Why My Chole Bhature & Medu Vada Walas Should be on Swiggy, Zomato

Here’s why Swiggy, Uber Eats, Zomato, etc, should wake up to the immense potential that street food vendors have.

5 min read
Image used for representational purposes.

I had some fine medu vadas last week in what looked like a street food stall. Perched in the corner of an Agarwal Sweets shop, one of Delhi's numerous similar-sounding corner eateries in a local market, it had an air of respectability. I chatted up the vendor, who turned out to be from a place in rural Tamil Nadu, not far from where my parents grew up.

“Do you deliver at home?” I asked, noting down his phone number. “I don't have anybody to do that,” he replied in Tamil. “But I am on Zamota. They will have it delivered.”

The man's ability to pronounce ‘Zomato’ was well below par, but his sambar was far better, his vadas crisper, than the brand-name chain that advertises too much for a sambar that looks better off as a dark red liquid on a painter's palette than a connoisseur's palate.

It is time for the Gurgaon-based unicorn, and possibly its rival, ‘Swiggy’, or ‘Uber Eats’, or the Ola-owned ‘Food Panda’ to wake up to the immense potential that street food vendors have.

Food Delivery Apps Must Tap Into Potential of Street Vendors

Coming in a week that saw Zomato announcing a tentative truce after a bitter war with expensive high-end restaurants over deep discounts to lure customers, there are lessons to be learnt for the billion-dollar-plus valued startup from its showdown.

The National Restaurants Association of India was miffed that Zomato offered discounts far more than what it thought was justifiable. The discounts eroded the profitability of its upscale members. NRAI wants eatery aggregators to be more restaurant-friendly. About 1,000 restaurants have reportedly de-listed from Zomato, while the company has suspended its two-month-old Infinity Dining programme aimed at being a bridge between restaurants and food and drink connoisseurs, who in turn have been lured under a subscription-based programme called Zomato Gold.

High-end eateries fancy fewer customers who would pay more per head than have a technological middleman turn a high-margin into a low-profit one. But then, as management guru CK Prahlad wrote, there is a fortune at the bottom of the pyramid waiting to be made by those who get more innovative, social and smart.

It is time for the Gurgaon-based unicorn, and possibly its rival, ‘Swiggy’, or ‘Uber Eats’, or the Ola-owned ‘Food Panda’ to wake up to the immense potential that street food vendors have. Savvy startups could do a noble task in lifting the fortunes of hundreds of thousands of vendors who serve everything from chhole-bhaturey and pav-bhaji to idlis, vadas and countless dishes waiting to be discovered. Or hold your breath — invented.

The skills of street chefs are incredible, if you see them flip their ‘parathas’ or add ‘chana’ toppings in an ecologically friendly leaf-bowl.

There's a catch here, though. This is not just about food delivery. This could involve new-age practices that turn the food business on its head by hand-holding street vendors on everything from hygienic methods and sourcing of raw materials, to promotions and packaging. Simply getting a young man in a tee-shirt to push the same old stuff to homes, is going to barely scratch the surface.

Hello Swiggy, Zomato. Care to Coach Our Street Chole Bhature, Paratha Sellers?

Let's go back a bit. Zomato started as a food-review platform for the millennial-type foodies so that the reviews could separate the men from the boys in the restaurant game. Then it became a delivery company, so that you could order in your favourite stuff home. Swiggy happened as a competitor somewhere along the way. You can now order all sorts of stuff, high-end or low, on app-based platforms.

But that would be just low-hanging fruit.

My morning walk takes me past sellers of chhole-kulche and parathas, whose deft hands and friendly delivery styles have a lot to be loved. But then, I can't say that about hygiene in some. Or the fact that some, even if they look clean, stand close to open sewers. Some use iron or tin utensils that are not worth junk value. Some use edible oil or flour of cheaper origin. Some make the stuff too spicy. The skills of street chefs, however, are incredible if you see them flip their parathas or add chana toppings in an ecologically friendly leaf-bowl.

If you teach street vendors how to use a convection oven on the streets, ‘Make in India’ could well become ‘Bake in India’.

I wish somebody would coach these vendors. Better utensils, cleaner practices, a uniform for the sadak chef and designer handcarts in pastel shades may well help them bite customers off the upmarket entrepreneurs who dim their lights and turn up the air-conditioning to charge multiple times the price for lower-quality stuff.

How about it, dear Zomato? Or, er, Swiggy? Or whoever wants to do this?

Towards a Fine Blend of ‘Incredible India’ & ‘Swachh Bharat’

I can think of volunteers, connoisseurs, impact investors and NGOs concerned about healthcare or income generation for the poor, helping in the process. I can think of banks under pressure to offer MUDRA loans for self-employment sitting in a profitable triangle that could include app-based companies, street vendors and financiers.

What results could be a fine blend of Incredible India and Swachh Bharat?

If you teach them how to use a convection oven on the streets, Make in India could well become Bake in India. Think of low-carb, health-conscious or vegan street food. There is no limit to innovation and invention if those at the bottom of the pyramid are helped by those who know what customers are willing to pay more for.

Years ago, I wrote something to suggest that aloo-chaat sold on the streets of the national capital is pretty close to the French fries they sell in the multinational burger chains. But a plate of chaat costs only a fraction of a small bag of fries. You get the picture. Street food merchants ably coached by hotel management graduates, socially inclined marketers and app-based platforms that look beyond easy money from fat-cat restaurants, could revolutionise the food business in India.

This may well force overcharging restauranteurs to offer the discounts they have been resisting.

For all we now, “Zamota” might well be an alt-brand name for street food that offers a mix of quality, novelty, variety and hygiene. It is not for nothing that India's homegrown humourists say that a ‘pizza is just a paratha that went abroad for higher studies’!

(The writer is a senior journalist and commentator who has worked for Reuters, The Economic Times, Hindustan Times and Business Standard. He tweets as @madversity. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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