The Kitchen on Wheels

Square Ruth Truck, Bengaluru
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The food trucks have become a cheaper alternative to owning a restaurant in urban cities

SUDHIR KANSE HAD an everyday food ritual. Early evenings, he would sneak out of his workplace for a five-minute walk to nearby Hyde Park. This was back when he was in London, working as a sous chef in Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant. He would cross the street, buy himself a hotdog from a food truck and go to his regular park bench by the lake to gorge on it. “They had every possible variety of sausage and steak, in a zillion flavours. They would toss them in wraps, salads and hotdogs. Seven years later, I still get a craving for their heritage Italian sausage,” says Kanse, speaking from the back of his own food truck, Mumbai Rolling Kitchen, stationed right outside Mindspace, an infotech hub in Airoli. Sizzling burger patties are being slumped onto a smokey hot grill in the mobile kitchen’s six-burner stovetop as he talks.

As one of the pioneers of food trucks in Mumbai, Kanse and his partners Suraj Kurkute and Sagar Wagule faced blank faces in the early days of their startup, whether it was vehicle fabrication or getting approvals. They spent almost Rs 20 lakh in the process. That was two years ago. Today, they run five food trucks—four in Mumbai and one in Gujarat.

According to a survey conducted in January 2016 by the Food Truck Association, there were 83 of these in the country, around 40 in metros and 43 in two-tier cities. The number, they say, would have increased by around 30 per cent since then. The association was formed when Nikhil Vaswani, who wanted to start a ‘meals on wheels’ service in Pune, ran into the complications of getting such a business on the road. Together with co-founders Subham Chaudhary and Meha Haria, he started this NGO to ask the authorities for a single window for the various clearances and permits needed to set up a mobile eatery in India. “Once the government is convinced that the growing number of food trucks is a safe, healthy and economical option, we will file a petition... to find ways to get rid of having to procure multiple licences,” says Haria.

A food licence to sell eatables and a Regional Transport Office approval to modify the trucks are the only two proper permits available at the moment. For the rest, truck operators have to tie up with parking lots, residential associations or corporations. Even in Bengaluru, where the food truck fad first popped up in India, procedures are yet to be streamlined. All it takes is a cop to come and shoo the vehicle away from its chosen spot.

For some, the food truck is a cheaper alternative to owning a restaurant. After eight years with Taj Group of Hotels, Ankur Gupta came up with Drifters Café in August 2015 as an exercise in brand building, to gather funds for a QSR (Quick Service Restaurant) chain. Its menu explores South East Asian cuisine and comes in a box meal format, where rice and noodles are paired with a variety of curries. “When we started off, it was difficult to get hold of people who could help us set up the truck. Fabrication, the electric and mechanical aspects of it were uncharted territory. After a lot of googling, we decided to approach an ambulance fabricator for the job,” Gupta says, whose firm spent close to Rs 23 lakh on the gig.

Shiv Ratnamkumar’s District 7 is housed aboard a second- hand Tempo Traveler parked in Panampilly Nagar, Kochi. He designed the kitchen himself, squeezing down the expense to Rs 15 lakh. It is a stationary food truck with party lights, patio seats and multicoloured umbrellas put up outside on the street. “On an average day, we dish out close to 200 burgers. Devil on Wheels, our beef burger with a secret base sauce, is the most popular order,” he says. Dosa Place in Hyderabad, Go China in Surat and Belly Feeder in Jaipur are among the food trucks that have made their presence felt in non-metro cities.

While there is demand from eager urban consumers, it is still tough dealing with government offices. Akash Hirabet, a mortgage banker turned restaurateur, shut shop after a brief five-month stint with his subs and sandwiches food truck parked outside CMR Law college in Bengaluru. “Sometimes the traffic police would ask us to wind up for the day while we were in the middle of our preparations. It was upsetting, not just on our pockets but because of all the food we ended up wasting,” says Akash, who has now opted to go conventional and started a pizzeria called All ‘bout the Base in Koramangala.

One afternoon when Shakti Subbarao reached his food truck, Gypsy Kitchen, parked at the 27th main road in HSR Layout, Bengaluru, he found the chefs’ fanning themselves with pamphlets and its kitchen in a state of chaos. The municipality had ordered it shut because it had no permit to park on a footpath. Like several who venture into the mobile kitchen business, Subbarao was fed up with his corporate career and had decided to put his Anglo-Indian wife’s cookery skills and hours watching Fox Traveller’s Eat Street to the street test with his food truck. He wasn’t yet ready to pack up and flee. “How can I apply for a parking permit that doesn’t exist? We now operate only from 7 pm to 11 pm, a relatively safe time since government officials are home by then.”