For 20 years, Rajdhani was xenophobic enough to remain parked in one of the most cramped corners of Crawford Market in the heart of Mumbai. You had to battle hideous traffic, handcarts and crowds to get to the restaurant and the most generous thali in town. A determined gourmand would have to wade through 32 items to actually do justice to the platter. So, loyalists rarely grumbled about having to undertake the penance of negotiating Masjid Galli.
Now, you can summon the same experience of eating with little breathing space between the dal dhokli and aamras at four city malls in glass-and-chrome ambience. Not just that, Rajdhani has, in an expansion frenzy, spread out of Mumbai, offering both the expansive thali and snacks at regular restaurants and kiosks at food courts
across New Delhi, Gurgaon, Pune, Nagpur and Indore.
Another old eatery in Mumbai to have benefited from the mall boom is the chaat and Sindhi food specialist, Kailash Parbat. It stayed put at its two addresses, central Colaba and Hotel Kailash Parbat in Lonavala, for more than 53 years, happy with its widespread reputation for delectable pani-puri, parathas and falooda. Its only other venture in suburban Bandra closed down due to real estate problems. Two years ago, Kailash Parbat ventured into the suburbs with an outlet at Inorbit Mall and then set up shop at the Infiniti, Atria and Galleria malls spread across the city. Next on the list of owner Arjun Mulchandani is the Iskcon Mall in Ahmedabad.
“The mall culture has made space accessible to us. If you want to be present at many venues across the city, malls are a great option. The investment is much smaller than in stand-alone ventures,” says Sucheta Goenka, director of Encore Hotels that runs Rajdhani. She says her New Delhi and Gurgaon outlets together serve about 1,000 thalis on a good day, though Gujarati cuisine is not familiar to the northern palate.
Indian restaurant entrepreneurs are flourishing with the retail revolution and it is a situation that suits everybody. The food court is central to a mall experience and it works to the advantage of the owner to have a wide variety of cuisines available. This is where the shoppers, hopefully tired after some hectic shopping, put their feet up to recharge for the next round of retail therapy.
Restaurateurs who manage to set up a centralized kitchen find malls a very cost effective way of expanding their presence. More importantly, a mall assures footfalls for the eateries. “From Day 1, every kiosk at the food court at a mall can expect a few curious guests,” says A.T. Kearney’s retail analyst Hemant Kalbag.
At the food courts, Indian food has begun drawing large crowds.
At the bustling MGF Metropolitan mall in Gurgaon shoppers gravitate towards Baujee da Dhaba and The Chowk. However, it’s at the food court next to the newly opened Haldiram’s restaurant that the true picture emerges. At these food courts, many of the chains serving Indian food not only hold their own against western counterparts such as McDonald’s and Subway, but also generate a steady and loyal clientele among the children of liberalization. At Metropolitan, the DT City Centre mall in Gurgaon, and Ansal Fortune Arcade at Noida, the fragrance of Sagar Ratna’s signature sambhar draws huge crowds of young and old.
Many of these outlets serving Indian food have added small flourishes to set them apart from the rest. For example, Deez Biryani at Metropolitan offers its customers several exotic options such as Pakistani Biryani, in which the meat is steamed and not fried. KB Kulfi offers a number of Indian flavours, which are colour-coded on the cloth that covers the mouth of the kulhad (the earthen pot). So the mango kulfi is sealed with a yellow cover, kesar pista has red on it and paan kulfi, green. Rajdhani, acknowledging the fact that not everyone wants a huge midday meal to make them sluggish (many of its customers at Inorbit Mall in suburban Malad are BPO staffers from nearby offices), offers what it calls a snacklet. These are mini-meals, about a quarter the size of its regular thali, with just, say, rotis, vegetables and kachumber, or shrikhand-puri. Junaid Naseem of Mann Salva, which serves Mughlai food, claims that his dori kebabs are so delicate that they need a thread to hold them to the skewer while roasting.
“The point is that the Indian palate always returns to the familiar dal-roti taste. No matter how much we indulge in pizzas and burgers, we tend to yearn for home flavours even when we eat out,” says Anil Singh Arora, who runs the Only Parathas chain in Mumbai. The eatery has two outlets in city malls and is launching a new one at the huge Nirmal Lifestyle mall in suburban Mulund.
M.L. Siddiqui, who manages the food court at 3Cs mall in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar, also attributes the profusion of these Indian chains in food courts to the homesickness of the Indian palate, which has now tasted a variety of cuisines. “How long can you eat different types of food? Sooner or later, you end up returning to familiar kind of food,” he says. According to Siddiqui, while western food outlets do brisk business during snack times, since they offer options such as chilli potatoes and burgers, it’s the Indian joints that attract the bulk of customers at lunch and dinner.
Indian restaurateurs are increasingly adapting their processes to the fast food mould. Rajdhani promises guests that its “fast food is faster than fast foods”. You could demand, eat and exit its outlets in 20 minutes flat. Next to the kulfi outlet at Metropolitan, Sip n Bite offers the Indian fast food staple of kathi rolls and stuffed parathas. Kishen T. Salian, the assistant manager of the Sagar Ratna at DT City Centre mall, claims that he can offer most items on his menu at the same speed as a western fast food eatery.
Not all entrepreneurs, however, see this as an India vs West situation. The 3Cs mall at Lajpat Nagar is a typical example of the happy coexistence of both types of foods. Brands such as McDonald’s and Barista rub shoulders with Tikka-Wrap and Sagar Ratna and do as well as each other.
The co-owner of Sip n Bite, Vinod Khanna, says the food court has evolved into an area where a wide variety of tastes can be catered to, including Indian. Naseem, whose outlet is present at the food courts at DT Diner mall and Sahara Mall, both in Gurgaon, agrees. He says, “A food court is a place wh ere the kids may want to eat a burger and the parents, South Indian food, at the same time.”
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