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WhatsApp is turning home cooks into entrepreneurs in Bengaluru

By Akhila Ranganna

The much-anticipated April rains had finally arrived in Bengaluru. The sweet smell of petrichor was everywhere. Jaishri Gopalan was watching the rain sweep across the city from the balcony of her 15th-floor apartment in Mahadevpura. Suddenly, she had a deep craving for hot bajjis. But since she was alone at home, the thought of cooking just for herself seemed too much effort. A year or two ago, such a craving would have died a quiet death. But not now.

Gopalan whipped out her phone and checked a WhatsApp group called Snacks that comprised several residents of her apartment complex. Sure enough, it was buzzing. A lady from the next block had put up a message not too long ago: “Making potato and onion bajjis. Eight plates will be available in half an hour. Please order now.” Six orders had come in, to which Gopalan added her name and flat number. Within 15 minutes, a steel box of piping hot bajjis arrived at her doorstep, delivered by the lady’s young son. Thirty rupees and one chocolate later, Gopalan was savouring the fritters, watching the rain go by.

Much like Gopalan’s, several apartment complexes in areas such as Whitefield, Mahadevpura, Sarjapur, Bannerghatta and Hennur in Bengaluru have been discovering the benefits of a neighbourhood food network over the past couple of years.

The network works quite simply. Residents of a locality get connected via an online group– mostly on WhatsApp–to buy and sell food, be it snacks and breakfast or lunch and dinner items. For the buyers, it’s a chance to eat home food at nominal prices. For the sellers, it’s an opportunity to show off their culinary skills and make some money on the side. It’s like a hyperlocal version of the food delivery giants Swiggy and Zomato, but with the added benefit of home food.

“It’s a boon,” said Gopalan. “Sometimes you don’t have the time to cook, sometimes you don’t feel like cooking. A service like this addresses those problems. It’s flexible and perfect for today’s fast-paced lives. And it’s all home-cooked food.”

Taste of home

Food has always been a passion–and big business–in Bengaluru. The city has a bustling F&B industry with culinary hotspots like Koramangala alone having in excess of 500 restaurants. It contributes to India’s rapidly growing Rs600,000 crore ($85 billion) F&B industry by not just eating out but also ordering in. According to a report prepared by the management consulting firm RedSeer in February 2017, India’s online delivery market in 2016 was worth about $300 million and Bengaluru, with its share of 32%, was the top city in terms of order volume.

Into this crowded space have appeared the neighbourhood food networks that largely function in two ways. One, individual building communities create their own closed WhatsApp groups, which residents can join after being invited. Two, buyers and sellers in a particular neighbourhood connect through apps such as FoodyBuddy. Both platforms largely work on the same principles: a seller posts a menu, usually the night before, with a fixed number of orders and delivery slots. Buyers have to send their requests within a specified time. The next day, the food is delivered by the seller or picked by the buyer–depending on the arrangement. Prices are fixed by the seller and, in the case of FoodyBuddy, the company receives a small percentage of the sales. Like FoodyBuddy, there are other aggregator platforms–such as Oota Box and Masala Box–that connect home chefs with customers, but unlike FoodyBuddy, they also employ delivery executives.

Rachna Rao, a co-founder of FoodyBuddy, says the idea of the company was hatched because of a very personal need: the desire to eat home food. Working long hours at her previous job left her with no time to cook. Often, as she would be uninterestedly eating a hastily-put-together dinner or a takeaway, the delicious smells wafting from her neighbours’ homes would make her think: “I wish I could eat what they are cooking.” FoodyBuddy was founded in 2016 by Rao, Anup Gopinath, and Akil Sethuraman. They have currently more than 2,000 active sellers, and an average of 25,000 people use the app every month.

“It is the need to eat home-cooked food that has led to this trend of a neighbourhood food network,” said Rao. “The majority of our buyers are working professionals, who don’t have time to cook at home, whether it’s [because of] work pressure or the long commutes and traffic in Bengaluru. But at the same time…it matters to them what they are putting on the table.”

Reliability is key

Radhika Sharma, a techie, works in Sarjapur in South East Bengaluru and lives around 14 kilometres away in Whitefield in East Bengaluru. Three-hour commutes every day leave her little time for anything else. “My husband also has a long commute, so we would end up using Swiggy or Zomato to order from nearby restaurants and it started taking a toll on our health,” said Sharma. A neighbour connected her with Homely Khana, a WhatsApp group in her building. Sharma now regularly orders food on it. “I usually stop by after work and get dal chawal, roti sabzi or mixed rice for dinner made by this lady who lives in the next block,” she said. “It’s like what I would cook at home.”

FoodyBuddy
Cabbage tikki by Usha Shenoy. Foodybuddy.

