spinner.

Gits has been selling its instant mixes (ready to cook or RTC) for over four decades in 40 countries outside India. In 2000, it launched RTE foods as well. Today, a majority of the buyers for its Parsi dhansak, Gujarati undhiu, Punjabi kadhi, Mumbai pav bhaji and moong dal halwa are in the US, UK, Australia and West Asia.

“When we entered the RTE meals segment, we used the same distribution channels we were using for our RTC items. RTE helped us enter international chain stores abroad, which were reluctant to stock the RTC products,” says Gilani. Around 80 per cent of the revenues for Gits RTE meals come from exports and that is growing at about 50 per cent every year. The numbers are doubling, in fact, in some countries, says Gilani.

Even the Indian market for RTE meals is poised for rapid growth, predicts the market research firm ValueNotes.

The heat-and-eat food industry in India, valued at Rs. 237 crore in 2014, has been growing at a CAGR of 18 per cent for the last three years. On the back of rapid urbanisation, rising disposable income and improved retail infrastructure, it will be a Rs. 640-crore industry by 2019, according to ValueNotes.

But that is still a few years away. Currently, MTR Foods gets four-fifths of its revenue from exports. “The Indian housewife is not yet ready to outsource her meals. She wants solutions, but wants to cook,” says Vikran Sabherwal, vice-president (marketing) for MTR Foods.

Wooing the locals

The slow growth is also attributed to prevailing perceptions about RTE meals. When first introduced in India in 1987 by the Pune-based Tasty Bites Eatables, ready foods were thought to last long because they contained artificial flavours and preservatives. The products were rolled back within a year. In 1998, the company was taken over by US-based Preferred Brands International. Today, it is a strong name overseas but does not sell in India even though the products are made at its Pune plant.

Tasty Bites might be uninterested in India, but many other players are hungry for it. Delhi-based Haldiram’s, which sells everything from namkeens to sherbets and chips to bhel-puri, entered the RTE segment about four years ago. “We already had a good understanding of the overseas market when selling our snacks and sweets there. We studied the growing demand for Indian meals and launched our range abroad,” says AK Tyagi, vice-president (FMCG business) at Haldiram’s group.

While exports are the mainstay for its RTE foods, the company is also selling them under the Minute Khana brand name in the national capital region. “We will expand to other areas in the domestic market as and when demand improves,” he says.

That, however, first calls for a change in perception. “We are trying to do that. The moment the perception about RTE foods changes, growth will be good,” says Gilani.

To win customer trust, Gits offers free sampling and collects feedback regularly. “We keep refining recipes until a customer is unable to distinguish between home-cooked food and our RTE food,” he says.

Gilani’s father, RH Gilani, joint managing director at Gits Foods, personally tastes every batch at their Pune plant. “We make small batches of around 50-100kg to ensure good quality and consistency in taste,” he says. The average batch size in the RTE industry is around 150kg.

The package deal

Research is also on to develop recipes that taste right and have long shelf-life. A little-known fact is that it is not preservatives but retort packaging technology that helps keep the food fresh.

In retort packaging, food is undercooked, packed in metal-plastic pouches and heated at 116-121 degrees Centigrade. This kills existing microorganisms, and the sealing prevents the entry of new microbes, thereby extending the shelf-life of most foods to as long as 18 months.

Today, even freezing technology is catching up. Haldiram’s has introduced frozen meals, which taste better and last longer. Freezing slows food decomposition as any residual moisture turns into ice, which inhibits bacterial growth. The can is refrigerated at minus 15 degrees Centigrade, says Tyagi. “We are also exporting frozen sweets,” he adds.

Ready attraction

Within India, distinct user categories are emerging. “I am not yet bullish on in-home usage but outside of home, when people travel and have no access to freshly cooked meals, they rely on RTE,” says Sabherwal.

So the main user groups are working women, youngsters staying away from family for study or work, and overseas travellers.

“The strong factor driving consumption is convenience — rising income and changing lifestyle are a part of it. It may be used just once a week or fortnight, but the sheer number of consumers makes India an attractive market,” says Devangshu Dutta, chief executive at consultancy firm Third Eyesight.

In large cities, consumers grappling with long commutes and work-hours often sign on tiffin services, hire a cook, or eat out. RTE foods present them yet another option.

“Some companies have grown rapidly in the space. You don’t need to be a national player, all you need is deep penetration within your chosen geography to be available on the shelf,” he adds.

Yet another factor affecting demand is the pricing of the food items. “If you look at cooking a meal from scratch as against eating out or opening a packet, the pricing can make a lot of difference. If pricing is higher than what the market can bear, then they will become niche products with limited consumption,” Dutta says.

As things stand, RTE food manufacturers are trying to keep a tight leash on costs. A 300-gm packet of MTR palak paneer is priced Rs. 75 while alu methi comes for Rs. 65. While this pricing may find takers in metros, the rest of India may baulk at it.

So, until convenience trumps pricing and perceptions, RTE foods will continue to satiate mainly the hungry desi souls overseas.

(Published in The Hindu Businessline.)