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Smart Food

Adding apps to the delivery pot

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Online food start-ups get more tech-savvy to cater to smartphone-loving Indians.

The humble phone was the first to be struck off online home delivery menus designed for hungry Indians too tired to head to restaurants. Now, the phone's all the rage with online food delivery companies, some of whom have been on an expansion spree in the last one year, realising that demand for food is big in India, especially if it is delivered via the smartphone.

"We launched our mobile apps a month ago as the trend now is to use tablets or smartphones to order food, " says Sandipan Mitra, director for sales and marketing of the Bangalore-based JustEat. The company, one of the oldest such ventures in India, is present in 26 cities and has around 6. 1 lakh users and 2, 850 partner restaurants.

Shachin Bharadwaj, founder of TastyKhana, which is there in eight cities and recently got a $5 million funding from a global chain, says 27 per cent of last month's orders were through its apps and the mobile site.

Indians started turning to the internet for food in the mid-2000 s when the IT industry boom was at its peak. Hungry professionals, some of whom eventually set up the food delivery start-ups, were looking for a way to order food after slogging it out in front of the computer.

"The menus were all over the place. So, I started collecting them and over a period I had an excel sheet with menus of 100 restaurants, " recalls Bharadwaj. Like the founders of Hungry Zone, which was later acquired by the UKbased Just-Eat Group, he created a website that enabled people to order online.

Initially, there were just menus. Then, phone numbers were added and delivery boys were roped in to help those restaurants that were struggling to handle the orders. Some of the sites also started allowing customers to club their orders - get soup from a Chinese restaurant and send it along with the American pizza.

The variety of choices is what Chennai-based writer Maya M misses most after her favourite delivery company recently shut shop. "I loved the fact that they would bring food from two-three different places. It made ordering for a party so easy, " says Maya, who also misses the team's friendly suggestions for fresh momos and readiness to deliver birthday cakes from Chennai's home bakers. "The one that I now use is fairly impersonal and you can only order from their restaurant partners, " she says.

With most restaurants in big cities investing in a delivery team to retain their customers, the food delivery companies are focussing on helping them get the maximum number of orders. Tastykhana has only a small delivery team in Pune. Titbit, a Mumbai-based start-up, delivers only in areas with maximum concentration of restaurants. Their focus is primarily on taking orders, building technical solutions for eateries and helping them handle customers, says Satyam Bansal, COO.

"The biggest challenge is to take orders as most restaurants have only a couple of phone lines and one guy to attend the calls, " says Mitra. By the time you convey your order for one low-fat dal tadka and three tandoori rotis and the house address without losing patience, valuable time is lost. "Also, nobody calls at 6pm to place their dinner order. Almost all the calls start at 8pm and restaurants sometimes find it difficult to handle them, " he adds.

Despite the hitches, the demand for food remains high and attracts more players. A four-month-old Mumbai start-up, Mad Bites, which specialises in serving night owls soups and sandwiches from their in-house kitchen between 8pm and 4am, is planning to deliver round the clock. "In our last survey, we found that about 80 per cent of our users are in the age group of 25 to 35 and work in large IT companies. That's how skewed the user base is and these are people with disposable income, " says Mitra.

And that is one jumbo slice of the food pie that nobody wants to miss out on.

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