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8 inspiring lessons I learned from street food vendors

Last updated on: January 08, 2016 10:05 IST

Before starting a new company, perhaps you should visit your nearest food stall for some quick inspiration. Here's why.

As I travel across Bangalore and other cities attempting to discover interesting street food and local eateries, I am often struck by the creativity, innovation, and business sensibilities that some of the owners exhibit.

From humble tea stalls catering to actors and politicians to trained fine dine chefs, many owners bring extensive knowledge and an inspiring spirit of entrepreneurship to their eateries.

Here are some of these inspiring stories and what they've taught me.

#1. Don't let the world dictate what you can do

Sharon Tea Stall

Daniel D'souza, the owner of Sharon Tea Stall in Bangalore, didn't want to run just another tea stall.

So he decided that there was no reason why the more exotic teas should be available only in fancy tea parlours and out of the reach of an everyday person on the road.

Sharon Tea Stall in Indira Nagar is a full-fledged tea parlour in the garb of a small street-side shack that serves a wide variety of interesting teas.

No wonder then that his clients include actors and politicians from across the state, something he proudly displays through photographs at the tiny stall.

Try stuff that hasn't been done before even if you're unsure of succeeding.

#2. Do something unexpected. Then expect it to create stickiness

Simple creative differentiators can be used to transform products from also-rans to pack-leaders, and often a small tweak within existing boundaries can result in starkly different products that are bound to attract attention.

One momo vendor decided that plain white momos are passe.

So she transformed them into colourful bites using natural food extracts from beetroots, carrots and spinach. Now that's creative!

Momos

#3. Where there's a will, there's a way

A vendor selling sundal, the popular South Indian snack made with chickpeas, wanted to ensure that the food is both moist and steaming hot. Not an easy task to achieve, given the push-cart he was selling out of.

So he built a simple section below the cart to house a pot of water on a stove. The steam from the boiling water comes up through the holes on the cart platform.

When a customer draws up, he simply spoons the required quantity of sundal onto the holes so that it is infused with steam making it moist and piping hot.

A similar example is of a chicken seekh kebab stand at 27th Main Road, HSR Layout.

Here's a photo shot of the crank-shaft-operated open grill that he conceptualised to keep the coals fired. Indian jugaad at its best!

Crank shaft operated open grill

#4. Limited variety, unbeatable quality

Just recently, I was introduced to small bhajji or pakora vendor in a popular market in Gandhi Bazaar, Bangalore.

He sells a simple variety of bhajjis made out of capsicum, raw bananas, potatoes and green peppers.

At the cost of pricing his bhajjis 50 per cent above market rate, the vendor, Praveen ensures that he only uses the best vegetables.

Each of the bhajjis is the same size and each vegetable he uses is fresh.

That's also the case with many other street food vendors -- they do not compromise on quality, which explains why they have stayed popular for decades.

#5. Service with a smile, always

Ravi

With the crowds that Ravi's Gobi van attracts, it could be easy to be a little impatient at times.

But the one thing that regular customers love about Ravi (pictured above), apart from the delectable Chinese fare he churns out of his food van at one corner of the Banashankari BDA complex in Bangalore, is his constant smile and polite demeanour even when he is answering irate customers.

A perfect example of winning service orientation.

#6. Apply existing concepts differently

Who said pizzas are to be eaten only in fancy chains or that soup can be had only at sit-down restaurants?

Kumar, an erstwhile chef with Little Italy, has designed a pizza van which sees regular crowds relishing pizzas and garlic bread.

Meanwhile Vallarmati serves three different soups everyday complete with condiments, from her simple soup cart in HSR Layout, Bangalore.

#7. Choose a niche and be the expert in it

Recipes with sprouts

Revathy, a food and nutrition student, realised that street food hardly catered to people with health issues such as diabetes.

So she developed special recipes using sprouts, green gram and bitter gourd (pictured left)which she retails from her small eatery in Malleshwaram, Bangalore.

#8. Build something that customers love. And then sit back to enjoy it. More is not always better

This was a recurrent theme across Goa where work takes on a different meaning altogether and living a good life is about having the bandwidth to do the things one enjoys and spending time with friends and family.

Many a popular eatery owner makes a well thought through choice about business hours and expansion keeping this in mind.

The author Maheima Kapur is founder and CEO of Talking Street, a start-up that helps find the best street and local food in different cities. She was earlier with Unilever and Tata, and studied at IIM-B and SSSIHL. She can be followed on Twitter at @maheima

Maheima Kapur