On the first floor of the mall sit six kitchens that symbolise tectonic shifts in India’s hospitality industry.

Tucked in a lane off Whitefield Main Road, Bengaluru, the mall, HVP Aster’s entrance is dotted by mounds of cement and stone slabs. But walk to the first level, and the palette of construction grey gives way to industrial metal: it’s this 2700 sq ft space, shared between Grow Fit, Zippy, Frozen Bottle, Sharief Bhai, Yumlane, and Rice Bowl, that satiates rumbling stomachs within a four-kilometre radius.

The co-working kitchen space, a ‘pod’, is one of 12 Swiggy Access points in Bengaluru. It’s also one of many types of cloud kitchens, a term used so loosely—and used interchangeably with ‘shadow kitchens’ or ‘dark kitchens’—it can mean different things for different brands.

Not so long ago, food brands wouldn’t give a second thought to planning their kitchen spaces. This is now taking prime spot in strategy. The essence is a delivery-only kitchen with no storefront or dine-in option, an apparent solution in these paradoxical times of shrinking spaces and burgeoning real estate prices.

There’s plenty of musculature on the cloud kitchen skeleton. Swiggy Access, for instance, offers kitchen spaces to restaurant partners in neighbourhoods where they don’t have a presence. Its USP is what Vishal Bhatia, the company’s CEO of New Supply, calls its plug-and-play model: a shell of a kitchen with gas pipelines, drainage and ventilation systems. Just walk in with your equipment, set things up, deploy staff, and you’re good to go.

These Access kitchens, however, are different from the full-stack model—where food is prepared and delivered by the same brand—Swiggy uses for its own labels, Bowl Company and Homely. Freshmenu, one of the earliest cloud kitchen startups, is considering corporate and tech park kiosks so people can “touch and feel the brand,” as CEO Rashmi Daga puts it. Rebel Foods switched from a QSR (quick service restaurant) focus to being one of the most bullish cloud kitchen players, with nine brands under its umbrella. Aggregator Foodpanda acquired HolaChef in October 2018. Future Group wants in on the cloud kitchen bandwagon. UberEats, whose Indian arm is set to be acquired by Swiggy, is doing things differently. And so is Zomato, as we’ll see in a while.

Different companies also strategise their selection of spaces, cuisine mixes and staff distinctively. “Data on the platform tells us what the most searched-for food or restaurant in a particular area is. We then look at the available options relative to local demand,” says Vishal Bhatia.

At a coffee shop in the primarily-residential neighbourhood of Kalyan Nagar in Bengaluru, the CEO of Swiggy New Supply explains how each pod caters to a demographic. Predominantly-IT areas tend to favour bowl meals and ‘round-the-clock’ eating options, meaning you need to onboard partners willing to serve food until late. But an Access pod just walking distance from the Kalyan Nagar coffee shop may not have this compulsion.

AUTHOR

Roshni Nair

Roshni P. Nair joins us from Reuters, where she was an online producer. With a background in weekend features at Hindustan Times and DNA, Roshni has written on subjects ranging from India’s amateur UFO investigators to the provenance of sambhar. When not pursuing story ideas, she enjoys reading, making a great cuppa adrak chai, playing with street dogs, and avoiding large gatherings. Roshni will work out of Mumbai and can be reached at roshni at the rate the-ken.com

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