On Onam day, while a lot of people were enjoying the traditional sadya, some on Facebook and Instagram were left disappointed. A mixture of anger and frustration was evident in their posts. A few home-kitchens had taken orders from customers for the Onam sadya and had messed up the deliveries. While many orders were delivered much later than promised without prior intimation to the customers, other orders did not materialise at all. What riled the customers more was the alleged radio silence and inaccessibility of the food services on the status of the orders.
It is an undeniable fact that the COVID-19 lockdown has rendered a deathblow to several businesses, mostly micro, small and medium scale, due to a variety of factors. However, the lockdown has also pushed some people to taking their first step into entrepreneurship. Some got themselves involved in designing and tailoring dresses while some others decided to make money out of their passion for cooking.
The skepticism around the hygiene standards of the food cooked in restaurants only encouraged more people to leverage social media to cook and deliver meals from the comfort of their own kitchens. These businesses, however small, have their own pride and pitfalls.
TNM spoke to the people behind a few home-kitchen businesses to understand more about the pressures and problems they face on the ground in the course of their work.
âWe cap the number of orders we take in based on the menu,â says Imaan Surve, 23. Imaan runs Mamaa Miyaa, a home-cooked food business based in Bandra, Mumbai with her mother Sabina Manekia. Sabina and Imaan started catering during the COVID-19 lockdown since Sabinaâs boutique store had to be shut down temporarily due to lockdown orders, and she had a lot of free time in hand. Mamaa Miyaa offers services only during the weekends and takes orders from Monday to Wednesday every week.
âMamaa Miyaa came from us making 'Miyaa' food, more like the food in the Muslim households,â Imaan explains the rationale behind the name. Mamaa Miyaa uses local delivery services like WeFast and Swiggy Genie to get the food delivered to the customers.
Closer home, in Chennai, is Bhaskar Kitchen, a home-kitchen service run by two enterprising women -- Bijitha Harish and Hija Mohandas.
âWe started this in 2019 when we cooked for my husbandâs friend. That friend told another friend of theirs and the word spread. Initially the menu was only biriyani, but now we have added desserts also, which my sister-in-law (Hija) makes in her kitchen,â Bijitha says.
Bhaskar Kitchen delivers across Chennai and has a fixed menu. Bijitha says she accepts orders two days in advance and the customers need to arrange for picking up the food by themselves.
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The other major issues faced by the home-kitchen businesses are the logistics around delivering the food and the quality of the food they deliver to the customers.
âWe cap our orders around 50-60 orders a week depending on the complexity of the dishes on the menu and the manpower available. After that, we refuse orders and hope we can serve them next week,â Imaan explains.
Since most home food businesses rely only on the kitchens at home, and hardly employ external manpower, the number of orders they take are usually limited.
âWe accept orders for up to four kilos of biryani, not more than that. We cook it in my kitchen only and there is nobody to help. So keeping the quality of the food in mind, I do not take orders beyond four kgs a day,â Bijitha adds.
Packing and delivery
While Bijitha packs food in her own reusable boxes which the customers need to return, Pavitra Krishnaswamy of Lakku's Weekend Kitchen uses new boxes, that can be washed and reused, to pack the food.
âWe put so much care into our packaging and we make sure that nothing spills or goes wrong in that aspect. But sometimes, we do get complaints that the food had spilt inside the bag during the delivery. We rely totally on delivery services to get the food to the customersâ place,â Pavitra adds.
Lakku's Weekend Kitchen, run by Lakshmi Krishnaswamy and her daughter Pavitra Krishnaswamy in Chennai, specialises in seafood preparations, especially crab prepared in Andhra style.
While Mamaa Miyaaâs prices range from Rs 60 to Rs 1500 per unit based on the item, Bhaskar Kitchenâs products are priced between Rs 100 and Rs 2000. The crab dishes in Lakkuâs weekend kitchen are priced between Rs 599 and Rs 1699 per number.
âKeep the customers in loopâ
Despite intense preparations and putting procedures in place, things can go wrong at the last minute, especially with small-scale businesses.
âWe have to just scramble and make things right,â says Imaan. Adding that it is important to give the customers the best product that they expect, Imaan adds that whatever needs to be done at the last minute to make things right must be done.
âWe have had a couple of weekends where we found out that a batch of the food was not good. We immediately put on a second batch and messaged our customers saying that we are sorry and the delivery is going to be a bit late, but we will get it to you. We have been lucky that they have been really understanding,â she recollects. She adds that keeping the customers in the loop is important since they placed their trust on the business.
Bijitha and Pavitra also vouch for the quality of the food and say that they rely on the expertise of the cook who is in-charge. âOver and above this if anything goes wrong, I would just return the money with sincere apologies,â Bijitha adds.