Imagine a situation where there is not just demand but an inherent craving for a category. And this craving spans across a market of not just one or two million people but a potential forty to fifty million people. And a category that is growing by at least ten per cent a year.
Too good to be true. Well actually true, real and surprisingly truly, deeply and madly underserved.
Look at any statistic and it indicates that 16 million Indians live outside India and another 20 million plus travel abroad every year. Both these numbers keep growing every year. And the one thing that Indians crave on long trips abroad or when they are staying in remote corners of the world adding to India's remittance flow is Indian food.
Classy Indian restaurants are springing up and providing never before experiences in premium dining. These are a class apart but not for everyone -- business class and first class equivalents.
In terms of regular dining, let us look at the staple offering in this category. The standard experience amounts to something straight out of that Aasif Mandvi movie-- "Today's Special". After searching for an Indian restaurant and excited at the thought of good old "dal chawal and some parathas'-- you make your way to the place. Amidst a row of other fancy looking restaurants you see a dimly lit outfit with a good chance of any of these three words appearing as a prefix or a suffix - "Tandoori" or "Namaste" or "India". Inside the dimly lit interiors you find upholstery which was used by another restaurant for twenty years and then passed on here and has been in use for another five years. A trademark musty or damp odour also emanates. Unwashed dishes of the last patrons lie in tubs all around. Perhaps there is even that spitting cook of "Today's Special" lurking inside.
A look at the menu make the entire AIDA concept melt into one- Awareness, Interest, Desire all Awakened and that too at once. Ravenously orders are placed and then the food arrives.
Ahem. The standard experience can be summarized into three broad attributes - Grime, Grease and Gluten.
-Grime- the overall upkeep reeks of cut corners everywhere
-Grease- as if Indian food is only about grease and more grease
-Gluten- and that too the refined flour variety served in full excess.
Most places also have a policy of "going green" -- but with a covenant. There is recycling but only of used oil. After all the more an oil is reused the better it makes the food taste.
Then comes the bill. Largely the bill in foreign currency is comparable to the price of a near premium restaurant. And finally the memento. Like a voter's mark, the red or green color additives in the gravy leave green or red marks that no hand soap brand has provided a solution for removal. Takes at least ten plus washes and many days to fade. Till then many people know that you have just paid a visit to Grease Palace.
Yes there are super premium and world class Indian restaurants all over the world but the standard fare is pretty much as above. And with demand far outstripping supply, there is a huge opportunity to reboot this category in so many ways-
-Shift from curry in a hurry laced with papadums into fresh food prepared with fresh ingredients and periodically refreshed menus.
-Pleasing décor- bright, clean and functional. Greased chairs not greased food.
-Food that moves from just "tastes good" to ‘tastes good and does good’.
After all getting quality chefs to move to different parts of the world is not a challenge at all. And a 40 million plus potential awaits in addition to the millions of non-Indians who enjoy Indian cuisine now and will frequent a fresh, clean, non-greasy food place.
Till then all we can do is hope that Saravana Bhawan the gold standard in terms of Indian food has already expanded its footprint and opened an outlet wherever we are planning to travel or move out of India. Standardized and hygienic, they have perfected the formula in getting it right anywhere in the world.
(The author is a senior consumer marketing and financial services professional who has lived and worked in India, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Dubai. At present he is the director of the cards and payments business at VP Bank- FE Credit, based in Vietnam.)