During the lockdown, Mumbai-based entrepreneur Shaan Khanna noticed her fashion and networking WhatsApp chats were becoming dominated by food. Everyone was taking to their kitchens and selling their specialities. From everyday comfort foods like Sindhi Curry and Salli Chicken to niche items like pork pickle and peanut butter buns, home chefs were cooking it all. Khanna, who has a background in building networking platforms for emerging businesses, saw an opportunity to create a WhatsApp group specifically for home chefs selling their creations and people interested in buying them.
So in the summer of 2020, she created ‘Food Lovers,’ a WhatsApp chat for residents of Cuffe Parade and Colaba. Khanna herself began selling her father’s kebabs on the chat, while others offered sourdough bread, assorted dips and jars of sambhar. Now, at the beginning of 2021, there are five ‘Food Lovers’ WhatsApp chats with members from all over Mumbai.
We talk to people who embarked on culinary adventures during the lockdown about how they got their starts, how their small businesses evolved, and what the forecast is for home chefs in 2021.
Meet the home chefs
When the pandemic hit, Samay Ved’s business of supplying manpower to airports ground to a halt. By June, Ved, who lives in Andheri, says, “I was tired of sitting all day. I got my idea for Roti Mania from a conversation I had with elderly people. They were having a tough time making chapatis for themselves since most of their house help had left. So my business started off supplying authentic, homemade whole wheat chapatis to senior citizens.” Gradually, families and young people also started ordering from Roti Mania and Ved began diversifying his offerings to include gluten-free flatbreads and theplas.
Ved’s story is a common one, of a young person using the lockdown to help their communities and find purpose. Another common story is of housewives entering the workforce for the first time. Toral Shah, a housewife from Andheri, began spending more time in the kitchen during the lockdown. Her family saw her potential and encouraged her to start Healthy Bites, a homemade mukhwas and energy bar business. “The response continues to surprise me,” says Shah, adding, “There is so much demand for personalized and safely delivered healthy snacks.”
While WhatsApp groups offered a marketplace of staple foods, snacks and authentic ghar ka khana, formally trained chefs also made inroads into the home chef ecosystem. Anisha Berlia, trained at the Culinary Institute of America and Le Cordon Bleu London, had always wanted to start a pastry business. “Lockdown gave me the time to apply my undivided attention to testing recipes, sourcing ingredients, and to convert our garage into a workspace,” says she. In June 2020, she launched The Sweet Life by Anisha, a business based out of Nariman Point specialising in Entremets, a complex French pastry.
Ghar ka khana goes mainstream
The home chefs did not retreat when lockdown ended. Diwali was a big turning point for their businesses. Ved and Shah were inundated with customised hamper requests. Berlia reported that she had expected 5-6 orders a week, but suddenly she was doing 5-6 a day. After fulfilling their Diwali orders, people who had received their products as Diwali gifts contacted them and have since become regular customers.
“It is human nature to want to feel special, like you are receiving something made just for you,” Ved explains about why his customer base expanded so rapidly. “Every single day I ask customers for feedback. I send them videos of the cooking process in my kitchen. And I have my own delivery man for customer convenience. I think customers see small businesses as superior, safer and more transparent. They are at ease with authentic ghar ka khana.”
Khanna, with her many years of tracking emerging businesses and market trends, doesn’t see these small food businesses going away even as people become more comfortable going to restaurants. “As devastating as the lockdown was, the silver lining was that home chefs could introduce consumers to the joy of supporting a small business,” says Khanna, adding, “This experience builds community through food. It has been mainstreamed during 2020 and is here to stay.”
The WhatsApp groups are active as ever, with hundreds of offerings posted daily that rapidly sell out. Currently, Valentine’s Day-themed desserts and dishes are making the rounds.
What’s the future?
Vedant Kanoi, founder of FoodCloud, an online marketplace for ‘homepreneurs’, says, “The home chef ecosystem has historically been informal and disorganised, but 2021 will bring more organisation through digital platforms.” FoodCloud, which won the National Startup Award 2020 in the Access to Food category, operates in Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai with over 5000 home chefs on their platform. Kanoi added that “the growth of this space doesn’t only mean that consumers have access to more authentic, healthier food options, but that home chefs on FoodCloud, of which 80% are women, are economically empowered.”
Narendra Singh Dahiya, founder and CEO of Home Foodi, a mobile app empowering homemakers to become home chefs, is similarly optimistic about the growth of the space. “Every month we’re growing by 20% because consumers are realising that cities lack authentic regional food restaurants. Home chefs offer what restaurants don’t.”
Home chefs operating small businesses in Mumbai expressed resistance to the digitization of the space.
“People buying from home chefs aren’t looking for a Swiggy-type experience moderated by a third party. They like the WhatsApp interaction and close community,” said Khanna. Berlia agreed, saying that her customers like discussing their pastry orders directly with her. Ved and Shah added that they don’t need apps with high commissions to promote their businesses, as word-of-mouth and social media have been more than enough.
Still, Kanoi and Dahiya pointed out that there is enormous scope for the food chef space to be scaled through digital tools. “For people feeling intimidated, our platform provides a whole gamut of services to support small business,” Kanoi said.
“WhatsApp is limited to 256 people per group,” Dahiya continued. “But we are thinking bigger to connect thousands of chefs across India on one mobile app.”
How this small business ecosystem will grow through 2021 is yet to be seen, but in the meantime, there is abundant food from home chefs to enjoy from the comfort of one’s home.