YinYang Stories — taking India’s Street Food Online
Entrepreneurship, Product Design
India has around ~10 million street food vendors, most of whom travel from small towns to large cities and set up roadside, makeshift shops to make a living by selling excellent fast food. With YinYang Stories I aimed to up-skill and empower them by providing product design solutions, operations assistance, technology literacy training, hygiene training, recipe design, marketing assistance to make these stores future-ready.
What was my role?
What did I learn?
User understanding, Market research, Business model creation, Product design, Branding, Marketing, Sales, Management, Advertising
Let me take you on my journey from the moment I first got the idea to it’s current stage as a profitable business!
Market Research/Understanding: A highly unorganized, unregulated, neglected yet brilliant sector:
India’s street food sector is marked by great diversity, accessibility, and size, but,
Regardless of it’s massive market cap of $41 Billion dollars, it largely remains unregulated and unorganised.
A few major reasons for this are:
- The street food sector mostly comprises of small food stalls residing in places where there isn’t any cost in renting space & sell food to passing customers.
Hence, registering them through the place of operation( which is the current regulation method for restaurants of the Food Licensing authority in India) becomes very difficult for government authorities.
2. Primarily, a lack of funds offsets their ability to lease/rent an appropriate space for business. Though there are vendors that manage to afford a small space, they are too scared & insecure to officially register themselves due to a lack of regulation awareness. They prefer to stay under the radar and operate without officially registering and getting recognized as a taxable business.
3. The backbone of this industry is the 10 Million workforce spread across India who speak more than 10 different languages. After visiting many stores, I realized most of these workers, unlike their counterparts in the organized sector (workers in established restaurants/cloud kitchens, etc.) lack basic elementary school education, formal training, and technology literacy. Thus, communication is another hurdle as most of the sector is run by people who cannot read/write in English/Hindi while every regulation platform & online food delivery platforms are only accessible in English/Hindi.
Thus, after getting an understanding of the sector, I began sketching out exact problems that I could tackle and started finding possible solutions to these problems
But, as a 21-year-old, with limited financial strength, I wanted to tackle problems that would create a good impact without needing major investments. While conducting market research, I arrived at a very important observation:
I did not meet even a single vendor who was selling food online. Online food ordering was a great emerging market, filled with big brands & restaurants, and was completely untapped in the street food segment!
Thus, by getting street vendors online, I could fill in the market gap and also create another promising avenue of cash flow for the vendors. But, getting business online with small shop street vendors posed multiple problems.
Problems with taking street food vendors online:
- Food License and GST(tax registration)are mandatory requirements to register for online food ordering platforms. Most vendors operated on tight budgets and were hesitant of making this investment.
- Food ordering platforms are extremely competitive and the customer ordering online has different expectations than that of a typical street food customer. Need to provide a better experience!
- Taking orders via Swiggy & Zomato(food ordering platforms) is an issue as most vendors lack technological literacy. Need to train vendors on how to use the application to take orders.
- Hygiene, quality of food & standardization of taste is a problem. Vendors usually are very unhygienic. Also, there is no standard food taste and quality, which could make gaining a loyal customer base very difficult.
- Most vendors did not properly brand themselves & hence were losing out on establishing a strong market presence.
I devised a four-step procedure that every vendor could go through to successfully establish their business online:
To better understand each of the above steps, it would help if we used our first store as an example. But, getting a street vendor to tie up with me was a mighty task!
Backtracking a bit, I took the aforementioned 4 step plan & approached many, different small vendors hoping to find at least one who would give this a shot. But, without a proof of concept, it was very difficult to gain their trust & get them to tie up with me.
I figured out that most vendors did not have the capacity for any financial risk and their lack of awareness made them skeptical of the online market. Thus, I decided that I needed to prove that this idea would work without any risk on their part. By creating a win-only situation for the vendors, I was hoping to get my first collaboration! I studied the market & proceeded to make a more calculated approach to finding vendors.
I decided to focus on a particular cuisines’ vendor: Chinese!
Leveraging Chinese fast food vendors’ ubiquitous presence throughout the city & the versatility of the cuisine: it is had as lunch, dinner & as snacks mostly by millennials & young adults (the largest demographic using food apps), which the vendors could also attest to from their experience & I could convince the vendors of its demand in the online markets!
I then devised a simple revenue plan for my collaboration with the shop vendors:
- The revenue model is such that the entire risk of investment is on me & the vendor does not have any scope for loss;
- I would make all the initial investments and set up the vendor’s store online;
- I am only involved in the online business that the vendor receives. Every order we get online, the vendor would make the same amount per order or even more as a walk-in customer, I would have to absorb the delivery platform commissions and all other expenses from my cut; This was a very crucial point in gaining their trust!
