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India's food revolution takes off

Soumik Sen | September 20, 2003

It's a food revolution that's been a long time coming. As double-income nuclear families become the norm in urban India, everyone who is anyone in the food business has been eyeing the ready-to-eat food sector with considerable hunger.

The result: new menus that include everything from Punjabi kadhi pakora in a can to pure vegetarian navratan kormas in hi-tech retort pouches.

But it has been tougher to cook up a storm in the Indian market than anyone expected. Indians proved remarkably attached to freshly cooked meals.

Nevertheless, times may be changing. Top food companies say the market is currently worth around Rs 50 crore (Rs 500 million) but they confidently predict it will grow to around Rs 200 crore (Rs 2 billion) in the next one or two years.

Take a look at ITC Foods, which started turning out dishes for the top end of the market with its pricey Kitchens of India range.

ITC won praise for its offerings and showed they could get the flavours right. But at Rs 150 for a 450 gm tin of dal bukhara (which feeds about three people) it was strictly a limited clientele.

Now ITC is taking a shot at the middle market and trying to reach shop shelves around the country. It has put together a range of five vegetarian flavours including aloo matar, rajma masala and navratan korma, packed in retort pouches and with a shelf life of 12 months.

The 285 gm pouches -- called the Aashirvaad range -- sell for between Rs 35 and Rs 40, putting them within reach of middle-class buyers.

Says Ravi Naware, CEO, ITC Foods, "Aashirvaad will now be the ready-to-eat solution for the time-pressed family."

ITC is hoping to serve itself big helpings with its new business. The Aashirvaad ready-cooked dishes have already been launched in five cities -- Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad, Chennai and Kolkata.

In the next two months, the products will also be available on shop shelves in Delhi and Bangalore.

Naware believes his two brands have already captured between 15 per cent and 20 per cent of the ready-to-eat market.

What's more, ITC isn't stopping here. By the end of this financial year, another five flavours will be added to the Aashirvaad bouquet.

ITC already has two plants churning out products in Bangalore and Delhi and Naware is scouting for locations to put up a third one.

But ITC doesn't have the kitchen to itself -- not by a long shot. MTR foods, arguably the pioneer in the segment, is in no mood to relinquish the leadership position to the FMCG behemoth.

S Suresh, COO, MTR points out that it has a huge menu card with 15 curries and seven south Indian specialities. It's also launching nine rice-based items like lemon rice and rajma chawal.

MTR believes it is the largest in the field with over 70 per cent market share and it isn't cowed by ITC's distribution muscle.

Says Suresh: "We are already present across 60 cities in India, and by 2005 hope to control around 35 per cent of the Rs 200 crore (Rs 2 billion) market."

But MTR also has greater ambitions and hopes to make it to dining tables around the world. It has sales and distributions teams in North America, Australia, West Asia and South East Asia.

At another end of the country there's Satnam Overseas, one of India's largest exporters of basmati rice under the flagship Kohinoor brand which is also hoping to make a big meal from the ready-to-eat business.

It has introduced heat-and-eat curries and lentils with a distinctly north Indian flavour, including Peshawari dal, Kashmiri rajma, and Amritsari chhole. Also coming from the kitchen are other northern specialities like sarson ka saag and aloo palak.

Research is underway to develop ready-to-eat paneer curries and pav bhaji very soon.

"Each of these preparations follows traditional recipes," says general manager, Rajesh Trikha.

"Customers just need to heat for two-to-three minutes in a microwave or boiling water and eat." A single pack priced at Rs 46, is meant to serve up to three persons.

Satnam's USP is its regional appeal. "Punjabi cuisine like Punjabi music is a rage in the rest of the country as well as overseas," says Trikha, "and we want to serve the flavour of North India, as authentically as possible, from our plant at Murthal in Haryana."

How big is the ready-to-eat market and is it poised for a quantum leap? Trikha believes the market is poised for an explosive jump and that it will triple in the next one year.

Says Trikha: "According to our internal estimates, the domestic market for ready-to-eats is Rs 50 crore plus and is expected to grow three times by the end of 2004."

What's more, Trikha is firmly convinced that around Rs 25 crore (Rs 250 million) worth of ready-to-eat-curries are already selling. That's likely to touch around Rs 100 crore (Rs 1 billion) by 2004 according to him.

Naware is also counting on giant-sized growth. His expectations aren't very different from Trikha's. He believes the market will touch Rs 200 crore (Rs 2 billion) by around 2005 and he's hoping to garner as much as 50 percent marketshare by spreading himself across 50 cities.

Naware is putting together a big-budget print and television campaign to promote his dishes which is being handled by Grey Worldwide. The company is also organising sampling sessions to gauge customer feedback.

There are smaller companies too that are hoping to grab a chunk of the action.

Pune based Tasty Bites Eatables Limited has been exporting for years and is now making an ambitious thrust into the Indian market.

Tasty Bites started operations back in 1987 but it didn't make much headway and the products were withdrawn a year later.

"People were sceptical back then and consequently our products were non-starters," says Ravi Nigam, president, Tasty Bites.

Tasty Bites was taken over and restructured by US multinational Preferred in 1998. It registered a profit two years later.

The Rs 20 crore (Rs 200 million) export-driven company, (80 per cent of its earnings come from exports) has successfully tapped markets in Ahmedabad, Baroda, Surat, Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad.

The company now plans to expand by entering the northern markets aggressively. Tasty Bites offers nine curries and six south Indian ready-to-eat dishes like avil and pongal.

Also, it recently launched a range of ready-to-cook curry pastes. Tasty Bites also has another range of ready-to-eat meals that it makes for the Indian Army which come along with plastic plates.

Inevitably, Indian flavours dominate the ready-to-eat market.

But one of the earliest players was Indo-Nissin foods, a subsidiary of Japan's Nissin Foods which has been selling instant cup noodles since 1991. The 80 gram cup, in chicken, vegetable and masala flavours, is priced at Rs 20.

Despite the presence of high-profile brands, Indo-Nissin's General Manager R V K James says the company sells around 6.5 lakh (650,000) cups every year, giving him a billing of Rs 1.3 crore (Rs 13 million) annually.

 "We have been consistently growing at 22 per cent annually," he says. But I'm sure with the market ready to explode, that number will only go north."

Armed with a Rs 5.5 crore (Rs 55 million) budget, cup-o-noodle advertisements are currently being aired on television channels.

Indo-Nissin has also actively targeted school children by sponsoring quiz sessions and conducting sampling sessions at various schools.

The company is also about to launch a sub-brand in the ready-to-eat cup-noodle segment targeted specifically at kids.

But will the year-on-year 100 per cent growth that all players are so optimistic about actually happen?" Most analysts believe the food companies aren't being overly optimistic.

Says B Narayanaswamy, executive director, Indica Research: "The increased penetration of microwave ovens will need 'software' to drive the 'hardware'. Ready-to-eats will find the perfect match in the upwardly mobile Indian kitchen."

"Convenience is a prime factor, but other factors like increased spending on food by city couples are also important, says Hemendra Mathur, senior manager, food and agri-business, Rabo India.

Abroad, the convenience foods industry has grown to gigantic proportions. And Indians too could be developing a healthy appetite for meals from a can or a pouch.



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