| The closed shop. Picture by Pradip Sanyal
Calcutta, Sept. 10: This evening, the sandwich makers of Subway were standing outside the fast-food chain’s solitary outlet in the city. Not with fists clenched against American imperialism but with hands folded, requesting Calcuttans not to step into the store. For, the sandwiches had run out.
Subway, that opened its doors on August 31 at 234/3A AJC Bose Road, had to shut shop on its second Saturday in the city ' not because there were too few customers, but because there were too many.
The hot and cold Subs should be back on the counters on Sunday ' provided a supply of sandwich bread, being specially flown in to fill in the blank, arrives tonight.
“We are just not being able to cope with the demand. There is a queue outside the outlet even before it opens in the morning and there are people waiting outside even after the shop shuts,” says Rishi Bajoria, area development manager (Calcutta), Subway. “The footfall on weekdays is between 800 and 1,000 and on weekends it goes up to 1,200.”
The lesson the sandwich chain with 14 outlets in Delhi and 11 in Mumbai has learnt the hard way ' don’t underestimate the Calcutta customer, starved of choice and eager to experiment.
Take KFC that started up in City Centre on June 22 with a seating capacity of 64. Within two months, that was upped to 75, still inadequate to cope with the 2,500-plus weekend footfall. Hasty plans are afoot for “a large second outlet in south Calcutta in the next six months”, followed soon after by at least one more. All to meet the “phenomenal” acceptance of the chicken chain, according to Sharanita Keswani, director-KFC marketing, Yum! Restaurants International.
Or Caf' Coffee Day, that rates the city as the number one destination when it comes to opening more outlets. The caf' chain first came to Rawdon Street three years ago. Now there are 10 outlets, with 10 more planned in the next financial year. “When we came to Calcutta, we were apprehensive about the response. But this city has given us the maximum business,” says Ashwani Vohra, head, eastern region, Caf' Coffee Day.
Market watchers are convinced that the Calcutta consumer has arrived. “As far as food retail chains go, Calcutta is a high-growth market. The consumer was ready, but the supply side was not. Retailers have ignored or underestimated Calcutta for a long time,” says Asitava Sen, associate director, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Delhi.
“Distance between perception and reality” is to blame for Subway’s Saturday predicament, adds marketing consultant Shiloo Chattopadhyay. “Their business planning was probably influenced more by the image of Calcutta rather than its current consumer reality reflected in fast-food outlets, multiplexes, malls and even cyber cafes.”
The 10-day-old Calcutta outlet is the 50th Subway in India, but the best performing one till date. And there is a scramble now to multiply. “Frankly speaking, we did not expect such a response in Calcutta. We now have to open up another outlet, the deal for which would be finalised this week,” says Manpreet Gulari, area development manager (India), Subway.
At the 20-seater store, open from 10 am to 10 pm, the provisions were allocated on the basis of the monthly consumption in the other outlets. Calcutta defied all calculations.
“We got one month’s stock from our resource partners, but that was over in the first eight days. Now, to cope with demand, we have ordered the sandwich bread by air. It usually comes by road in refrigerated vans, which takes eight days to reach,” says Bajoria, assuring that “the supplies would be normalised within three-four days”.
Having inaugurated the Subway store, US consul-general Henry V. Jardine was happy to hear how Calcutta has taken to it. “It is a reflection of how dynamic, changing and cosmopolitan the city is today.”
That’s one Americanism Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee wouldn’t have trouble swallowing. Sandwich and the city ain’t bad branding after all.