Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Lunch is dead, long live lunch

As the idea of Sad Desk Lunch takes root in corporate India, companies and a new crop of food delivery services are trying to change the way we look at the midday meal

The American documentary photographer Brian Finke chronicled the sadness of office lunches in a whimsical series called Desktop Dining for The New York Times magazine last year. He shot office workers in various awkward positions—chomping on lettuce fronds hunched over their keyboards, dripping ketchup on a computer mouse, heating unappetizing leftovers. It was a comment on a phrase that is rapidly gaining currency: Sad Desk Lunch. There is even a website dedicated to it that invites users to put up pictures of their less-than-inspiring meals.

There is a big difference between the lunch of the past and what most of us eat at work today. In The American Woman’s Cook Book, published back in 1938, a chapter devoted to “The Lunch Box" says: “As much care is needed in selecting and preparing the food for the lunch box as for the other meals served to the family. If the lunch is inadequate or lacking in food essentials throughout the year, the individual’s whole nutrition will be seriously affected, and his work will suffer." It is a piece of advice that wizened old-time cooks, mothers and grandmothers have followed across geographies.

Kanu Gupta (left) and Sushil Multani of Savor with their lunch of the day. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Kanu Gupta (left) and Sushil Multani of Savor with their lunch of the day. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

In India, a lunch box in most middle-class and upper-middle-class homes used to comprise stacked tiffin carriers of dal, rice or roti, seasonal sabzis or curries, salad and yogurt. Perhaps a piece of mithai as well. Planning lunch was no mean feat—one had to prepare menus that would travel well and survive the rigours of the climate. In my home, growing up in Kolkata, mornings would be a flurry of activity for several generations of the family. Streamlined breakfasts would be offset by the elaborate prep for the all-important meal of the day—lunch. Milton hot cases and gleaming tiffin carriers would be packed with fresh food. As each member of the family went out into the world, they would carry with them a piece of succour from home encased in polished stainless steel.

For those who didn’t carry food from home, there were office canteens—and the more appetizing option of street food. Mumbai’s khau gallis, which came up to serve the needs of merchants and stockbrokers who worked long hours, offered sandwiches, dosas, vada pav and more. Delhi had the Punjabi dhabas (eateries) and Kolkata, the long tradition of the “pice" hotels. Arundhati Ray, a Kolkata-based food writer, says the first little hole-in-the-wall eateries emerged in the late 19th century, coinciding with the growing number of Bengali babus working in the mercantile offices. They offered a set Bengali meal at a fixed and affordable price slab. Many white-collar workers would visit these establishments where patrons sat at long tables and ate freshly cooked meals of dal, bhaat, charchari and fish curry.

A customized meal from POD Supply. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
A customized meal from POD Supply. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Tiffin in trouble

Today, even as our lunch boxes come in sleeker shapes and office canteens acquire coffee machines that dispense flat whites, there is no doubt that the overall quality of the afternoon meal has deteriorated.

In 2016, KPMG and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci) published a report on the expansion of the food services industry in India: It said there had been 5.6% annual growth since 1991 in India’s urban female workforce participation rate, which has changed the traditional roles of women vis-à-vis the domestic space. The implication is that there is less time for cooking at home and ready-to-eat food or eating out have become preferred alternatives. The report also mentioned that the country’s large young population, with a median age of 27.6 years, preferred to eat out or order in on most days, and this detracted from the focus on home kitchens.

This young (between the ages of 25-40) middle- and upper-middle-class white-collar workforce approaches lunch in a different manner. Changing family structures, increasing reliance on unreliable domestic help, long work hours and equally long commutes have made carrying lunch from home difficult. For those who do manage to do so, lunch boxes mean leftovers from dinner or, if you’re lucky, domestic help or a family member putting together something.

So, while senior management still eats its multi-course lunches, most young or middle-management executives are relying more on the office canteen. A majority of large offices and corporate parks today are designed with in-house canteens. But they are rarely able to offer the comfort of home cooking or the excitement of a restaurant meal.

This is where the food delivery machinery kicks in, offering the luncher a gamut of options. Technology has emerged as a big game changer and the growth of app-based food-delivery services such as Swiggy, Zomato and Scootsy, apart from facilitating restaurant orders, has led to a new breed of food entrepreneurs who provide specialized lunch options for the office crowd.

A Christmas spread at the Godrej One headquarters in Vikhroli, Mumbai. Photo:Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
A Christmas spread at the Godrej One headquarters in Vikhroli, Mumbai. Photo:Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

The many faces of an office canteen

It is hard to pinpoint what exactly makes people reach for the phone and order a pizza or a burger rather than go with their office caterer.