Lakshmi Acharya, who has a similar commute, usually rustles up something simple for breakfast on weekdays: fried eggs and toast. But on weekends, she often uses FoodyBuddy to order in piping hot idlis, chutney and Tamil-style sambar made by an elderly gentleman and his wife in her neighbourhood. “Four idlis, sambar and chutney cost Rs70,” she said. “Not only is it tasty, it’s the convenience aspect that I find most appealing.”

Convenience and reliability are the buzzwords for Dr Nandita Iyer, a nutritionist and food blogger. “I recently ordered ice cream on Swiggy on a Friday night and it took nearly two hours to arrive,” said Iyer, who lives in Whitefield. “A WhatsApp food network like this, where the delivery is controlled by the buyer or the seller, ensures the food is there at the time you want it.” According to Iyer, the fact that the food is coming from the house of your neighbour, someone you know, gives you the assurance that “they will take as much care as I do in my own home.”

Regional food needs

Personal connections like these are what has made the WhatsApp food network so popular in a city that already gets clean, reasonably priced food at thousands of darshinis, the small independent eateries that serve tiffin items like dosas, vadas and idlis.

“I cook the way I would for my children,” said Nikita Jadhav, who lives in a gated community in Mahadevpura. A self-taught baker, Jadhav started selling cakes on her building’s WhatsApp group a couple of years ago. Demand grew and Jadhav decided to give up her job as an interior designer and focus on baking full-time. Today, she sells bread, cakes, muffins and other desserts. “I have a studio in Hoodi as baking bread in large quantities needs a proper set-up with equipment.”

Nikita Jadhav
A sample menu that Nikita Jadhav posts on her WhatsApp groups every morning.

She posts her menu on her WhatsApp group Sugarkiss–which has nearly 250 members–the night before, and orders are usually delivered by her by 4pm the next day. “I don’t use preservatives and people appreciate such things. I find selling on the building’s WhatsApp group more rewarding than supplying to any restaurant or cafe, as they are only interested in margins.” All her desserts are priced under Rs150. For Holi, she created items like a firangi laddoo, a choux pastry motichur laddoo. “I have even made pancake batter with oats, ragi and wheat, which are in high demand.” She also bakes cakes on order. Jadhav makes around Rs35,000 to Rs45,000 per month but puts everything back into the business.

A Sridevi first began selling pickles on her WhatsApp group in her residential locality in Mahadevpura a year ago. Today, she has two such groups–Santripti BM and Santripti BM#2–with nearly 300 members each. She provides breakfast, lunch and dinner items, such as ragi idlis with chutney, masala dosa, chapatis with paneer burji, corn and peas mixed rice with roti, methi dal and curd rice. Her food is popular with working mothers, who often add it to their children’s lunch boxes. She starts delivering her food as early as 6am. Prices range from Rs45 to Rs120. “I do this because I am passionate about cooking,” she said. “People commend me about the quality of my food and it makes me feel good.”

For Gupta, one of the more interesting aspects of being part of such a group is the chance to “savour food that one may crave but normally not make at home.” Regional specialities are some of the more popular items across groups, whether it’s the Bengali Patishapta or a Tamil murungai keerai adai. “These are dishes you may not find regularly in restaurants and can only get from a home kitchen,” said Rao. In Iyer’s building complex, one of the most sought-after cuisines is Punjabi food: “You can’t get this authentic taste of rajma, chole and dum alu at any restaurant.”

FoodBuddy
Ratna Bindra in her kitchen.

Another reason why regional cuisine is popular is the cosmopolitanism of Bengaluru. Ratna Bindra, a college professor who lives near the National Institute of Design campus in North Bengaluru, sells her Punjabi food–chole bhature, stuffed parathas and lassis–on FoodyBuddy. The majority of her patrons are students, many of whom hail from North India. Another popular seller on the app is a Bengali chef, Rita Deb, who lives near Bellandur. Rao says that after ordering Deb’s food, a neighbour came and touched her feet because “he was reminded of his mother’s cooking.”

There are the occasional niggles, though. Some sellers say they hardly make any profits because most buyers loathe paying high prices–“it’s ‘food cooked at home,’ they say.” “Tracking payments is a pain,” bemoaned another seller. “We have to constantly chase people and send reminders, yet some conveniently forget.” Others complain how some “pushy sellers” try and control the whole group. But all in all, most buyers and sellers welcome the trend.

Convenience, hygiene and “the taste of home” apart, there is another, perhaps more emotional, reason why people are turning to their neighbourhood food network–the chance to “build connections.” Sulochana Mani, a 60-year-old woman who lives alone in her apartment in Bannerghatta, sells South Indian food on FoodyBuddy. For her, it’s not about the money–it’s about “helping the community.” “She says that so many people from her building recognise her as the ‘aunty who makes such good South Indian food’ and this has helped her make new friends,” said Rao. Iyer agrees with this: “This is a great way to meet new people. It breaks barriers and when you meet someone in person, when they collect your food, or you deliver it, it helps you connect and bond.”

This piece was first published on Scroll.in. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.