Friday, September 29, 2006

The blogger-whom-no-one-reads II

In response to this comment, another Pastis special from 3 weeks before :))

Rat rocks!!

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Learning by doing - someone else's doing!

The weekend gone by was rather interesting. I went for a talk by Amit Jatia. Amit used to run his family business before he started HardCastle Restaurants more than 10 years ago. But that’s not why he’s famous. He’s famous because he’s McDonald’s JV partner in India. (And why was I interested? This is why.)

The talk was organized by the Mumbai chapter of The Indus Entreprenuers (TiE) on Saturday morning at the McDonald’s outlet in Phoenix Mills. He spoke about several aspects of McDonald’s India – about how he got selected as JV partner, how their first few years were tough, how he learnt hard lessons along the way and how they’re looking at growing their business exponentially now, from 110 stores in 10 years to doubling their store reach in the next two years! It was quite an interesting talk, but there were three points he made that were of personal interest.

The first was that there was a yawning space for an Indian fast food chain. Amit believed that there was a huge opportunity in Indian fast food that had only been fulfilled to a very small extent by chains like Jumbo King. He also believed that Indian fast food would not compete directly with McDonald’s and would therefore be in a completely different space. I’m not so sure about that assertion – if fast food has to be successful, they will fight for the same customers’ wallets. However, as eating out evolves and the size of the pie increases, there might be more than enough to go around for all the players in the space. Even if they compete for the same wallets.

The second was that the supply chains are not as bad as they were 10 years ago. Amit recalled how there was no quality iceberg lettuce in the market when McDonald’s entered and how the supply chain for this had to be created all the way back to the farmer. It took McDonald’s a significant amount of time and energy to get their supply chains in place. Supply chains are developed enough now that consistent supply of fresh vegetables is not the issue it used to be - there are suppliers like Radhakrishna Foodland that can get food from farmer to doorstep consistently.

The third was the tactical elements that will make the chain successful, and the tough part of making this happen is all about getting these elements right

  • Product line – I still haven’t figured out the right product mix that will drive customers into my restaurants. I need a set of products that are easy to make, take the least time, and that’s pan-Indian in its appeal – any ideas?
  • Operations – Operations is the key to success in fast food operations, and Amit re-iterated its importance by saying that it was the one thing he really needed to get right. The two key insights he offered were to get the right metrics in place and to standardize processes.
  • People –How do you hire, train and motivate a group of people, who move easily and need to be replaced at a phenomenal rate? Amit had some interesting ideas on this – rewarding good performers by giving them the opportunity to grow with the company was the most important lever that he had. McDonald’s, of course, has deep pockets, and enough opportunities – can an entrepreneur do it as well, I wonder.

The talk convinced me that there is an opportunity to play this game. I know who can do the store layout and who can (potentially) figure out the operations, but I need to figure out so much more - just thinking about it leaves me both excited and apprehensive. Any and all ideas are welcome - I'm looking for as many as I can get!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Through my eyes...

A few photos (pardon the resolution, my faithful Razr is doing the best it can...):

In response to an old tag from DK2:

This is Vishesh and me reflecting on, and reflected on, the underside of an escalator:

And this is the queue for a flight at the Mumbai airport on a Monday morning:

Far, far in the distance is the gate to damnation.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The blogger-whom-no-one-reads

Stephan Pastis rarely fails to bring a cynical smile to my lips. And I love this particular mini-series of his (btw, it follows this one). If Rat ever needs somebody to torture, I'm sure he'll always find a blogger-whom-no-one-reads close at hand!

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Onam - II

And then there’s the sadhya. This time was really special for me – my sis had cooked the full sadhya for the first time, and I was really looking forward to trying it out.

First, a description of the sadhya. It starts with a banana leaf –no plates, no spoons, no forks, nothing but your fingers. We start with the banana chips (salted and sweetened), pickle and puli-inji (tamarind and ginger dish) on the left (oh yes, position of each dish is of utmost importance in the sadhya). From left to right, on the top half of the leaf, there is a serving each of olan (dish in coconut milk), cabbage upperi (cabbage side-dish), aviyal (mixed veggies in a yummy semi-solid sauce that I can’t define) and kadala koottu (a dish made from channa and yam), with a pappadum or appalam on the side. There are three courses in this sadhya – rice with sambhar, rasam and curd. And all this is followed by dessert. Here’s a graphic showing how it looks (I was too busy eating to take any photographs):

On to the feast itself: The rice is heaped on to my leaf and some ghee added – yeah, dieters pleas to avoid. Sambhar is added in large goops in the middle of the rice, and the rice-sambhar mix mashed well to get the right sambhar:rice ratio and consistency. By this time, my mouth has watered itself dry. I try each side dish once, deciding which one I’m going to favor for this session – it’s the aviyal. I feel sorry for the rest of the table since they aren’t going to see much of that dish. I plough into my sambhar rice hill, making quick dips into the side dishes, rarely talking or making eye-contact with anybody on the table. My family knows how hungry I can get when I haven’t had good mallu food in days, and doesn’t bat an eyelid, but the good neighbour, who we’ve invited to partake of our feast, doesn't know this yet and proceeds to pepper me with well-meaning questions. She is quickly quietened by my mono-syllabic responses to her questions.

- How is work? - (Gulp. Chew. Gulp.) Good (Chew.) - How is Mumbai? - (Drink water to push down food faster. Chew. Gulp.) Good. (Chew.)