The right mix of variety, subsidized pricing, palatability and healthy food is hard to come by. Many smaller enterprises often have to make do with a single caterer’s menu of the day and while the larger companies can still pull in different brands, not all the options are healthy enough to eat daily. Only a few manage to strike the right balance.

Lunch at the food court at Godrej One, the Godrej group’s global headquarters at Vikhroli in Mumbai, is no simple affair. In the run-up to Christmas, the building’s food court is the centre of festivities. A Christmas lunch has been planned for employees on the day we visit. There is roast turkey, a live ravioli station and a dessert counter piled with yule logs, stollen and cake. Young carollers in Santa hats set the mood.

Apart from the food court, employees can also choose from an in-house cafeteria, an on-site Starbucks, and a Nature’s Basket for quick snacks, salads and juices. Both the cafeteria and food court offer a menu that changes daily, the former at subsidized rates and the latter at affordable price points. “For us, the idea of a lunch room is not just food but an open space where people interact with each other, and we also have regular food festivals to keep lunch exciting," says Sumit Mitra, head, group human resource (HR) and corporate services, Godrej Industries Ltd and Associate Companies.

Similarly, at the sprawling Infosys campuses in Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Mysuru, numerous food courts service thousands of employees around the clock, all days of the week. “Since our campuses are open round the clock, it was necessary to plan for food courts that would offer meals and snacks catering to the palates of employees from multiple geographies," says Richard Lobo, executive vice-president and HR head, Infosys Ltd. A special Infosys card allows cashless transactions—according to Lobo, this service really came in handy during the government’s demonetization drive last year.

The bright and airy Godrej food court. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
The bright and airy Godrej food court. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

The new ‘dabbawallas’

On any given day, most office reception areas are besieged by food delivery boys in brightly coloured T-shirts. From pizza to new-age thalis in styrofoam trays, these are the dabbawallas of today, offering lunchers a break from their office fare.

They are a far cry from the Mumbai dabbawalla in his starched whites and Gandhi topi. Started by Mahadu Bacche in 1890, the dabbawalla service continues to serve all parts of Mumbai covered by the train network. The dabbawallas have found a place in the Guinness World Records, in Harvard case studies and, of course, in Ritesh Batra’s 2013 movie, The Lunchbox. According to an April report in the Hindustan Times, about 5,000 dabbawalas transport as many as 200,000 lunch dabbas daily for an average monthly fee of Rs450 a box.

Yet Mumbai is a city of 18 million—and more is needed.

It is this gap that a clutch of new food businesses are trying to fill. These delivery-only companies function out of cloud kitchens which accept orders via apps or websites and offer no dine-in facility. Instead, they focus on packaging, hygiene, nutritional content and variety. From gourmet international spreads to calorie-counted meal boxes, the services are quite varied, offering Asian stir-fries, sous-vide meats, hand-rolled pastas, all for less than Rs600 per head.

At Mumbai-based gourmet lunch service Savor (Savorexperiences.com), the aim is to surprise office-goers every time. A small blink-and-you-miss-it bright blue door in Mumbai’s Lower Parel neighbourhood opens into a gleaming professional kitchen. It can service up to 250 orders and also handles the company’s larger catering.

The Savor Kitchen, less than a year old, sends out over two dozen dabbas on a daily basis. When we visit, executive chef Sushil Multani portions out the meal of the day: a spinach soup, Asian steamed chicken and cucumber salad with a peanut sauce, and a dessert of fresh figs with a ginger-jaggery syrup. Tofu replaces chicken in the vegetarian meal. Everything looks bright and fresh and is portioned according to grammage.

“Our day begins at 7am...our chefs do a market visit and pick out fresh and seasonal ingredients which we add to our menus. While we have our mains mostly planned, the salad, desserts and soups are benefited by the produce we discover," says Multani, pointing to the simple fresh fig dessert that has been inspired by the availability of good-quality fruit in the market.

The lunch is packed in a special Savor paper bag—a play on the brown-paper lunch bag. Everything is freshly made, right from tortellinis to breads, and is gourmet in both its ingredients as well as ethos. The mission of founder Kanu Gupta, a former investment banker who also runs a gourmet supper club called Secret Supper, is to save the office lunch from its gloomy present and combat what he calls the “deliver at your desk on demand phenomenon".