- My earnings(~5-8%/order) were entirely dependent upon how much business we could get from just the online ordering platforms!
I further established clear responsibilities to be agreed upon so that the vendor and I can be accountable to each other:
Finally, after going to many vendors with this plan, I got my first vendor who agreed & wanted to collaborate with me — “Jai Tulja Bhavani Fast Food Center”, based in Attapur, Hyderabad, India.
and thus, I began the four-step onboarding procedure.
1. Registration, Branding & Packaging development:
This stage was a two-step process:
Step One: Registering online for orders
I got the vendors an official food license registration and a GST.
Using these & other documents, I proceeded to onboard them on the food delivery platforms — Swiggy & Zomato.
Step Two: Designing a strong visual identity!
It was very important to establish a brand image that resonated with the essence of a desi Chinese street food shop but also conveyed an identity of a modern, trustable brand- that would provide hygienic and authentic food.
I broke down the various elements that I wanted the brand to represent:
I then proceeded to give a name to the brand. I wanted it to be a synergy of Chinese, modern & desi!
After considering a few names and consulting friends & family, YinYang Stories was selected!
With the help of a friend, (Ram Karthikeya), I then proceeded to design the logo for the brand!
We created design guidelines to maintain consistency across all elements the brand would need: packaging, menus on food aggregator platforms, social media, etc.
After setting the design guidelines, I started work on various elements, required to launch the brand. The menu & packaging were the two most visible parts of the brand which needed the greatest attention!
Re-designed the menu according to our established brand guidelines.
This was another very crucial step as great food and good packaging were the two most important parts of an online food order’s experience.
To better understand what packaging would suit our menu best, I surveyed our competition by ordering food from various Chinese outlets that were doing great on Swiggy & Zomato, in Hyderabad. I chose a mix of brands, small to large, to figure out what packaging works best.
⭐Observations & Learnings:
Outer packaging: Most brands use the same type of outer packaging — a white plastic bag, which seems like a bad choice. Branding is done on the outer packaging which is very important — bigger brands are doing this.
Cutlery: This is a cheap and good way to create a great impression. A tissue, fork & spoon are a must.
Additional Packaging: Ketchup packet is a must. Anything else is a good bonus.
Total packaging cost: Need to keep this as low as possible as this is shown as an additional cost at checkout. Users don’t mind paying for packaging costs as long as they feel it is justified. But, even the best packaging should be less than 10 rupees!
I then conducted User research to understand the online order expectations of customers who order Chinese online. To do this I conducted telephonic interviews with friends & family who I knew ordered Chinese food online.
Out of all the questions asked, here are a few chosen ones:
⭐Learnings about packaging:
- Should keep food hot for longer
- Enable direct consumption without the need for extra cutlery
- Leak and spill-proof
- Should be tough and not tear/break as delivery boys’ handling is very rough
Based on these learnings I proceeded to create packaging. I found that most big brands had custom-made packaging which required substantial investment. Since I was low on budget, I visited wholesale packaging markets to find the best ready-made options. I was looking for packaging that fulfilled various objectives:
- Adequate in size for portions and kept the food hot for longer;
- Goes with brand identity- colors;
- Leak & spill proof;
- Distinctive & unique;
- Easy to hold and eat out of, eliminating the need for any additional utensils;
Another key point I had in mind was to keep the packaging cost as low as possible(<~7% of the selling price)
Primary container & cutlery:
The cutlery was generic(spoon & fork), but for the primary food container I conducted deep surveys and out of many, many options chose one which was: Chinese + modern, easy to hold, allowed direct consumption of food & most importantly: kept the food warm for longer!
I got various boxes and tested them for the above-mentioned features.
Out of all the packaging options, I finally decided to go with:
The box perfectly filled all requirements from the research and was a unique and not-so-common option in the market. I was hoping it would give us a distinctive advantage over our competitors!
Outer Packaging: For the outer packaging, I wanted something that would ensure the food gets delivered untampered to the customer.
I chose a cover that could be tightly sealed — prevents anyone from opening it!
The cover could manage great weight and easily hold multiple items without tears/leakages!
It also had great heat retention capacity!
This type of cover was unusual and would set us apart from the rest of the competition!
2. Menu Revisions & Food Innovations:
For this step, my knowledge from taking a course on establishing successful online kitchens came in handy!
This stage also had two steps:
Step One: Menu additions & revisions.
The current menu of the vendor only sold independent, single items. I noticed how few items on the menu were the most ordered and certain items were usually ordered together.
Based on my learnings from the workshops & online ordering trends that I noticed, and after consulting the vendor on what combination of food would complement each other, I created a new section of menu for-Combos!
