Saturday, January 17, 2015

Food trucks in India-Will they succeed?

Catering service comes in many formats and street vending is an established system in many parts of the world. Besides the foods served being cheaper, street vendors are supposed to provide a better sensory satisfaction to their clients. Unfortunately the urban infrastructure in India is so bad there is a constant conflict between the pedestrians and the vehicular traffic in moving ahead in this chaos to reach their destinations. Where is the space available for these vendors to serve their dedicated clients without attracting punitive action from the civic bodies? Whatever may be the constraints these vendors, thousands in number still manage to do business though the relevant question is whether they become a potential source of food poisoning dangers associated with inadequate hygiene and sanitation.

From time to time the issue of controlling street vending outlets crops up nationally as well as internationally and sporadic efforts are made to help them manage their business better with least inconvenience and risks to the citizens who flock to such places for a relaxed eating experience. Even recently the street vendors association organized a workshop in Delhi to train their members on sanitation and hygiene keeping in mind their vulnerability to undesirable food borne illness due to deficiency in service. Still street vending poses challenges to the civic bodies in terms of regularizing their activities without compromising on foot path facilities for the pedestrians. Though these bodies control them through the licensing provisions, very little is being done to oversee the quality and safety of the foods they prepare and sell through open vending exposing to the questionable quality of the environment they are working.

One of the biggest problems as far the consumer is concerned is the water being used by street vendors for their preparation, washing of cooking utensils and serving plates and disposal of waste generated. In many parts of the city where street vendors operate the stench emanating from the waste, droppings and wash water an be unbearable some time. Regular cleaning of the pavements every day by the civic authorities with antiseptics like phenyl, bleaching solutions and powders could reduce the dangers significantly. But this is almost never done leaving scope to cause discomforts to the customers, some times becoming a hazard with potential for major poisoning episodes. That Indians have strong bellies which are not easily affected by minor incidences of food transgressions cannot be an excuse to shut our eyes to wards negligence of hygiene, sanitation and tainted water and foods.

From time to time suggestions have been made to create food plazas in cities located at different locations where adequate facilities are provided for clean water, waste disposal and toilet facilities. But the food plazas that are coming up are invariably posh ones serving high cost foods and common man finds it difficult to access to these places because of cost considerations. The Amma canteens in Tamilnadu did create an aura for some time and they are still popular among low income population like workers and laborers but this is a government subsidized venture leaving very little for individual entrepreneurship. Recent advent of Food Trucks on India roads is a welcome development though we do not know how long they will last under the suffocating environment of bureaucracy and cluttered roads in most cities. In a country like the US where Food Trucks have notched up phenomenal success there are clearly demarcated areas where food trucks can be parked for doing business for limited ours without hindering the flow of pedestrians or vehicular traffic. It is doubtful whether the street vendors in India can ever be transformed into a food truck business entrepreneurs given the reality that exists in the country.

In spite of such reservations the news that some bold entrepreneurs have jumped into the fray in places like Delhi and Bangalore can be very encouraging. Properly designed food trucks should be elf sufficient in terms of on the spot cooking, serving facilities, waste handling, refrigeration etc, though one cannot expect them to provide toilet facilities. According to one view one can have a food truck with an investment of Rs 3-5 lakh but such improvised "trucks" would be probably mounted on old van type vehicles which cannot be called a food truck. A good self contained food truck many cost upwards of Rs 25 lakh with necessary minimum facilities and whether with such investments entrepreneurs will be able to garner sufficient business to ensure decent returns remains to be seen.

Catering sector in India is booming with regular eateries making a kill in the market with the consumers becoming insensitive to the prices at which the preparations are sold. Even a small eatery gets away with prices varying from Rs 15-50 for their preparations while more reputed and established caterers have steadily hiked up the prices during the last two years. It is impossible today for a family to get a decent meal for less than Rs 200 and buffet lunches are ruling at prices beyond that! Still most conventional eateries are doing very good business because of increasing disposable income with the lower and upper middle class population. This is the right environment for food trucks to blossom in the country and governments and civic bodies must facilitate their entry and help them to sustain with least impediments and supportive policies, in stead of harassing them as is being claimed by some of the pioneers who started this business recently.  

A recent development in street food market may throw a damper at the plans of new food truck entrepreneurs trying to venture into this new marketing ploy to attract the erstwhile customers of traditional street vendors. Many high end restaurants with reputed Chefs in their pay role are reported to be trying to romanticize street foods and introduce some of the items popular among street food patrons as a part of their menu. Their strength lies in the fact that they can provide a better ambiance within their premises and the safety of the foods they serve would be guaranteed institutionally and responsibly compared to the addressless street vendors. How far they can attract or shift the loyalty of regular customers of street vending segment remains to be seen.      


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