THE LOST SUPPER
As food prices spiral and politicians serve up empty promises, the common man is finding ingenious ways to make do
Shreya Roy Chowdhury | TNN
If you believe the government, the dizzying rate of India’s GDP puts us in a select group of emerging economies. But if you look at the food on the aam admi’s table, it tells a different growth story — inflation.
With this figure rising every week, people are cutting down on expenses — eating less and eating less healthy food. The poor are buying overripe vegetables and shifting from idlis to the cheaper rice gruel. The middle-class is cutting down on vegetables and milk. Restaurants are reducing portions and diluting curries.
Rising prices are affecting us all — they are gnawing into household budgets and restaurant profits alike and people are using every trick in the book to manage this rise.
Sanjay Munjal of Ginger Moon restaurant in Delhi’s Khan Market says he has tightened controls, with “an audit every three days to assess our purchase, sales and consumption to prevent waste. Earlier we stocked up for two-three days, now we take daily stock”. This has helped, bringing Munjal’s costs down by 5-10%. “The inflation has affected our margins but we’ve decided to absorb it for now. But if the prices rise any further — say another 5-10% — we’ll have to increase rates,” says Munjal.
Sooner or later, that’s what may happen.
“Although we have contracted yearly prices, pressure is coming from vendors to revise rates,” says Monish Gujral of Moti Mahal Delux in Delhi. Restaurants like his have increased “menu forecasting”, which means determining attendance, portions and items that’ll be ordered. They are also increasingly half-cooking dishes in order to prevent waste.
But some restaurants have been forced to raise prices straight off.
Santhosh Shetty, who runs Vaibhav Hotel in Andheri, Mumbai, admits they charge extra for dal with the regular thali. “I started doing this when I realized dal alone takes 25% of the cost,” he says.
Munjal’s Ginger Moon, Gujral’s Moti Mahal and Shetty’s Vaibhav are not the only ones. Food price inflation has put eateries across the country under tremendous pressure. And it is changing the way people eat out.
Deepak Sharma, former secretary-general, Federation of Hotel & Restaurant Associations of India, says “Restaurants have taken items off, offering limited, cost-effective menus; a few have even reduced their portions. Some have also revised their menus.” He adds, “The cost of running restaurants has gone up but sales have decreased by 15-20%.”
Meanwhile, restaurants in Delhi have had to factor in something else as well. “Mid-level ones need to upgrade for the Commonwealth Games — that’s another investment,” says Sharma, “If they increase prices now, sales will decrease further.”
Some have already made their decision. The single-chicken, single-egg roll kathi kabab at Nizam Kathi Kabab in Delhi is Rs 100 for just a few more days. Soon, it will cost Rs 110. Nizam’s mutton korma, which was priced at Rs 170, will go up to Rs 200.
“We were functioning almost on a no-profit-no-loss basis. We will raise the prices by about 10% in the next 15 days,” says Ved Prakash of Nizam.
No one is sure whether that will help. Mumbai restaurants that have already raised prices — by about 15% in the last few months — say they’re still struggling.
“Our profit margins have come down by almost 40%,” says Chandrahas Shetty, president of the Federation of Hotel Owners Association of Maharashtra.
“Food inflation is hitting the restaurants hard,” says Sharma. “Tomatoes, onions and potatoes are important ingredients for restaurants. Increase in their prices affects eateries,” he says. “Salads were also important for the restaurant industry as there were large profit margins on them. But now that has decreased.”
Raising prices is particularly difficult for outlets like heavily subsidized college canteens. “We need to write to the committee to hike our prices,” says Gaganjeet Singh of the Hindu College canteen in Delhi University.
It’s worse for Dharmendra Kumar who sells chhole-bhature in Mayur Vihar. He charges Rs 10 for two bhaturas. He’s in no position to raise his prices because his customers anyway think he should be providing three bhaturas instead of two.
“Price of cooking gas has increased and I need six-seven cylinders in a month. I’d keep Rs 150-200 as pocket money, now I make do with Rs 50 a month,” he says.
Street vendors in Mumbai have seen their narrow profit margins falling.
Murugan S, who runs a food stall near Borivali station, says, “We’ve been diluting the sambhar with water and replacing it with coconut chutney every alternate day.” It is an unpopular move because his clients demand free sambhar.
Eating out may be getting difficult for the aam admi. But so is eating in. For most middle-class and working-class families, inflation simply means less of everything.
“In the homes I work, they use one tomato where they previously used two; cook 250 gms of paneer instead of a half-kilo,” says Radha Dalal, 37, who cooks in nine homes in South Delhi. She has cut back herself by no longer buying milk.
It is a curse to be dirt poor in the time of inflation. Saraswathi, 60, says she hasn’t had three square meals a single day in six months. She sells coconuts outside Chennai’s Kapaleeswarar temple and earns Rs 1,500 a month. Rising prices has caused her to forego meals to feed the men and children while she and her daughter-in-law eat rice gruel to get by. “We have kanji (gruel) in the morning. Earlier, we used to have idlis or dosas. For lunch, I use less dal for sambhar and no vegetables. Because a cylinder costs Rs 315, I cook once a day,” she says.
As food bills spiral out of control, the poor are falling into the debt trap. Valli, 40, a domestic help in Chennai earns Rs 3,000 a month and owes Rs 3 lakh to the local moneylender. Now, she buys rice from fair price shops and vegetables from vendors selling supermarket rejects. “I buy four tomatoes for Rs 10. One is usually spoilt but it is a good bargain,” says Valli. It is better than going back to the moneylender.
(With reports from Kim Arora in Delhi, Viju B in Mumbai and Revathi Ramanan in Chennai)