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SUPERMARKET SERVE

Some like it hot

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Trolley in, and takeaway out. Indian supermarkets have jumped on the hot bar gravy train, turning out freshly prepared meals for time-constrained shoppers.

Divya Verma, a media professional, shops at a supermarket near her Santacruz, Mumbai home. She’s sampled their "hot kitchen counter", trying the Chinese meal combo, mixed vegetable curry and sweets. Cautious with praise, she says, "Price-wise, the food is competitive, and a few dishes are above average. But it is definitely convenient."

With convenience being a key decider of how an increasing number of Indians choose to eat out, most hyper or large supermarket chains have introduced live kitchen counters with hot, freshly prepared meals to go.

Food Bazaar, a Future Group company, began promoting their live kitchens two years ago; associate company and gourmet chain Foodhall launched with open kitchens in 2011. The same year, hot food counters were launched at Reliance Mart and Reliance Super outlets; today, they’re in over 35 stores. Star Bazaar, the Trent-run hypermarkets, also introduced live kitchens on recommendation from franchise advisor UK-based Tesco.

Retailers claim Indian shoppers spend long hours at these large supermarkets - two to three hours per visit - and their hot food selection is an easy option for those who don’t want to go home and cook, wait for takeaway or eat out. "Convenience within convenience," is how Devendra Chawla, president, Food Bazaar, Future Group, sees it, explaining that Indians are partial to freshly cooked meals. Live kitchens also cater to customers curious about international cuisine, Chawla says, pointing to the "explosion" of Japanese, Mexican, Thai food across India. "The live kitchen format enables them to taste, smell and watch how these cuisines are prepared. It’s a multi-sensorial experience," Chawla says of the exotic meals prepared in Foodhall.

A corporate chef oversees menu plans for live kitchens where breakfast, lunch and dinner are designed to regional preferences - chole-bhatura, rajma-chawal up north and idli-uttapam, sambar-rice down south. International items like pasta, Chinese and Thai curry are also on offer. While prepping is done in a central kitchen, all meals are cooked by local chefs at the stores.

Pricing has been kept deliberately low. "We are not running a restaurant, this is a value addition to bring in more customers," says Reliance Mart. The most popular item on their menu is a Maharaja Indian combo meal of rice, paratha, two vegetables and dal for Rs 55. At Food Bazaar pasta (priced Rs 120 upwards), biryani and Chinese are all-India favourites.

Retailers believe competitive pricing is one of the advantages they have over traditional takeaway.

HyperCITY, whose ready-to-eat favourites include tandoori chicken, chicken seekh and tangri kebab, extends its "big store, big savings" policy to its ready meals. "We serve chicken tandoori for Rs 149, which will be priced at Rs 200 above at any dhaba," says Ashutosh Chakradeo, chief merchandising officer at HyperCITY Retail (India) Ltd.

Ankur Bisen, vice-president, retail, Technopak, says the live kitchen format, for which he has coined the term "retail theatre", is a big draw - assuming the concept is properly executed. "An industrial environment is not going to work," he says, bluntly, adding that retailers need to think about making their food visually inspiring.

Minus the warmth and colour, trademarks of hot food bars abroad, the fare displayed at Indian supermarkets is often uninviting. Verma admits she was less than enthused by the kitchen design. "The display counters aren’t very appealing, but they are clean," she says, and most retailers say the steel-and-glass décor emphasises hygiene, which is critical for consumers.

Though limited to large outlets, Bisen believes the live kitchen format will lead to repeat footfalls and reinforce store loyalty. Retailers have already noted the advantages - Chawla claims live kitchens contribute approximately five to seven per cent of Food Bazaar’s annual sales, while Chakradeo says that when they introduced hot food in 2008, it contributed 0.3 per cent of their annual revenue, today, it is one per cent. The numbers seem small, but retailers are encouraged. HyperCITY plans to introduce a salad counter and noodle bar, Reliance launches three lives kitchens in June. "The demand is there," Bisen concludes. "Retailers just need to capture consumers’ imagination."

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