Combos worked wonders for both the vendor and the consumers as they had lesser portions with greater variety and were more fulfilling. They increased average order value & customer satisfaction! (this is discussed later in the results section)
Step Two: Photography for visual translation
Food apps give sellers an option to upload food pictures of their menu. So, uploading good food pictures could get the user salivating and ordering, instantly!
But since I was low on budget, I could not afford a professional photoshoot. So, along with a friend from the photography club in college (Wajid Ali), I did the photoshoot myself, & it turned out to be fairly good. Here are a couple of pictures:
3. Technology & Communications Training:
Baldev Bhai, the owner of the shop, could read, write and understand basic English. His son, who would take his place in his absence, was able to read & write in English too. Hence, there wasn’t a need for any communications training. But,
Understanding the use cases of various buttons and features of the app was difficult. Protocols to be followed in certain circumstances, for example: setting food prep time, a delivery boy not arriving, items out of stock, etc, needed to be ironed out.
In order to do this, before we launched full time, I decided to run a pilot program where we would go online for 2 hours every day for a week and I stayed at the store to take orders with the vendor. This way I could explain to them various protocols in person.
I learned a lot by spending time at the vendor’s shop, and made a few key observations:
During rush hours (typically in the evenings around dinner time) every single person in the store was extremely busy handling in-store customers and we needed someone specifically to look after accepting orders, relaying order information to the cooks, packaging, and dispatching the orders. Not having someone assigned just for this, could lead to confusion, delayed orders & bad customer reviews.
I also found that there was a need to set a procedure for every online order and standardization of packaging material, food quantity, and quality.
4. Quality Assurance and Standardisation:
This shop, just like most street vendors’ shops, started off as a one-person operation: the owner does the cooking, accounting, cleaning, etc. As the business grows, an assistant, an additional cook, etc. are hired. At the time of our collaboration, the shop had two extra workers apart from the owner.
A major problem I noticed was with the taste of the food. The taste entirely relied upon who was making the dish, meaning, the same dish could taste different when cooked by different chefs. This also meant that there was an unaccounted waste of material as the amount of an item used to cook the same recipe would vary between chefs.
It was important to fix recipes, quantity, and the quality of food items that went into cooking to establish a standard taste.
I bought a measurement device and also spent time with the owner, recording recipes to make sure every cook applied the same.
The standardization, apart from helping establish a loyal customer base with standard taste and quality also helped in cost-cutting by reducing waste.
Another major requirement I established with the vendor was: hygiene. The vendor had agreed to maintain clean premises and I offered to provide the cooking staff with gloves, hair nets, etc.
Finally, the vendor and I set definitive protocols on how to go about delivering an order, right from receiving it, to cooking, packaging, and dispatching it. The kitchen space though minimal was re-organized into different compartments that would manage different operations. Since I was low on budget and could not afford to pay for another person to be hired, the vendor offered to bring in his son, during rush hours, to just take orders and manage packaging!
Thus, with all the stages done, we went live on Swiggy & Zomato!
YinYang Stories went live on Swiggy & Zomato in January 2020. Initially, though business was bleak, we maintained consistency in quality and executed plans, and it rapidly picked up in the coming months!
We went from doing ~₹18,000 in January-February, 2020 to ~₹78,000 in July- August 2020, a massive ~450% increase in revenue, contributing to 1/3rd of the vendor’s total profits!
Within just 2 months of business, I could break even and turn profitable! Also, since the vendor was making profits right from the first order, online delivery revenue became a very important contributor to the vendor’s profits as it equaled 1/3rd of the total profits the vendor was making, without any additional overhead costs!
We also successfully established an online brand with high customer experience ratings & returning customers!
We were shut for a few months due to COVID but since the re-opening of markets and the partial return to normalcy from August 2020 to date, our online revenue has been slowly yet consistently growing.
Word spread around on the success of our store and I have since been getting collaboration requests from various vendors!
- Between August 2020 & September 2021, I have gone on to collaborate with two more vendors! I also hired two employees to run the operations and manage stores better.
- I have gotten requests from a couple of investors who wanted to invest and scale the business. But,
between the time of the launch of the first store and today, my understanding of this sector has greatly improved but I have learnt that there is still a lot for me to learn about this sector and scaling the business at this stage isn’t the right way to go
- Using the profits I make, I also launched a “Financing Module” wherein I provide vendors with interest-free loans to expand, develop and improve their stores. This has been executed at one of the stores.
I am currently researching newer ways to increase vendor efficiency. Working on new market gaps & working on a few ideas with the vendors.
Very recently, the Indian government has finally taken interest in the street food sector and is now collaborating with food delivery platforms to onboard street food vendors on their platforms!
But, with aggregators charging high commission fees, cutthroat competition on online platforms with big brands with large advertising budgets taking up online real estate, it will be interesting to see how street food vendors compete!