The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Feed the tech dream

Variety and volume rule the recipe as select kitchens scramble to serve Sector V

Sample kitchen count: 800 south Indian meals, 1,200 north Indian (300 veg and 900 non-veg), 900 Chinese combo packs (200 to go eggless) ' feeding Buddhababu's IT dream is a formidable task.

A few kitchens have taken up the challenge and are making quite a meal of it. Purchasing the provisions and rustling it up while adhering to the safety specifications, delivering and feeding the diverse task force. Catering to the IT family (growing with every 24x7 day) calls for an operation on a war footing.

Here's taking a peep into some kitchens catering to the boom sector.

The kitchen

Organised industrial catering in Sector V comprises established names in the F&B business. Take Favourites that owns 6 Ballygunge Place and has been in the business since 1998. In Sector V, its customer list consists of names like Cognizant Technology Solutions, TCS and Connectiva.

'Secret to success in this field is to know the mouths you are feeding. Before signing up a client, we conduct a thorough study of the demographic profile of the employees. At present, 55 per cent of people we serve in Sector V are Bengalis and the rest is a mix of south Indian and north Indian,' says S. Ramani, partner, Favourites.

For ABNM Restaurants Private Limited, industrial catering happened by chance. 'We opened Red Hot Chilli Pepper in the Bengal Intelligent Park. Techies from the nearby companies started flocking to our place. They were surprised at the kind of buffet we were serving at a throwaway price of Rs 150. So, the companies started approaching us and we kept on getting one contract after another,' says co-director Bharat Dhamala. The company that also owns Red Kitchen and Lounge at Alipore serves the kitchens of Wipro, E-Force, TCS and HSBC, with GE next in line.

The ability to cook up volumes must be matched with adherence to safety standards. Ask Navin Pai of the Pai Foods Private Limited, who bagged IBM this August on a national tender. 'The safety and hygiene guidelines ran into 23 pages. Every aspect of storage, production and delivery was verified by the catering committee,' says Pai.

Often, size does not matter. Born to Party is situated in the Infinity building and has a very small set-up. But it scores with its location. The Chinese-and-Indian address sends food to Skytech, DNKE Software and Nortel. 'When we started a few months back, people started coming for our buffet. Now, it sometimes becomes difficult to cater to the orders,' admits Manav Mehra of Born to Party.

The platter

Feeding Sector V reaffirms Calcutta's standing as the taste capital of India, making it all the more difficult for those at the starting point of the supply chain. 'We have served food all around the country but it is very difficult to satisfy the people of Calcutta. Here, variety is the key,' says Ramani. 'For example, if down south we serve mushroom and babycorn once a year, in Calcutta we serve it twice a month!'

Yet, variety here does not mean exotic or experimental. Ghar ka khana is often the key to the kitchen contract, some learn it the hard way. 'During the first few months, there were complaints from a couple of kitchens every day. We wondered what was wrong because the same food was doing very well in our restaurants and at higher prices. Then some research revealed that people want to have complete ghar ka khana when it comes to their office canteen. The food has to be devoid of oil, spices and chilli,' says Dhamala.

Every IT hub has a catering committee that interacts with the caterers. After an internal survey, the committee informs the caterers about the demographic ' and therefore food ' profile of their office. It also decides the menu for the whole week. 'We have to sit with the catering committee at the beginning of every week and decide what the menu for the following week would be,' explains Pai.

A by-the-way byte: IT companies, chorus caterers, make better clients than call centres. 'There are these young professionals who earn 10,000-odd a month but want everything on the their plate for Rs 30. But the IT companies have more mature employees who understand that what is being served is the best available for the given price,' says Ramani.

The process

Step into the war zone ' also known as the kitchen ' to get a glimpse of the madness that goes into the meals. There is a base kitchen that gets into action in the earliest hours. The place is fitted with refrigerating units, cutters, mixers, grinders and LPG terminals.

Once the food is ready, it is transported to Sector V before lunchtime. 'Every company has a fixed lunch time. Rains, bandhs and traffic jams cannot be an excuse for late delivery of food,' says Ramani, whose base kitchen is in Kasba, spread over 5,000 sq ft. The food is transported to Sector V in Matadors.

The state's IT hub went without several techies on September 28, but it did not go without food. 'The night before the Citu strike, none of our key staff members went home. The food reached Sector V even before 10 am. During the recent rains, too, we were on time, but with some menu modification (khichdi and machh bhaja),' smiles Ramani.

Chefs to cleaners, delivery boys to drivers ' to prepare and deliver the food, more than 50 hands are on the job. 'I have 15 permanent cooks and 30 contractual. Then there are helping hands, cleaners, drivers' Managing this staff in itself is a Herculean task,' says Pai, whose kitchen is on 1 Budge Budge Road.

The food is warmed up in the office canteen and served by the caterer's boys and girls. A company representative is on the spot to monitor quality.

The profits

If big profit is what you're looking for, industrial catering is none of your business. Forget a mouthful of sky if a meal is being served for anything between Rs 25 and Rs 35. But if a small but steady inflow of profit is your thing, keep cooking. The profit margin per meal hardly exceeds 20 per cent, and it is all about volumes. 'What industrial catering assures is a consistent source of income,' says Pai.

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