How the pandemic reshaped food habits of Kerala

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Kochi: If IT jobs, disposable income, and online food delivery apps triggered Malayali affinity for convenience foods, the Coronavirus has served to cement it further.

Faced with prolonged working hours during the COVID-19-induced confinement at their homes, Keralites are gulping down more ready-to-cook food to save time. And to compete with Swiggy and Zomato, the supermarkets and neighbourhood kirana stores have all raised the bar and are offering home delivery.

Predictably, youngsters prefer online food apps but homemakers find it convenient to phone the nearby grocery store and ask it to deliver the grocery and eatables at the doorstep.

The first two months of lockdown saw online orders of groceries peak as shops were closed. But the partial lifting of lockdown saw people gingerly move out to buy groceries. But at homes with old people and children, online delivery by food apps or home delivery from supermarkets still remains the preferred choice.

The consumption of convenience food has witnessed a rise in the last few months. Food industry consultant S Sunil Kumar thinks the retail food business may have increased by 15 to 20% in the state. "People are working from home and buy more semi-processed or processed food such as puttu powder, dosa or idli mix, noodles, pasta etc," he says.

Another interesting aspect he finds is that with free time on their hands, many are indulging more in experimental cooking. "People are trying out new dishes which they have tasted in restaurants or seen in social media."

Ashok Mani, managing director of Intergrow Foods and Beverages Pvt. Ltd. that markets Sprig and Kitchen Treasures brands, endorses this view. "We have noticed a 30% rise in the sales of Sprig brands that include premium baking products, sauces, and spice pastes. Nearly 75% of it has been through online orders. It seems that people are experimenting with cakes and other baked items at home." In addition, its meat, chicken masalas, biriyani mix have also seen brisk sales, again indicating a growing inclination for home cooking.

Even companies whose online business was nothing to speak of are discovering its potential. For instance, the online sales of Manjilas Food Tech Pvt. Ltd., that owns Double Horse brand, was quite marginal till COVID-19 struck. "Now it has doubled. Yes, we have seen a 10 to 15 % growth in overall sales of food products. But it will be a challenge if the pandemic persists for a longer time. Then left with lesser cash, people may shift to basic food like rice and wheat from the ready-to-cook category," says Manjilas chairman Vinod Manjila.

The company has brought out certain innovative ready-to-cook products to cash in on the rising trend of convenience foods such as idiyappam and pathiri powder that dissolves in normal water instead of hot water, to make cooking easier.

But while COVID-19 has boosted its retail sales, the bulk supply to hotels, restaurants and caterers (Horeca) segment has suffered. "That sector accounts for 30% of our total sales," he says.

Working from home people are snacking more. "The bakeries have reported a rise in sale of chips and other savouries. Interestingly sweets business pale in comparison," points out P M Sankaran, president of Indian Bakers Federation.

Travel curbs have forced people living in semi-urban and remote areas of the state to depend on the neighbouring kirana stores more. Distribution of free-kit of essentials by the Kerala State Civil Supplies Corporation (Supplyco) has benefited the poor and lower middle class immensely.

"We have found that bakeries in rural areas have done 60 to 70% more business than normal while those in towns showed less business. This is maybe due to restriction on travelling," Sankaran says.

Many supermarkets have started providing home delivery for the convenience of the people. Earlier, it was just a value-added service offered to a few, but lockdown during the pandemic has now made it a necessity. "We started home delivery before COVID-19 spread. And its users multiplied during lockdown phase. Though people started moving out after that, the houses and apartments with old people and children still prefer dome delivery," says Vijo, partner of Mithra Meg Mart, Kochi-based supermarket chain.

Curiously, the pandemic seems to have prompted people to become more conscious of what they eat as evidenced by a rising fondness for high-priced organic products. "There is a high demand for organic vegetables and other products as more customers have become health-conscious," says Jomon, manager at Sparas, the newly started organic food store in Kochi.

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