At first, it was nothing, some Chinese thing in a place we had never heard of. There were 3 cases in Kerala, very far from us in Delhi. We were in the thick of the food season, scrambling to keep up with the flurry of work, balancing that with the daily hassles of running a business. It crept upon us slowly, the anxiety, the cancellations of parties, shockingly even the Holi parties. And even though Holi wasn't a total shit show, it was still nothing compared to what could have been- earnings enough to tide us over the lean summer months.
And soon it was here, a few cases had emerged in the NCR region. “Retail orders dropped rapidly, permissions for our visits were being withdrawn by worried RWAs and on 17th March, our business was down to 10%,” shared Jyoti Ganapathi of DosaInc that had food trucks parked in residential and corporate hubs. Jyoti and her partner had to make a decision. “A lockdown seemed imminent, and if we remained open and tried to operate the way we usually do, we would only be increasing our expenses. So we decided to shutdown for a period, reassess and start again,” she added though they knew that suspending of services would hurt us immeasurably, but, we figured, it was the responsible thing to do, and to be honest, we thought it would be only for a short while, just enough for the panic to abate.
They called in their staff, explained the situation to them and held their long overdue training sessions and gave them the option of going back to their home towns or staying back (all expenses covered) at the quarters they would provide for them. Most left, a few remained.
“Our instinct was right on the money about a few things-ajunta curfew was announced and soon followed by a nationwide lockdown, which was followed by an inevitable haze of confusion. Our hustle had just begun,” she sighs!
Preservation of stocks
“Before we sent off the staff, we had to deal with our stocks- perishables, dry items, the inventory of packing materials, etc. We preserved every last bit of perishable item by pureeing, pickling, cutting and freezing,” added Jyoti who believed that what could be returned was returned and everything else was counted and stacked up safely. The point was to limit waste so that they wouldn't have to spend to get started again. And to be sure, this effort held them in good stead- “when we did re-open, we had enough and more to take us through the month of lockdown without a penny to be spent on restocking,” she said on a positive note.
Anyone who knows anything real about the food business will know that the margins are wafer thin and cash-flows are always tight, in good times and in bad. “We had suspended our service midway through the month and without a whole month's income and with nothing forthcoming for the foreseeable future, we were staring at an abyss,” shared Jyoti whose current cash flows and even their reserves couldn't cover the fixed cost, the vendor payments or the payroll cost. “So my partner and I did a quick back-of-an-envelope calculation on how much was needed- what was owed and the reserve needed if we wanted to operate at a basic level till demand picked up again. We spoke with our vendors, our landlords. We bought time, renegotiated rates. Conserving cash was a priority, so we applied for the moratorium offered by the banks on our loans. None of this was enough. So we shamelessly tapped into our network of friends and family and requested and accepted any amount of donations to help us through this crisis. We created a fund and now we had to juggle cash flows and keep ourselves alive,” she further said.
Once it became clear that food delivery was permitted as an essential service, DosaInc planned to start up again. Thankfully a skeletal crew of a cashier, couple of chefs and a few assistants had stayed back. It was enough to begin with for them.
First stop though was to serve the society and the community they lived in. They prepared, packed, and contributed meals for the migrants in their neighborhood. “We offered what we could and we partnered with the local area leaders. Our kitchen was "officially" open, in all senses of the word,” commented Jyoti.
But they couldn't do what they used to. As a food truck, they would go into gated communities, park, take orders, serve and deliver. All gated and non-gated communities were fortresses now. No RWA or facility management service would even consider letting them in. So their start was tentative. Thus, they decided to cook and deliver from their base kitchen directly to as far as they could reach on a cycle, delivering to the customers at their gates. “We messaged our customers and got started,” she asserted.
“People are scared- of the disease, for their jobs, of the food even. They are cautious and tight fisted. So demand has been low. We received many calls, even from our regular customers, asking us how the food was being prepared, packed and delivered, only to change their minds midway out of fear. This was a luxury they could do without. But we soldiered on because if we didn't, we become irrelevant and we are forgotten and soon dead. Dead, we were determined not to be,” she pointed in a low tone.
Survival is the name of the game
They threw everything at the wall to see what sticks. They noticed that packaged items like chips, biscuits, namkeens were flying off the shelves. So they got started on those items in their kitchen- the South Indian variety. “It was something we had been working on, but hadn't launched it in a big way. The time, it seemed, had come, so we did. We launched our packaged snacks, to be made to order and delivered,” she said as she found something to sail through during this hard time.
The gambit is working as far as they can tell- the items are flying off their shelves as well and so is the rest of the fresh food, piggy backed on these products, which means orders of idly and vada along with muruku and mixture. Even with everything they have done, it is still a fraction of what they used to do and each day is still a struggle, but now they have gone from planning day to day to planning for a week ahead. It is not much, but it is something. Most importantly it is a step forward.
“This time, and god knows we have had a lot of it to spare, has given us an opportunity to think a lot about our strengths and weaknesses, but mostly our strengths. It is teaching us to find ways to use our strengths to our advantage. We have a database of over 50,000 customers. A database we built over the years because we owned our orders and continued to control the supply chain even after everyone and their grandmother had moved to delivery platforms. These are customers who have eaten our food, 60% of whom have done so repeatedly. Yes many are scared, but many still trust us and are willing to give us a chance,” she added further.
Even as they were growing their food truck business, they continued to innovate, working on an alternate product line with the idea that this could be something more they could offer their customers and get it to them using the supply chain they had developed.
“We spent a lot of time developing our human capital. We identified and built on our employees' interests and abilities and gave them opportunities to grow within our system. This is why we have a team that is cross-trained. Our chefs can make idly, vada and dosa and they can also make ladoos and mysorepak. Ourcashier can also drive a truck and our trucks,which are now instrumental in delivering, free of any hindrance, our food across NCR. It is not always obvious what we need to do, and the post covid world will be a different place altogether, a moving target, but we are scrappy, lean and hungry.We hustle, and that's all we got,” she concluded.