“As Indians, we intrinsically believe that our work hours belong to the company and a working lunch is meant to be functional rather than enjoyable. This has led to the disappearance of the lunch hour altogether," says Gupta. He wants to bring back the idea of lunch as an hour when you can take time off, chat with friends and enjoy the food before you in a mindful manner. Savor’s lunch box offers three-four courses and a monthly subscription plan costs Rs9,500 for 20 lunches.

Today, even as our lunch boxes come in sleeker shapes and office canteens acquire coffee machines that dispense flat whites, there is no doubt that the overall quality of the afternoon meal has deteriorated-

For Bengaluru-based gourmet delivery service Chefkraft (Chefkraft.com), the idea was to target the functional aspect while offering flavourful, healthy and affordable options. On a given day, customers could choose between rosemary chicken, Thai red curry or sushi. They also offer those on a weight-loss mission special ketogenic subscriptions based on the right mix of fats, proteins and low carbs. “We wanted to make a menu that was not only diverse enough but also travelled well and engaged directly with the requirements of corporates," says Mohit Mital, chief executive officer and co-founder, Chefkraft.

Then there are personalized luxury services like Mumbai-based POD Supply (Podsupply.in), which is like having your own nutritionist on demand. Their gourmet lunches are based on individual preferences and health needs. While POD Supply offers weekly or monthly subscriptions for four-six meals, lunch is a priority. Mohit Savargaonkar, head chef of POD, says that since lunch provides fuel to function through the day, it needs to provide the right proportions of proteins, carbs and fats. The costs for POD Supply start at Rs25,000 for a four-six meals a day weekly subscription.

Another brand that focuses on healthy meals tailored to the lifestyles of corporate professionals is GoGourmet, which functions out of kiosks in Delhi, Noida and Gurugram and offers delivery-only options (the promoters of HT Media Ltd, which publishes Mint, and Jubilant Consumer Pvt. Ltd, which runs GoGourmet, are closely related. There are, however, no promoter cross-holdings). Every dish on the menu, calorie-counted, features wraps, salads, sandwiches and bowl meals like a three-bean rajma chaawal as well as healthy desserts and seasonal fruit bowls. Prices range from Rs110-270. And Mumbai-based service, Calorie Care, tailors specific menus that aid weight loss as well as recovery from health conditions such as TB or jaundice.

How the food is sent out is key to these business models. “Good packaging not only protects the food during travel...it allows for ease of eating out of the box and also storage of leftovers, if any," says Chefkraft’s Mital. At Savor, the food is cooked and then chilled—so that by the time it reaches customers, it is room temperature. Customers can choose to eat the food as is, or reheat it in the microwave in the heatproof containers that they send out.

Logistics are of supreme importance, for lunch has to reach clients at a particular time. In the case of some, like POD Supply, all the meals are sent out together in the morning, while others like Savor ensure that the dabbas arrive a little after noon. While some of these services have their own logistics team, some enlist the help of Swiggy and Zomato.

The old and the new ways meld together in Mumbai, where many of these start-ups also tie up with the dabbawallas for last-mile delivery.

It is not, however, an easy business to crack. Client numbers are small and restricted entirely to urban areas. Acquiring new customers and keeping the business viable are challenges. People are far more willing to spend on dinner or weekend meals and monthly plans can look quite steep at first glance. When you break it down, though, it averages out to less than a main course at a standard fine-dining restaurant.

It’s a world far removed from the days when British-run companies would offer a multi-course lunch menu of mulligatawny soup, meat pies and roasts wheeled in by liveried bearers. The weekday restaurant buffet lunches also seem to have passed on. According to A.D. Singh, the Mumbai-based restaurateur and founder of the Olive group, restaurants will have to jump on to the delivery bandwagon to stay relevant and adapt to the new way of lunching. “No one goes to destination restaurants for lunch, and, in order to be viable, restaurants need to offer menus that work well in the delivery space," he says.

The decline of the long, leisurely lunch, then, seems to be on the minds of many. A 2016 article in The Guardian lamented the death of the leisurely lunch in the UK: “As many of our best restaurants begin to do away with midweek lunch services entirely, the long lunch feels like a tradition in its final death throes."

A GoGourmet kiosk in Delhi. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint.
A GoGourmet kiosk in Delhi. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint.

Experts like Ishi Khosla, clinical nutritionist and founder of Whole Foods and Theweightmonitor.com, believe it’s too early to sound the death knell. “The idea of lunch being a large four-course meal seems to be out of place, especially considering how most office-goers don’t do any physical labour and are confined to the desk. The post-lunch phenomenon of sleepiness and lack of concentration comes with a large meal," says Khosla.

