India’s gig economy chefs turn their homes into 'cloud kitchens'

India’s cloud kitchens are expected to be valued at more than $1 billion by 2023. (Supplied)
Short Url
Updated 26 January 2020

India’s gig economy chefs turn their homes into 'cloud kitchens'

  • Aid by cheap mobile data and abundant labor, the gig economy is opening up new markets across the country
  • So-called cloud kitchens, with no physical presence and a delivery-only model, are rising in popularity

MUMBAI: Rashmi Sahijwala never expected to start working at the age of 59, let alone join India’s gig economy.
Now she is part of an army of housewives turning their homes into “cloud kitchens” to feed time-starved millennials.
Asia’s third-largest economy is battling a slowdown so sharp it is creating a drag on global growth, the International Monetary Fund said on Monday, but there are some bright spots.
The gig economy, aided by cheap mobile data and abundant labor, has flourished in India, opening up new markets across the vast nation.
Although Indian women have long battled for access to education and employment opportunities, the biggest hurdle for many is convincing conservative families to let them leave home.
But new apps such as Curryful, Homefoodi and Nanighar are tapping the skills of housewives to slice, dice and prepare meals for hungry urbanites from the comfort of their homes.
The cloud kitchens — restaurants that have no physical presence and a delivery-only model — are rising in popularity as there is a boom in food delivery apps such as Swiggy and Zomato.
“We want to be the Uber of home-cooked food,” said Ben Mathew, who launched Curryful in 2018, convinced that housewives were a huge untapped resource.
His company, which employs five people for the app’s daily operations, works with 52 women and three men. The 31-year-old web entrepreneur hopes to get 1 million female chefs on board by 2022.
“We usually train them in processes of sanitization, cooking, prep time and packaging … and then launch them on the platform,” Mathew told AFP.
One of the first housewives to join Curryful in November 2018 shortly after its launch, Sahijwala was initially apprehensive despite having four decades of experience in the kitchen.
But backed by her children — including her son, who gave her regular feedback about her proposed dishes — she took the plunge.
Since then, she has undergone a crash course in how to run a business, from creating weekly menus to buying supplies from wholesale markets to cut costs.
The learning curve was steep, and Sahijwala switched from cooking everything from scratch to preparing curries and batters for breads in advance to save time and limit leftovers.
She even bought a massive freezer to store fruits and vegetables, despite her husband’s reservations about the cost. “I told him that I’m a professional now,” she told AFP.
Kallol Banerjee, co-founder of Rebel Foods, which runs 301 cloud kitchens backing up 2,200 “internet restaurants,” was among the first entrepreneurs to embrace the concept in 2012.

Chef Rashmi Sahijwala serves up a range of Indian staples from her Mumbai home kitchen. ‘I’m a professional now,’ she told her husband. (AFP)

“We could do more brands from one kitchen and cater to different customer requirements at multiple price points,” Banerjee told AFP.
The chefs buy the ingredients, supply the cookware and pay the utility bills. The apps — which make their money by charging commission, such as more than 18 percent per order for Curryful — offer training and supply the chefs with containers and bags to pack the food in.
Curryful chef Chand Vyas, 55, spent years trying to set up a lunch delivery business, but finally gave up after failing to compete with dabbawalas, Mumbai’s famously efficient food porters.
Today Vyas works seven hours per day, five days per week in her kitchen, serving up a bevy of Indian vegetarian staples, from street food favorites to lentils and rice according to the app’s weekly set menus.
“I don’t understand marketing or how to run a business, but I know how to cook. So the current partnership helps me focus on just that while Curryful takes care of the rest,” Vyas told AFP.
She pockets up to $150 per month after accounting for the commissions and costs, but hopes to earn more as the orders increase.
In contrast, a chef at a bricks-and-mortar restaurant takes home a monthly wage of between $300 and $1,000 for working six days per week.
With India’s cloud kitchen sector expected to reach $1.05 billion by 2023, according to data platform Inc42, other companies are also keen to get a slice of the action.
Swiggy, for example, has invested 2.5 billion Indian rupees ($35.3 million) in opening 1,000 cloud kitchens across the country.
Back in her Mumbai kitchen, Sahijwala is elated to have embarked on a career at an age when her contemporaries are eyeing retirement.
Over the past year, she has seen her profit grow to $200 per month, but more importantly, she said her passion has finally found an outlet. “I’m just glad life has given me this chance,” she said.

