How far can you go to satisfy your craving for authentic food that carries the flavour and aroma you associate with your home town? With the ever increasing tide of people moving away from their home town/state in search of career opportunities, we are all very familiar with the trend of people carrying food items with them from their ‘janambhumi’ to their ‘karambhumi’.
If one were to scan the check-in luggage of millions of passengers criss- crossing across the country, it would not be far-fetched to say that ready-to-eat delicacies and ingredients to prepare region-specific food would be a common thread across many a luggage. Once would find panchphoron of Bengal and Odisha to Byadige chilli of Karnataka to masalas for chicken of Tamil Nadu or a galouti kebab of Uttar Pradesh to the perfect Singdana from Gujarat to bamboo shoots from Nagaland.
Retailers have tried to latch on to this trend, though in spurts. As a retailer, I have seen various chains conduct ‘rice melas’ carrying Sona masoori from Karnataka, Kolam from Maharashtra, Gobind-bhog from Bengal, Ponni from Tamil Nadu, red matta from Kerala or ‘mango melas’ with the Andhra Banganapalli , Karnataka Badami, Maharashtra Apus, Gujarati Kesar, UP’s Dussheri and Langra, Chaunsa from Himachal. There have been instances where a retailer like the erstwhile ‘Total Hypermarket’ tried to build and call out region specific sections.
SPAR hypermarket also has attempted to offer regional based food items to its customers. However, the effort has been largely to integrate some region-specific ingredients, say, masalas in the overall category section. There has been no separate segregation.
Browsing through the store or online site of a specialty store like Nature’s Basket showed me a wide selection of world cuisine from a tahini to a tabouleh to a tempura. There was a very thoughtfully laid out “international cuisine’ section, which had Mexican, Italian, Middle- Eastern to Japanese essentials.
But I found only Indian groceries section; no sections devoted to Bengali, Gujarati, Malayalee or Goanese cuisine. Considering the large number of organised retail chains, it is surprising why most, if not all retailers are yet to pick up this obvious need gap in the food assortment.
Even large chains like Big Bazaar, MORE, Reliance have not done justice to food assortment reflecting regional variations in an organised manner. There have been sporadic attempts in the past across various chains where, say, a store in Mangalore gets one or two bays dedicated for Mangalorean local food. But why do we not have our big retailers do something that our counterparts across the world do routinely, i.e., dedicate and demarcate a clear space for culinary specifics?
In Singapore, hypermarkets clearly call out country-specific sections. Considering the amazing diversity and variation in food preference seen in a country like India, it makes more sense to do so here.
On speaking to practitioners in the F&G sector, everyone acknowledged this need gap and agreed that a section catering to region-specific products definitely is an idea whose time has come. They mentioned supply chain bottlenecks as one of the reasons why this concept has not been pursued. There is a lot of effort, time and money that needs to be invested in a venture like this, where the retailer needs to deploy resources. They will have to go across the country, speaking to small stores/ brands, which are big in their native regions. These stores/ brands need to be explained the concept, the organized retail model and the trading terms, which are not the easiest, I must admit! Supplies need to flow seamlessly through, which has proved to be a hurdle. A lot of small players cannot handle the large volumes that come with a big organized player. Neither can they handle the stiff terms and credit period required. Unless there is a mutual advantage and quick volumes seen on either side, one party loses interest and the project fizzles out and this is precisely what has happened in a lot of cases, as per industry feedback. Another perspective is the fact that with scale comes centralization and SOPs, which are inimical to creativity, localization and decision making at operational levels.
Large retail chains have decision makers at head offices who may or may not be aware of regional variations and who will more often than not adapt cookie cutter approaches for ease of implementation. Concepts like these get sacrificed at the altar of standardization. While the Goliaths had their version of the story, let us see it from the perspective of the Davids, the smaller kirana store players.
The Kirana Way
Local kirana shops, on the other hand, have always tried to cater to increasing diversity of their clientele by bringing regional flavours. Online players have gone further and put forth curated items from across India. Bangalore, two decades ago, had packed ‘panchphoron’ in kirana shops. Over the years, there have been similar instances where people in Bangalore swear by the friendly neighbourhood store which makes sure specific needs are met for people who live around it, whether it is for products from the Northeast or Kerala or even Dubai.
Maybe this customisation and catering to customer needs is what sets apart the kirana stores from their more ‘organized’ counterparts and is a reason behind their seeming success. When organized food retail started proliferating first in 2001 with Big Bazaar and then in 2006 with Reliance, there were concerns about local kirana stores being wiped out of business. Many a protest across States like UP, Odisha, Bengal and Kerala were held over this issue.
More than a decade later, the kirana story is not only visible but has gone from strength to strength. But then, that is a story for another day.
The Online Version
A quick search revealed that online players definitely have an edge over physical stores in this story. There are two very interesting sites which cater to regional tastes and preferences. While one cannot comment on the quality and service of these sites, the thought behind the assortment and the width of the offering on the site was definitely impressive.
The first site is ‘Place of Origin’, which sells sweets, snacks, dry fruits and grocery items across 100 brands and 20 States. The website’s objective as stated in the site is: “At PlaceofOrigin.in, our objective is to bring online all those special foods that you crave the most and that are difficult to find locally.”
Browsing through this site, you will be amazed at the curated selection. It had in its menu ‘place of origin’ food ranging from Karnataka, Kerala to Uttarakhand, J&K to Mizoram and Jodhpur. The brands included a Mukhrochak from Bengal to a Shreedas Barfiwala from Nadiad, Gujarat. Products ranged from Bansiwala mathri from Agra to Balram Mullick nolen gur sandesh or a Maganlal chikki from Lonavla.
The grocery product portfolio includes perilla seeds from Aizwal, sukhi fali from Jodhpur, anardana from Ranikhet, among others. While there’s a lot left to be desired, it is at least a good beginning. The categories have been created; now the products need to be filled!
The second interesting site that caught my fancy is called “Flavors of my City”. This is yet another site based on the same concept.
Here one can shop by store and choose a Chitale Bandhu from Pune, Ganguram from Kolkata, Makaibari from Darjeeling or a Pracheen Petha from Agra. A customer gets a mind boggling 100-city choice, ranging from a little known ones like Salepur, Odisha to Virudhunagar, Tamil Nadu, to mega cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore. So the ‘smaller’ kirana store players and niche online players definitely seem to have given a thought to this screaming gap in the market and have taken concrete steps to address it.
One wonders when larger organized players will wake up to this need for personalisation.