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Ready to Eat: Food and trends for NRIs >> Features Achieve >> Features

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Article: Ready to eat! Indian Packaged and processed food taking off in North America

As I began researching for this article on shopping and franchising, my mind went off to the large desi shopping franchise sweeping North America; and no, I am not talking about the Patel-Motel phenomena, which by itself would be a story to tell.  My family, as that of most desis of Indian origin, enjoys regular desi food more than any other cuisine. Given that there are over three million desis -- here I use the term desi to talk about people from the South-Asian region – in the US and Canada, most with quintessentially ethnic tastes when it comes to food, it is a market waiting to be tapped and served. And yes, there is a whole supply chain that has sprung up catering to this market.

Even a cursory glance listing on (an online Directory) brings up listings of hundreds of Restaurants and Bazaars serving the Indo-American community across North America. Restaurants range from the ubiquitous ‘Taste of India’ and ‘Udupi Bhavans’ and chains like Saravana Bhavan to the few upscale (read expensive) restaurants. These restaurants attempt to serve ‘authentic’ Indian cuisine from the different regions of India, adding an exotic touch to attract western clientele too. The range of operations is truly breathtaking. In larger metros, the upscale restaurants try and create either authentic ambience (importing expensive Natarajas and decorative artwork) or a completely retro look, as the case with the ‘Rupee Room’ that I had visited during a business trip to New Jersey. In smaller towns and cities in the US and Canada, the Indian Restaurants also double as grocery shops. Indian takeaways and ‘roti shops’ are also common in larger metros. To serve the varied palate, and to prepare authentic dishes ranging from the ‘regular’ dosas and naan combo to Hyderabadi Biriyani, stuffed capsicum, chicken chettinad  or Murgh Ke Shami requires authentic ingredients. The story behind the supply-chain of Indian ingredients is intriguing and complex.

The interesting aspect of supply chain serving the ethnic restaurants is that it also attempts to serve the needs of the Indian Bazaars and grocery shops. There are literally hundreds of ethnic shops and bazaars specializing in Indian and South Asian grocery in the US and North America. With the growth of Indo-American population, the grocery vendors have also attempted to keep pace. These shops procure Indian grocery, produce and packaged products including brands familiar to ethnic community like ‘Parle G’ biscuits and stock them. Similarly, a whole cottage industry has sprung up in growing ‘Indian’ vegetables like drumstick, bittergoud and the like in sub-tropical and moderate regions of the US like Florida and California and supplying them to wholesalers and retailers.

I recall during the heyday, the likes of attempted to ape e-grocer and other models by building a supply chain to sell grocery directly to consumers, bypassing the local retailers. They even enticed customers in far-flung cities by offering discount coupons and shipping discounts. Regular desi retailers who were initially threatened by their models recouped well and continue to hold steady. They attempt to entice consumers by providing a local ‘water cooler’ atmosphere where one can post classifieds, meet other Indians and physically browse for grocery. To their credit, online retailers have had an edge in information based retailers like Music CD’s, Movies, DVDs. Needless to say, both the online and regular retailers continue to vie for a larger pie of the market. The likes of and continue their online presence, and on their websites claim to have an increasing share of the market.

Growth in Ready-to-eat dishes has been one of the most noticeable trends in the recent years. The market has also been equally receptive to generation of sufficient demand, especially among double-income working couples, single technologists on business travel in the US and students. What began as an experiment by a few suppliers to provide ‘chutney powder’ and the like in a packaged format has really taken off. Aided by food-preservation and packaging technologies developed by the military (called MRE’s, Meals Ready To Eat) the technology has successfully been adopted to freeze-and-microwave even crispy dosas, samosas and vadas. Brands like Deep Foods, Haldirams and Shalini Foods have really been at the forefront of innovation, adopting many of the emerging technologies in processing and packaging foods. Amul has been similarly innovative in packaging Ghee that it is best known for, along with Gulab Jamuns and Rosgullas in heat-and-eat packs.

Bottomline: To some, microwaving and opening a pack of masala-dosa or Naan with Murgh Masala for dinner may not be the same as the aroma and experience of cooking it from fresh batter like Maa back home would do it, but after a busy day at work that probably included a hurried trip to the office cafeteria for a sub-sandwich or a plate of chicken nuggets, a ready-to-eat Dosa and Naan comes close.

Author: Mohan Babu, first published in Biz-India. You might also be interested in the new Ready-to-Eat section of




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