The home dining industry is proving to be a melting pot peppered with new opportunities but severe challenges too. What does it take to survive?
Guests at a Project Eat event
You're sitting at a dining table, surrounded by unfamiliar faces in a stranger's home. However, far from being awkward, you're enjoying yourself, making conversation and sharing a feast fit for royalty. The ingredients for the meal could have been sourced from a far corner of the Northeast, or from a Koli household in Mumbai.
While this scenario would have been unimaginable five years ago, today, it's commonplace at the many home dining events the city sees every week. How and when did home cooking become a booming business?
An Iyengar meal
The early players
In Mumbai, it was Small Fry Co., a food and beverage curator and consultancy which brought home cooks into the limelight through pop-up events. Around the same time, in May 2013, came a "food and heritage conservation project" by the name The Gypsy Kitchen, brought together by Riyaaz Amlani, Gresham Fernandes and The Busride Design Studio, which provided guests a home-cooked meal in a stylish setting.
However, among the first to curate and take the home dining experience online was MealTango, which was launched in July 2013 by Pune-based husband-wife duo Saket Khanna and Neeta Valecha. You just had to sign up on the website and could be eating spicy kathal (jackfruit) masala at a Kayastha home in Mumbai or vonn (coconut kheer) at a Goan household in Pune.
A Gujarati Rajwad
At its peak, MealTango had a network of 150 hosts on its site in 35 cities across 13 countries. Once Upon My Kitchen (OUMK) launched in March 2014, followed by several others, prominent among which were Trekurious, a Sri Lankan company, and Project Eat.
These platforms had a fixed structure — you could sign up as host or guest. Hosts could upload their menu and their fees, onto which the platforms would tack on a commission before opening the meal to online bookings.
Koli Bharleli Paplet
They came, they saw, they left
After enjoying success, the early players realised that functioning in the home dining space came with its own challenges. While The Gypsy Kitchen went off the radar for about two years, Project Eat, too, decided to pause in March this year.
Rohan Mangalorkar of Pack-a-Pav fame, who co-founded food collective Project Eat along with Black Taxi's Radhika and Parul Gupta, and Mia Cucina owner Nikki Gupta, says, "We had to take a step back because we realised the market was saturated with events revolving around food — home dining experiences, food festivals, and even restaurants tying up with home cooks for special menus."
The Authenticook team
Everyone in the city wanted to try a regional meal at someone's house. But what do you do when 20 other companies offer the same thing? In January 2015, Trekurious entered Mumbai's home dining space by tying up with The Bohri Kitchen, where home cook Nafisa Kapadia offered authentic food of the Dawoodi Bohri community. Soon, it had brought other home cooks on board , but shut this September. "We were unable to raise funds for our activities in India. We were also in the home delivery space then, and that required deep funds," says Aakanksha Batra, former Vice President (Operations) for Trekurious in India.
MealTango, meanwhile, had to switch tactics and turn into a delivery service for home-cooked meals operating only out of Pune. The OUMK website wears a desolate look, with no upcoming meals listed. When asked if they've shut down, co-founder and director Ranjith Rajasekharan says they're "taking two steps back before they can come up with a solid plan to scale up."
Munaf Kapadia and Perzen Patel
Innovation is the key
Authenticook is among the newest kids on the home dining block, launched in September 2015. While it is modelled on the same lines as its precursors, it uses a different tactic. "We don't charge our hosts anything extra. There is a 20 to 30 per cent commission charged to the guest, which varies depending on the meal cost. Our meals are reasonably priced and diners can request a meal or a date that suits them," says Aneesh Dhairyawan, one of the co-founders.
Authenticook's roster consists of 30 hosts in Mumbai and Pune, and they plan to expand to Goa by September-end, and other tourist hubs. What's also interesting to see is how some of the home cooks detached and created their own brands. Take, for instance, Assamese wondercook Gitika Saikia or Parsi food entrepreneur Perzen Patel, who started out tying up with other platforms, but eventually took it upon themselves to market their own product.
"I realised there was no point in paying platforms like MealTango and Trekurious a huge cut when I could draw the same number of diners using my own network," says Patel. She adds that home dining is not scalable as a business model, and that it is important to reinvent and innovate to survive.
The Bohri Kitchen, too, which showcased itself on Trekurious for a while, has branched out into various ventures. Founder, Munaf Kapadia has tied up with Insider, an Only Much Louder (OML) property, to start the Home Chef Revolution. The initial plan is to provide four types of cuisines — Assamese, Bengali, Cantonese, Pathare Prabhu, and eventually take the home-cooked meal model a notch higher by signing on venue partners and sponsors.
"I have also partnered with Gurmeet Kochhar, founder of SpiceBox, to start our own home delivery and catering service. All these ventures would not have been possible if we hadn't used the home dining space to get our foot through the door," admits Kapadia.