You get the general idea. By now, I’ve worked through the sambhar rice, and then it’s rasam rice. I pass with great regret. I’m a good South Indian and am able to estimate, with great accuracy, how much curd rice (thayir chor) I need to feel good about life. My earlier profligacy with the sambhar rice means that I don’t have the capacity to take in the rasam before the curd. I promise my mom and sis I’ll have a little rasam in a glass so I can at least taste it. The curd rice is, well, curd rice, what can I say? It is comfort food par excellence - chocolate doesn’t even come close. Anyways, curd rice requires a blog by itself, so that’s for later.

After the curd rice, comes dessert: paayasam. There are two – a vella paayasam and an ada prathaman. The first is a gur-based liquid preparation with added chakka (jackfruit), a little too sweet for my liking, but like the rest of the dishes, outstanding in its preparation. I switch to the ada prathaman – it’s sweetened milk with ada (a rice preparation) in it. The ada prathaman is just right, and completes my meal.

I haven’t felt better, and it’ll take a lot to get the smile of contentment off my face. Life’s SO good.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Onam - I

We mallus celebrated Onam on Sep 5 last week. For the uninitiated, Onam is one of the important mallu festivals, and is based on an old legend, which goes something like this: Lord Mahabali was a good and popular king who ruled the land that is now Kerala. Indra was jealous of his popularity and requested Lord Vishnu for help. Lord Vishnu took the Vamana or dwarf avatar and tricked Mahabali, pushing him to patal lok – the netherworld, which Mahabali rules to this day. He, however, returns to his homeland once a year, and that day is celebrated as Onam.

Cool story and all,but I’m not sure that’s the only reason for Onam. Methinks we mallus love food too much to celebrate only on one day in a year (that’s Vishu, our new year’s day), so we found another day to party. Being a fraud mallu with rather tenuous connections to my homeland, Onam has usually meant two things for me: the morning pookalam (the flower arrangement) and the afternoon sadhya (the feast).

This time’s Onam was quite special, since I was able to get home for a change – a feat I’ven’t managed for the past few years. The first thing I saw when I got home was the pookalam. It never fails to amaze me how my mom and sis can wake up so early in the morning to do this, but they do, and it always turns out beautiful. Here, look at our pookalam this year:

Yup, it’s quite beautiful. Of course, everybody’s stepping around it to get in and out, but that’s a small price to pay for a pookalam.

The sadhya needs a separate blog to do full justice. So hereitis.

Desi Food Machine

I often wonder, how long will it take for the first global Indian fast food chain to come alive? We have quite a few city centric fast food chains – the Jumbo King vada pav stalls outside the Mumbai local stations, the Udipi restaurants (Sagar in Delhi, Shiv Sagar in Mumbai, Saravana Bhavan in Chennai/Delhi/Dubai/California), the north Indian chains (Haldiram’s, Bikanervala in Delhi) – but nothing to give any of the global western Quick Service Restaurants like McDonald’s, Domino’s or KFC a run for their dollars. It’s funny when you think about Indian fast food: a roomali roll is not that different from a wrap, a vada pav not that far from a burger, a dosa is almost a pancake. And even while they are similar, Indian food has infinite variety – a dosa can have as many combinations (consider the dough, the filling, the oil/butter content, the chutneys on the side) as there are towns in Tamil Nadu. So why shouldn’t we take this around India and the rest of the world, and why not use what the successful global QSRs have done well to make this happen?

I have a thought: a lean, mean global Desi Food Machine (DFM), with unbeatable scale (restaurants in the 1000s across India and the world), great revenues and profitability (high capacity utilizations with quick turnaround times) and best of all, really tasty Indian food (customized to local taste, but undeniably Indian). Let me elaborate.

The first part is scale. Let's use the McD and KFC model here – locate stores near high-footfall locations: tourist spots, business centers, transport hubs, any place that has the populace hustling and bustling around. We should start with India: the metros and then the smaller cities, and then target every major city: again starting with those with a sizable Indian population, and expanding to other cities. Eventually, every major world city will have at least one, if not more DFM outlets, and Ronald McDonald and Col. Sanders should get a shiver in their plastic spines every time they hear that a DFM is being set up near their own restaurants.

The second part is the economics. Three factors will drive economics: high footfall, quick table turnaround and high item profitability. While great locations will take care of high footfalls, quick turnarounds will be driven by great table management (something the Udipi joints excel at) and process standardization inside the kitchen and on the restaurant floor. High item profitability will be driven off lean sourcing and process standardization.

The third part is great food. The usual crib with global fast food is that taste sucks. While DFM food will be standardized and served quick, there will be no allowance for poor taste. The food will be customized for local palates, both for Indian tongues and foreign sensibilities, and getting the unique taste right will be key to DFM's success. This seems to be the one bit that the McDonald’s of the world can’t get fully right, hopefully this is something our DFM will be able to crack open.

I agree that McD’s is not the place I’d like to take V out to lunch, but look at how successful it has been in promoting the burger culture across the world. Why shouldn’t we conquer the world with our dosa and vada pav? Forget the culture bit for a second, it’s just a business idea that is waiting to happen, and I recently read an interview of just the person who might make it happen. Good luck, Sarath, I really hope you succeed!

It's been a long time...

It's been a very odd 3 weeks since I last posted. In the ensuing period, I've had a run-in with a security guy at Delhi airport, a fabulous Onam feast at home, flights to Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad among other places, loads of stuff which got done at work and 2 David Mitchells, 1 Neil Gaiman, 1 Ben Mezrich and some other assorted books. It's been one of those (hmmm, it's interesting how there isn't a word for 3 weeks, no? 2 weeks is a fortnight and 4 is (close to) a month, so what's 3 weeks?) periods of time - lots happening, but no time to blog. So here it comes, 4 blogs over the next day or two. Yenjoy.