China’s rich seek bodyguards schooled in digital arts

Updated 6 min 52 sec ago

China’s rich seek bodyguards schooled in digital arts

  • Positions worth up to $70k, graduates eye jobs as guards to burgeoning ranks of rich

TIANJIN, China: At the “Genghis Security Academy,” which bills itself as China’s only dedicated bodyguard school, students learn that the threats to the country’s newly rich in the tech age are more likely to emerge from a hacker than a gunman.

Each day students in matching black business suits toil from dawn until midnight at the school in the eastern city of Tianjin, where digital defenses are given equal pegging to the traditional close-protection skillset of
combat, weapons training and high-speed driving.

Around a thousand graduate each year, hoping to land jobs as guards to China’s burgeoning ranks of rich and famous, positions which can be worth up to $70,000 — several times more than an annual office wage.

But the school says it can’t meet demand as China’s rapid growth mints millionaires — 4.4 million according to a Credit Suisse 2019 report, more than in the US.

The course fees are up to $3,000 a student, and while they had to cancel training between February and June because of the coronavirus pandemic, it has not dampened demand.

Only the best make the cut, says founder Chen Yongqing, insisting his disciplinarian standards are stricter than in the army.

“I’m quick-tempered and very demanding,” the army veteran from China’s northern Inner Mongolia region told AFP.

“Only by being strict can we cultivate every good sword. If you don’t forge it well, it will break itself.”

About half of the students are ex-military, Chen says.

They train in rows in a large, shabby sports hall, holding blue plastic guns ahead of them with a steady stare — before practicing hustling their clients safely into a black Audi with smashed windows.

Other sessions are held in a classroom or gym, where they box in matching red T-shirts.

Mobile phones are confiscated throughout, while meals are taken in silence in a large dining hall presided over by pictures of acclaimed graduates, who have protected everyone from China’s second richest man Jack Ma to visiting French presidents.

“We have been defining the standard of Chinese bodyguards,” instructor Ji Pengfei told AFP.

In one class, students in pairs work through a scenario protecting a “client” from an intruder.

A new skillset to protect the country’s tycoons has been introduced. (AFP)

“Danger!” shouts Ji, prompting the guard to quickly throw their “boss” behind them and pull out a gun in the same move.

Those who fail to do it in two seconds are assigned 50 push-ups.

The guns at the Tianjin school are fake — China outlaws possession of firearms. For live firearms training, students are taken to Laos in Southeast Asia.

But in a highly surveilled country with a low rate of street crime, the modern minder needs an up-to-date skillset, against state monitoring or professional hackers.

“Chinese bosses don’t need you to fight,” Chen tells his students of a client base which includes the country’s biggest real estate and tech firms.

Repelling hacks on mobile phones, network security, spotting eavesdroppers and wiping data are all required tools in the bodyguard’s armory.

“What would you do if the boss wants to destroy a video file immediately?” Chen asks a class.

Even so, old-school threats still exist in China — earlier this year billionaire He Xiangjian, founder of Midea and one of the country’s richest men, was kidnapped at his home.

According to Chinese media, He’s son escaped by jumping into a river and was able to call the police, who said they arrested five suspects at the scene.

Student Zhu Peipei, a 33-year-old army veteran from northern Shanxi province, hopes becoming a bodyguard could offset his lack of professional skills or academic qualifications.

“And of course, it’s cool,” he added.

But the alumni of the Genghis Academy also provide humdrum services, like accompanying children of the rich and famous to school — for a fee of 180,000 yuan ($26,000) a year.

That in itself is far more than the base salary in private companies of around 53,000 yuan.

Students must also navigate the quirks of their wealthy clients, says trainer Ji.

Some only trust bodyguards whose Chinese zodiac sign matches theirs, he explains — while one, from a Fortune 500 company, only wanted to hire from his hometown.

Another demanded a prospective bodyguard tell him what books he liked to read — he was hired after saying he liked military novels.