"Indians do not go to restaurants, they have great food at home," said a reputed publisher to Rashmi Uday Singh, a renowned food critic and a regular columnist at Times of India, almost two decades back when she wrote India's first-ever city restaurant guide, Good Food Guide to Mumbai (eventually published by Mid-Day in 1997).
Those were days when quality, multi cuisine restaurants were found only in five-star hotels and celebrating outside home wasn't within everybody's reach. The options available weren't particularly appetizing to many - international cuisine translated into Chinese or Continental fare cooked to suit the spice-loving Indian palette.
Switch to 2015. A search on restaurant review and search site, Zomato, for Lebanese cuisine throws up 80 results in Mumbai and 100-odd in Delhi-NCR. What's cooking?
Setting the tone for this change were big international QSR (Quick Service Restaurant) players like McDonald's and KFC, which entered India in the late 90s. They did the groundwork, tweaked their offerings to suit the Indian palate and came up with attractive pricing to woo the value sensitive consumer.
McDonald's operates 350 outlets. According to Kedar Teny, director - marketing and digital, McDonald's India - West and South, the frequency of eating out has gone up from three times a month in 2003, to 7-8 times a month now.
Operating 330 outlets and targeting consumers between 18 and 25 years, KFC gets average walk-ins of over 2,000 per store a month. The success of these players brought in a host of other international QSR players, including biggies like Dunkin' Donuts, Starbucks, Krispy Kreme and, recently, Burger King.
In the casual dining space, a variety of restaurants sprang up serving international cuisines. The restaurant business became so attractive that even cricketers, actors (Zaheer Khan, who has three restaurants in Pune and Arjun Rampal who owns Lap in Delhi) and industrialists (Rahul Bhatia of Indigo Airlines, for instance, has four restaurants in Delhi-NCR) have entered the game. Chefs came out of their kitchens to take the centrestage and become popular faces on television.
Sanjeev Kapoor leads the pack with his hugely popular cookery show Khana Khazana on Zee. The channel (Zee Khana Khazana) is now a separate entity. Kapoor has also launched Food Food channel, a joint venture with Malaysia's Astro Group. International food competition series, MasterChef, also made its debut in the country exposing Indian consumers to a variety of cuisines. The sight of Vikas Khanna - who has hosted a season of MasterChef India and MasterChef Junior on TV - being mobbed at events could make a cricketer envious.
As consumer awareness grew, more choices were dished out by restaurants, both specialised and non-specialised. A National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI) Report in 2013 estimated that the food service industry in India (Rs 247,680 crore or $48 billion now) will grow at a CAGR of 11 per cent over the next five years to reach Rs 408,040 crore ($78 billion) in 2018.
As young professionals got busier, it became easier to dine out than cook at home. This resulted in the mushrooming of restaurants across neighbourhoods.
Digital and social media, led by apps like Zomato, has boosted the business. Information about a dining out joint is just a few clicks away. Talking about food on social media is a 'cool' thing to do. The definition of a 'Foodie' is no longer limited to pleasing one's taste buds. It is about sharing one's gourmet experience online. Food, in a way, has provided content for social media platforms.
"This 'foodiesm' is a global wave, it just came to India a decade later," says food critic Singh adding that restaurants are fast replacing all other forms of entertainment and becoming destinations. "When you want to celebrate a birthday or anniversary what comes to your mind immediately?" she asks. Singh believes that a restaurant experience is the only public one that pampers all our senses. One can touch, see, hear, smell and taste the experience.
Restaurants across categories believe that the Indian consumer has become more "experimental". Indians are willing to try new things - a trait that is pushing restaurants to constantly innovate. This new, discerning consumer seeks quality and is willing to shell out money for good food. She wants to be surprised with something new on every visit to a restaurant.
Barbeque Nation, which has 42 outlets across metros and Tier I cities, tied up with UK's 'Curry King', Pat Chapman, to create 14 new marinades for the festive season in October last year. Sagar Ratna bets big on 'fusion' food items including Paneer Butter Masala Dosa, Chocolate Dosa Rolls, Spring Roll Dosa, Vegetable Cheese Dosa, Spinach Corn Dosa, Achari Dosa, Idli Platters and Madras Idli Fries.
