India Insight

Old Delhi food steps into the digital age with start-up

January 15, 2014

With thousands of shops, hundreds of carts, horses, cows, vehicles and an ever-rising number of visitors and shoppers, Delhi’s Chandni Chowk can be a menacing place if you just want to savour a jalebi. But the syrup-drenched, pretzel-like traditional sweet from one of the oldest shopping hubs in India is a mere click away.

A new start-up promises to come to the rescue of many Delhiwallas who want to eat good food from the Mughal-era Walled City, but can’t stand the chaos of what a government portal calls the food capital of India.

“Whenever we want to eat the food on weekdays, it becomes impossible for us,” said 24-year-old Rahul Garg. This and a desire to have their own business led Rahul and his IIT graduate brother Anshul to launch an online food delivery platform that focuses Chandni Chowk’s delicacies.

While Rahul was a software analyst at the Royal Bank of Scotland in the suburb of Gurgaon for two years, 22-year-old Anshul worked as an assistant grade manager at a Bangalore-based firm. Both had the option of taking over their family business — their father is a cloth merchant in Chandni Chowk — but it wasn’t exciting. After a train journey across India with budding entrepreneurs and a boot camp at Startup Malaysia, Rahul decided to combine what interests him and what he is trained to do.

Chandnichowkfood.com has enlisted 10 famous food joints, some of them more than 100 years old, and offers everything from samosas to kulfis to halwas to customers in a limited area. Targeting office-goers and shopkeepers in the corporate centre and tourist spot of Connaught Place, the service will have traditionally dressed delivery boys supply food in an Indian bag called a “potli”.

I received differing reactions to the site. “This website … is the answer for superbly laid-back or super-busy people,” said Jessica Singh, a food enthusiast who conducts food and culture walks in Delhi.

A lot of people, though, expressed concern on the time taken to deliver and how that might affect the quality of the food.

“Skeptical of the fact that traditional Indian delicacies can be delivered fresh, at par with what you get over the counter,” said Vinamr Kedia, director at a food-colouring business in New Delhi.

“It is a challenge for us, but … some of the vendors are very helpful. They have told us we will get the food to you, you don’t have to come to us,” Garg said. The food will be packaged in insulated food carriers so that their temperatures are maintained.

For food book writer Pushpesh Pant, the charm of old Delhi food lies in eating it there. “Half the fun of eating food on the streets in Chandni Chowk is the atmospherics of the street. It is the crowd, it is the bustle, it is the inconvenience,” he said.

While the unending queue of customers in the narrow Parathewali Gali (Alley of Flatbread) seems to substantiate Pant’s argument, shop owners say going online will make them available to a wider clientele, including those who can’t wade through the crowds every day.

“These days things are happening through the Net, people are ordering online,” said Abhishek Dixit, fifth-generation owner of the Pt. Kanhaiyalal & Durga Prasad Paranthe Wale (“established in 1875”). He expected a jump of 20 percent in revenue with the website tie-up. He also said that if he had started an online extension of his shop himself, then it would only have been about parathas while Chandnichowkfood.com offers multiple items.

At first, Garg said, most didn’t see the point of the project and took some persuading. Then came setting up the delivery business. Friends and family pitched in with material help (the potlis are supplied by an aunt, office space is at their father’s shop, etc.), though Garg and his brother put up their own money. (They declined to share financial details)

Once things pick up, the start-up plans to supply food to people in the suburbs of Gurgaon and Noida at a slightly higher price because of longer distances.

(Editing by Robert MacMillan; Follow Shashank on Twitter @shashankchouhan and Robert @bobbymacReports. This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced in any form without permission)

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