Monday, July 19, 2010

The Branded Vadapav

There is no denying that the nervous nineties have changed us. From Wrigley's gum to a ludicrous fascination for the gori-chitti chamdi and blind veneration of factory churned products over those produced by hand. We refer to the former as 'branded' and the latter as 'local' products. 'Branded' being synonymous not only with better product quality but also with status and stature. The availability of particular brands in our markets and the ability to afford them acts as a kind of balm. A balm to sooth our wounded psyche. A psyche wounded by the stigma of having lived on the bare minimum. To have taken from our surroundings only what we needed and thus have been told by our European masters that what we did to thrive for centuries was actually wrong. We swallowed their argument and their promise that their way was a way out of poverty. Out of impoverishment and towards prosperity. Though we now know that large scale poverty was introduced in our country by a coerced shift towards industrialization, and not a delay or denial of this shift.

Thus, it wasn't a surprise when the launch of the fast food chain Jumbo King was met with great gusto and enthusiasm. What worried me though was that this particular chain didn't just offer the usual fare of burgers and french fries. Its flagship product was the humble and ubiquitous Bombay vadapav. Now, the organized food sector's attempts to absorb local tastes till now had been confined to Paneer toppings on pizzas and Aloo tikkis enclosed by burger buns, the base product being foreign with a minor local ingredient. This was the first time that a local 'street' food item had been picked up in its entirety. I would not say at this point that a 'corporatization' of street food is something to celebrate or worry about. Let's analyze the impending situation from the point of view of those who would be most affected - the consumers and the street food vendors.

Let's take up the consumers first. Now, the consumers broadly come in three categories - the poor who dwell in slums and on the streets, the middle class who frequent the local trains in Bombay and the DTC buses in Delhi and the affluent, whose only contact with the outside environment is when they roll down their car windows to throw out empty wrappers.

Street food, for the poor, is not merely an epicurean indulgence. It provides them with a cheap source of meals that can fit into their meagre daily wages. It is thus important that items such as the vadapav, chole-kulche, bhatoore and paranthas remain available to them cheaply. The above items at a fast food joint menu will always be priced higher than that at a thela because of the considerable overheads involved. The cost of maintaining the eatery, the staff, the ambience and the advertising etc are all added to the price of the final product rendering it beyond the reach of the lower rungs of the income gradient.

Also the fast food chain cannot provide the reach and penetration that the thelas or street food vendors enjoy due to their small size and relative mobility. The concept of 'going out to eat' holds no meaning for a poor family. It will always prefer a vendor absolutely close to itself.

The question here is, if the majority consumer category continues to favour the thela wallahs over the fast food joint, where and what is the major shift that the process of corporatization was impending to bring. We will see that the change is imminent. But not because of the majority consumer, but due to the most crucial customer group, the middle class.

The middle class customers by far, are responsible for the largest chunk of the thela wallahs' income. For them, price remains a factor, but so does hygiene. As well as reach and availability. We have in recent times, seen the middle class abandon local sodas, the 5 rupee kanchas, in favour of 20 rupee Coke PET bottles.

In Bombay, Jumbo King has strategically placed most of its joint at local train stations, thronged by thousands of office going commuters everyday. Similarly in Delhi, several fast food outlets have set up shop at the metro stations. It is here that these chains derive their consumer base, the middle class being their only target segment.

The middle class, lured by increasing brand awareness, competitive pricing and a willingness to pay extra for otiose touches to the product on offer, will definitely shift towards the 'branded' fast food chains, putting the future of the street food vendors and those who depend on them, in jeopardy.

The last and the least significant consumer group is the affluent. Street food for them is no more than an exotic indulgence. An occasion where they drop their guard and relish golgappas, chaat or kulfi on the street without scoffing at the poor state of hygiene at the outlet. But also among them, are people with the power to influence and ensure the benefit of all parties involved in this shift towards corporatization of street food. But here also,their detachment and ignorance towards the well being of society guides their stand. Yet again they have chosen aesthetics over welfare.

Thus we can conclude with a fair amount of confidence that a shift of the middle class consumers towards branded fast food will deal a serious blow to the street food vendors. We might ask, are the thela wallahs really getting such a raw deal? The emergence of any new industry brings with it a promise of thousands, if not lakhs of jobs with it. Won't the street food vendors merely need to shift to an organized version of an industry they were already part of?

The answer is sadly no. The fledgling fast food industry will never be able to employ all the street food vendors who will be forced to shut shop. Even if theoretically, the industry is able to absorb a sizeable percentage as staff, they will mostly be relegated to manning counters and jotting down and delivering orders. All the fast food items at a chain outlet have standardized methods of preparation. Thus none of the jobs on offer in the organized fast food industry require or utilize their cooking skills. "But why is that important," you might ask. "After all, they'll be guaranteed an income and a better standard of living."

The reason here is surprisingly simple. Skill is what ensures a street food vendor's survival and success. Middle class customers, which form the greatest chunk of the earnings, return only when they find the food tasty as well as filling. Sasta, sundar, tikaau is what they look for. Moreover, prodigious talent is also suitably rewarded. Guptaji ki kachori, Karim's and Paranthe waali gali in Delhi and Chotiwala in Rishikesh are only a few among those who've earned a name for themselves. Needless to say this work gives them immense satisfaction.

Even if I am overestimating the street food vendor's profession, a simple assesment would see the fast food employee's job still come in second. To prove my point, let us consider a simple observation. Notice that how almost all the people who work as staff at fast food joints do so on a temporary basis, often as a transient or part time job. None of them can even imagine working there for the rest of their lives, neither the middle aged counter clerk nor the youth who has come here to supplement his or her pocket money.

Thus it is important to keep in mind when you attempt to shift an entire workforce to a new industry, you offer them something better. It does not sound prudent to relegate the head chef of a thela to a semi-clerical job at a fast food joint counter.

Street food is among the small things that gives a city its distict flavour and personality. A "Vadapaav and Diet Coke combo" might sound enticing and convenient, but it is definitely not the real thing. I shudder to think of a future when Lucknow's chaat will be indistinguishable from Delhi's because it will be a Jumbo King outlet selling them at both places.

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