Monkey Bar (Delhi and Bangalore) boasts of adding quirks to its offerings. Starters like Spiked Nachos are infused with tequila and lime, traditional Goan dishes like Sorpotel (pork) wind up in little jam pots, Coorg delicacy Pandi Curry (pork) is paired with warm grilled fresh Pita Bread; a sundae is converted into a multi-layered sandwich.
Pizza Hut recently launched a new range, 'Flavours of the World', inspired by Rome, Mexico and Turkey. The pizzas come with toppings and sauces from around the world. The menu has Mexican nachos and jalapeno sauce, Roman Alfredo cream cheese and salami, Rawalpindi korma sauce and masala channas and paneer on a pizza.
Vikram Vikas Varma, head, marketing, Barbeque Nation, notes that an explosion in the sheer numbers and variety of restaurants is proportional to the increasing expectations and consumption patterns. Based on observations of the consumption pattern at various Barbeque Nation outlets, consumers in the East and West prefer seafood, patrons in the South enjoy Chettinad food and there is more of chicken in the North.
Agreeing with Varma, Manu Chandra, executive chef and partner, Monkey Bar (Delhi & Bangalore) notes that while Bangalore loves pork and beef, Delhi loves poultry and lamb. While fine dining restaurants serving authentic international cuisines stay true to the roots, international QSR players operating in the country Indianise their offerings to suit the palate of the consumer. "We are innovating through 'localization' of products as Indians prefer strong flavours in food. We customise global products to suit local needs," says Unnat Varma, general manager, Pizza Hut.
McDonald's, which uses locally sourced ingredients, chose not to serve beef or pork and invested in creating products like the Maharaja Mc Veggie, Chicken and Mc Aloo Tikki Burger.
KFC, known for its "finger-licking' good" range of chicken burgers and fillets, launched a segregated vegetarian menu in India. The brand promoted the vegetarian range 'So Veg, So Good' with a heavy focus on online activation on social platforms.
Anjan Chatterjee, founder and managing director, Speciality Restaurants, which owns fine dining chains Oh! Calcutta and Mainland China highlights the fact that the consumer is more exposed to a global lifestyle. "Restaurants tweaking foreign cuisine to Indian tastes have been replaced by affordable, authentic, chef-run restaurant or outlets," he states adding that Mainland China, which operates 51 outlets across the country, has extended its Chinese cuisine to a more Pan Asian repertoire with young consumers opening up to varied cuisines.
According to chef Ranveer Brar, television host and judge, MasterChef India 4, consumers have forced chefs and restaurant chains to globalise their culinary offerings and make their food and menu more personal, seasonal and local. Brar has worked with top hospitality players like Taj, Claridges, Radisson and Accor. He also owned a restaurant called BanQ in Boston.
The Indian consumer today is far more indulgent. Families are breaking out of conventional mindsets and dining out, although there is a difference in consumption patterns when it coms to metros and Tier I vis-a-vis Tier II cities.
Consumers from metros and Tier I towns are willing to spend a relatively higher amount on dining out and do so more than once a week in comparison to Tier II & Tier III cities. Customers in Tier II towns still prefer value for money and more destinations or special-occasion dining places. However, the concept of dining out is picking up in these markets as well.
According to Vishal Kapur, CEO, Costa Coffee (India), the customer in the Tier II town still views this as 'eating out', while customers in Tier I are making it a 'lifestyle choice'. The average daily footfalls, depending on the location of a Costa Coffee outlet, is around 300 and average spend is around Rs 250. Unlike metros, Tier II cities also witness low weekday consumption.
Vikram Vikas Varma of Barbeque Nation adds "A destination format like ours is more of a family gathering on weekends." The Barbeque-themed restaurant chain has expanded rapidly in metros with as many as nine outlets in Delhi-NCR and seven in Bangalore. Its next target is Tier II cities like Baroda, Coimbatore and Pune.