According to her, it is important to eat something around lunch hour but it is a meal that should be more in tune with the requirements of the body and the job. “Lunch should be a meal of foods that wake you up and make you feel more energized, so it should be light and healthy." It need not be an elaborate affair; even a bowl of fruit can address the glycaemic index (which measures the effect of carbohydrates present in food on blood sugar levels). In fact, she recommends splitting up lunch into two meals, focusing on the lentils and veggies earlier in the day and keeping the grain component for later, thereby eating light as well as taking care of the 4 o’clock hunger pangs.

Instead of mourning the death of lunch, now might be the right time to reinvent it.

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Tiffin tales

The ubiquitous Indian ‘dabba’ retains its essential design as it takes on a 21st century avatar.

In India, lunch used to come encased in cloth or steel. Whether it was a farmer’s frugal roti-sabzi in a rumaal or a government employee’s home-cooked spread in a tiffin carrier, lunch in India was inseparable from the container it came in. The rise of the microwave has led to the introduction of microwave-safe plastic lunch boxes, from Tupperware tiffins to Lock&Lock’s airtight and leak-proof lunch boxes.

Old manufacturers such as Milton have come up with updated versions of insulated steel lunch boxes, electric tiffins (a lunch box with an electric cord that can be plugged in to heat up the steel dabbas within) as well as a microwavable insulated steel tiffin.

A recent entrant in the market is Vaya Tyffyn, created by Vashist Vasanthakumar, former director of operations at Apple. This is a futuristic spin on the old-fashioned dabba. Its compact oval shape keeps food hot for up to 6 hours. In the 2016 book Sār: The Essence Of Indian Design (Phaidon) by Swapnaa Tamhane and Rashmi Varma, the dabba is regarded as an essential Indian design object. Over time, this stackable container has transmogrified into a cultural icon and objet d’art. Mumbai-based artists such as Bose Krishnamachari and Valay Shende have used the dabba and the dabbawallas as an emblem of the city and its people.

But perhaps the most evocative tales of the tiffin are those told by Subodh Gupta. Apart from stainless steel, his tiffins are made in gold and marble as he takes humble everyday objects representing middle-class India and transforms them into art on a pedestal.

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Eat like a local

From ‘kozhambu’ curries to fish ‘paturi’—here are four food start-ups which offer specialized regional cuisine that can transform a regular working lunch into a weekday treat

Thaal-In-A-Box (Mumbai)
Thaal-In-A-Box (Mumbai)

Thaal-In-A-Box (Mumbai)

This lunch service is spearheaded by mother-son duo Nafisa and Munaf Kapadia, the team behind The Bohri Kitchen, a Mumbai-based pop-up that showcases recipes from the Bohri community. The service shrinks three elements of a Bohri thaal—the kharaas (savoury), the meethas (sweet) and the jaman (main course)—into a chicken or mutton meal.

Chicken Thaal-In-A-Box, Rs299; the mutton variant, Rs345.Thebohrikitchen.com; to order, call 09029020285

The Green Box (Hyderabad)
The Green Box (Hyderabad)

The Green Box (Hyderabad)

Founder Gaurav Sharma began the service with

plans for diabetics and heart patients and has since expanded. He now offers meals based on an
individual’s maximum calorie intake and features gluten- free, high-protein and weight-loss diets.

One of the most popular options is the calorie-counted north Indian meal.

Average cost: Rs110 for a meal. Thegreenbox.co; to order, sign up on the website

Masala Box (Bengaluru and Kochi) .
Masala Box (Bengaluru and Kochi) .

Masala Box (Bengaluru and Kochi)

Launched in 2014 in Kochi by Harsha Thachery, this food start-up connects consumers craving nutritious home-style food with home chefs. Masala Box offers subscription-based plans based on individual preferences. From the mor kozhambu and gongura chicken to methi paratha, this tiffin service offers seasonal recipes from north and south India.

Basic meals start at Rs100.Masalabox.com; order through their app.

Adhya’s Gourmet (Kolkata)
Adhya’s Gourmet (Kolkata)

Adhya’s Gourmet (Kolkata)

Started by the sisters Shreyashi Ganguly and Mahua Pal, this start-up offers an assortment of East Bengali food. Some of their most popular dishes include narkel diye posto bora, maach bhaja, mochar chop and paanch mishali dal.

Average cost: Rs500 for two.Place an order through Zomato or call 09830496009.

—Avantika Bhuyan

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