A bleeding industry: Pandemic brings devastation, and a few opportunities, to the pop-up food experience

Pop-up experiences, entirely dependent on in-person events, now face uncertain times ahead.

Uttiya Roy July 21, 2021 09:12:12 IST
A bleeding industry: Pandemic brings devastation, and a few opportunities, to the pop-up food experience

Chef Sherry of Kanak. Photograph by Priya Thakur.

Before the pandemic hit, pop-up experiences were just coming into vogue in India. Millennials loved the chance to explore different cuisines with curated menus. From the traditional Bohri platter to the cuisine from the hills of Himachal, these experiences served as palate cleansers for the people in the metros who wanted to experience something different.

Then last year, COVID-19 forced restaurants to shout down, some permanently — a report by Zomato estimated the number ass high as 40 percent. Pop-up experiences, entirely dependent on in-person events, suffered too; and now, the industry faces uncertain times ahead.

The Stories

Pop-ups essentially tell stories. For most people who run them, they are a way to centralise a cuisine they love and tell stories about it. With people coming in from all regions, the entry barrier for pop-ups is small. Take Sherry; she is a Himachali chef and former Miss Shimla. A decade back, she started serving home-made food to some customers. With word-of-mouth, her business grew quickly, and she was serving food to several families by the end of the year. Now, based in Mumbai, she operates a cloud kitchen called Kanak.

Rohan Mangalorkar, who runs Pack a Pav, tells a similar story. He wanted to showcase the cooking of his mother, who had Maharashtrian and Sindhi roots, and make food that was “democratic and accessible.” He started with a pop-up sandwich bar, with pav as the hero, and then grew to a restaurant with five outposts, four in Mumbai and one in Pune.

On the polar opposite is Connoisseur Hospitality, a restaurant consultation and marketing firm. They organised 50 pop-ups in their first year of business, including one with Sherry. Their spokesperson, Aditi Mehta, says that the company was booming, and they helped home chefs and absolute beginners get their dreams of a restaurant business started with these events.

Pop-up experiences foster community, and for these people, they allowed an opportunity for growth within the food industry, which is a difficult prospect in the best of times.

What happens behind the scene?

When the second wave of the pandemic hit, Sherry was cooking up a storm with Kanak. She had recently started giving food for COVID-19 recovering patients at nominal costs and organising new weekly menus that helped people get fresh food on their tables.

She puts a lot of thought into these menus. Coming from Himachal, she didn’t grow up with a vast history of starters. So, she innovates; spending days lining out ancient techniques and recipes so that she could get the most authentic taste out of her food.

It’s a labour of love for Rohan, too. A sandwich bar is not a novel concept in Mumbai, where vada pavs and sandwich shops are on every street corner. He innovates by putting new twists on food. Harkening back to the good old pav, the “Pack a Pav experience" brought new and exciting experiences for people. Over the short time of their existence, they have cooked up cuisines like Thai and Assamese and brought it closer to their Maharashtrian routes with the help of pav.

Innovation follows Aditi too. Their first pop-up was on the Bohri cuisine. The chefs created desserts to be had after each course of the meal. Every guest started a new course with their palettes fresh and salivating for something new.

The novelty of pop-ups isn’t lost on the creatives behind them. The people behind the group, The Calcutta Porkaddicts, organise meetups and pop-up experiences across major metros in the country. In the bears of their organisation, they’ve dabbled in all types of cuisines, from Indo-Chinese to Mexican.

What Changed?

Last year saw one of the heaviest burdens on the restaurant industry in the form of lockdowns. In essence, the lockdowns left many restaurants without their regular clientele. While online marketplaces like Zomato opened up avenues for exploration through the year, the losses were too much to bear for a big chunk of businesses.

Pop-ups struggled too. Aditi Mehta works with young and upcoming chefs to put their kitchens on the national map. The number of events they organise had to be drastically reduced this year as lockdown restrictions tightened around the second wave.

Rohan’s Pack a Pav venture was more successful. They have veered towards organising food deliveries and now cater for small parties and get-togethers through their companies.

For Sherry, the story is different. She had been operating a cloud kitchen with Kanak, which gained more traction with the second wave of the pandemic. For many home chefs, serving food to their people ailing from diseases during a period of deep turmoil became their way to help. Sherry was on the same bandwagon, and now she operates a cloud kitchen serving special menu items every week.

It's been a challenging year for the best of businesses. While market trends show an upward tick for the food businesses, the growth is still erratic. For pop-up experiences, which rely on word-of-mouth, social media, and repeat customers for their profits, it will be hard-going for a while yet. The success stories through this tumultuous year have also been stories of struggle. Dealing with increasing bureaucracy and handling orders alone is daunting for many. Still, the only way for the experience to continue seems to be to invest in cloud kitchens.

For people like Sherry, this means it will take time before she gets to organise an in-person party. For organisations like Connoisseur Hospitality, this takes away their ability to invest in unique experiences.

Indian food stories have fundamentally changed in the past year, and with more and more people turning towards cloud kitchens, pop-up experiences seem to be taking a new form. Will there be experiences or parties come next year? Pop-ups will have to wait to find out.

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