The metros are driving the restaurant revolution as more international players test the waters. Hard Rock Café', currently operates in Delhi, Bangalore, Pune and Hyderabad. Sanjay Mahtani, co-founder & executive director, JSM Corp, which owns Hard Rock Café's franchise in India, states that while the locals from Delhi and Mumbai are connoisseurs and loyalists who swear by their favourites, denizens of Pune and Bengaluru are experimental and open to variety. Interestingly, these cities also have a high migratory population, which supports this trend.
According to Arjun Toor of the Caribbean-styled lounge Raasta (Delhi and Gurgaon), Delhi has the right mix of people while Gurgaon has an intelligent mix of corporate consumers who come from all over the country and settle here and would like to stick to basics. 'Experimentative' is what Rahul Korgaonkar, director - food and beverage, Goa Marriott Resort and Spa, dubs the patrons from Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore.
Nasir Shaikh, director of operations, Renaissance Mumbai Convention Centre Hotel, says that millennials (Gen Y) are willing to spend on luxury dining and prefer authentic cuisines to fusion food or purchasing and eating organic food.
Apart from creating a unique identity, customising and innovating the menu, restaurant players cite 'New or Social Media' as the biggest marketing opportunity - and challenge. With online platforms like Twitter, Facebook and the likes of Zomato it is easy to share a single bad experience immediately that has the potential to go viral.
While big restaurant players are trying to adapt to the digital media to connect to the new set of consumers, the smaller players use these platforms for brand building. According to Taj Hotel, New Delhi the challenge lies in #goingsocial for restaurants today.
Keeping up with the virtually connected consumer, Renaissance Mumbai provides mobile check-ins on social media. The Navigator Tablet placed in the hotel's lobby helps guests in creating their own itinerary or choose places to visit in Mumbai. With so many choices available to consumers how will the restaurant industry shape up in the future? According to Nandita Iyer, culinary trainer, columnist and Food blogger (Saffron Trail), the trend is to eat at authentic food places like a Persian, Mexican and Italian restaurant. Such destinations will flourish.
Ethnic cuisines from India and the world, healthier menus, creative cocktails, micro greens and organic produce or ingredients are some of the trends that will dominate 2015.
Restaurants will penetrate deeper into Tier II cities aiming to make the most of the untapped market. As for the foodie Indian there will be enough choices that fits his preference and pocket.
Based on additional interviews with Dhruv Kaul, KFC; Murali K Parna, Sagar Ratna Restaurants.
A Note From the Editor
I remember the precise moment I was drawn to food. Having just turned 40, the doctor told me to be careful about what I ate. Right until then, eating had been a chore. Food was merely something I shoveled into my mouth while reading a book at meal times.
Human nature is perverse. As soon as the doctor gave me a list of things to avoid, those were the very dishes I wanted to gobble. As the list of restricted items has grown with age, so too has my lust for them.
So, to me the rise of the foodie has been especially intriguing. I found on Google Trends that searches for the word 'foodie' have trebled in five years and are still rising rapidly. This is extraordinary considering that the word was first coined in New York magazine in 1980 and someone actually published The Official Foodie Handbook in 1985 - 30 years ago.
It was as if the word went into hibernation and took on a new life only in recent years. Three things happened simultaneously in India to give the foodie a burst of energy. First, urban India has witnessed an explosion of affordable restaurants offering an unbelievable range of cuisines. Simultaneously, smartphones with powerful cameras coupled with the rise of social media have allowed diners to share their experience live.
Who nevertheless could have believed that food would become so cool among the young? That it would become the subject of endless discussion and even hot argument? It seems to me that there is as much social media discussion on a new restaurant as there is about a new film. Everyone has a point of view and everyone is a food critic. Collecting new gastronomical experiences is now a hobby in its own right.
People may grumble about how today's young are careless with their English. I'd suggest that they read the food reviews on Zomato: they are really well written (even if credit is due to the editors at Zomato). It is now common to go to a hip restaurant and find people taking selfies with their food. Writers - good and the ill-informed - on the subject abound and some restaurants even set aside tables for bloggers.
Our special article looks at how this experimentation with food has changed the nature of the restaurant business in India.