Street Smart: Small time food vendors make it big!

The country may have fast developed, with malls and high-rises becoming the norm in almost every nook and cranny of the country. Karnataka too is no exception, with even Tier-3 cities in the state competing for an envious skyline. This has invariably resulted in the shooting up of prices, putting undue stress on the lower sections of the society. However, everyone needs a guardian angel, and this is where street vendors come into the picture as a saving soul for the marginalized. This month, Ashwin S goes on a fact-finding mission at various street food stalls across Mangaluru and Bengaluru.

While the likes of Indira Canteen, Appaji Canteen and all these politically-backed subsidized food distribution centres have opened shop recently, the street food scene is what has sustained thousands of people on a daily basis all these years.

Never sleep hungry

Sarita is an IT employee at a multinational firm in Whitefield, Bengaluru. Due to the fact that she finishes her 9 hour shift as late as 10 pm, her regular routine is to visit the food court at the mall close by for dinner, spending close to around 250 rupees every night. “I can’t be bothered to go home and cook food after working 9 long hours. The food court is a life-saver” she says. On the other hand, waiting patiently for Sarita to board her cab is Rangaswamy, the designated driver of the same IT firm. After dropping Sarita and 3 of her team mates home safely, Rangaswamy heads to a nearby food cart where he finishes his meal for as low as 25 rupees. “These mobile canteens are literally our ‘bread and butter’. While these IT employees can afford to spend in hundreds just for a meal, if we try doing the same our wife and children will have to sleep hungry” he says.

The situation is similar for the rest of the labour-intensive working class, who constitute a major chunk of the population, especially in larger cities like Bengaluru. Whether it is an Ola/Uber, rickshaw or a BMTC bus driver or even the daily wage labourers, the economical food stalls and mobile canteens are their lifesavers. But what about the politically-backed food canteens then? “They have very limited number of meals available. Standing in line for long, only to realize that the food tray is empty is not only a disappointment, but a waste of our work time where we could have earned money” says Mustafa, a rickshaw driver. “Besides, you don’t get sheek kebabs and biryani at these canteens” he adds jokingly.

This also showcases a unique trend, where most of these labourers prefer non-vegetarian food that is rich in proteins, carbs and fat, something quite necessary for their active lifestyle. This perhaps explains the mushrooming of many food carts that strongly advertise foods like AUMLET, CHAINES GHOBI MANJURAIN, FREUD RAIS, CHIKAN LEG PEACE KABBAB, BOATI and LEAVER FRY. But like Shakespeare once quoted, what’s in a name; as long as the food is tasty and does not burn a hole in their pockets, these people are more than happy to gorge on items that would put the Chinese to shame, and cause a certain famous psychoanalyst (read Sigmund Freud) to shift uneasily in his grave.

A different kind of feeding

Due to lack of proper regulations, these street vendors end up having to feed some greedy mouths from their own pockets. Hafta (regular collection with the promise of protection) is a term that every vendor is aware of, as it is something that eats into the profits of these small-time vendors. Every evening, week or fortnight (schedule depending on the cronies), constables (sometimes even in uniform) visit all the stores and stalls in their jurisdiction and collect a small sum ranging from 10-100 rupees depending on how popular the stall is, and promise protection (from God alone knows what!) for the stall owner. Failure to pay up often has major consequences, ranging from threats to raids and seizures. Even though hafta is technically illegal, when asked about this menace, almost every stall owner was unanimous in saying that they were okay with it, as it is a small price to pay for their safety as well as undisturbed operation of their petty business.

Unhealthy and unhygienic

With a plate of fried rice costing as low as 20 to 30 bucks, several questions are raised about the sourcing of the ingredients and their consumption-worthiness, considering that the same dish would cost almost 4 times as much in a decent restaurant, and about 10 times as much in a premium restaurant.

Harish, an assistant at a small-time tailor shop in JP Nagar rubbishes all these allegations. “I’ve been eating street food almost all my life, and I’ve never had a case of food poisoning, jaundice or anything of that sort. I’ve seen rich people eat at posh restaurants and get admitted to hospital due to food poisoning. People dismiss that as a one-off case, but these small shops are always the target, despite having no proper proof” he says, in a tone of absolute certainty.

“There are a few greedy vendors, often the ones who come from outside Karnataka, who resort to bad practices which ultimately end up giving us all a bad name. Some of them use re-purposed oil (oil that has gone through several rounds of oxidation and then crudely refined) which is extremely bad for health. They do this because they get it for as low as 5 to 10 rupees a litre. On the other hand, while most of us do reuse oil quite a bit, we use better quality oil that costs us around 25 to 40 rupees a litre. None of my customers have ever complained of health problems, and I have quite a few regulars” confided an owner of a kabab stall in Jayanagar, who did not wish to be named.

On hearing this discussion between me and the vendor, a couple of students who were around said “No one knows how dirty the dine-in restaurant kitchens are, as we hardly see it. They are actually worse. Here at least, we can see the item being prepared right in front of our eyes. Also, the prices are so much lesser here. It makes more sense to eat here than at posh restaurants. The taste here is also way better.”

“Who wants to live long in this current society anyway? Not me! I’d rather live a happy life with these so-called cholesterol or carcinogenic foods, than a boring one of abstinence and natural eating methods” joked another.

Readers, I have to admit, I am a sucker for PaniPuri, a famous Indian street snack that would be on the strict NO-NO list of many educators, health department officials and concerned parents. Case in point, you may remember that infamous filthy PaniPuri vendor video that went viral from back in 2011. However, over the course of years, I’ve travelled to different parts of the country and noticed that the hygiene standards and sanitation awareness among these street vendors have improved drastically. Almost every other Golgappe-wala wears a hair-net cap and plastic gloves, covers up the ingredients to avoid dust and contaminants, uses disposable plates, keeps tissues and waste bins handy and most importantly, uses clean filter water. “Yeh to karna hi padta hai bhai!Customers abhi bahut hoshiyar bane hai. Jeenahaitohyeh sab karnapadtahai” (We need to do this, now that the customers have become health-conscious. It may be a bit more expensive, but it’s a matter of our survival) says Mukesh, a PaniPuri vendor from Uttar Pradesh, who has been in Bengaluru for the last 7 years. And he says that these methods have actually been driving in more sales, despite the additional costs involved.

Not just for the masses

While there may be people like Sarita who prefer eating at malls and high-end restaurants for reasons more than one, there are quite a few high-society people who occasionally enjoy street food as well. A visit to ThindiGalli in VV Puram or the streets of Frazer Town and Shivajinagar during Ramzan will reveal the sheer variety in terms of demographics. With the roads of such streets being closed for traffic, you can often see people getting down from Audis, BMWs and Mercs, stylish clothes, high heels et al, waiting patiently alongside the commoners for a hot crispy benne masala dose or a potful of haleem and khichda.

The Golgappewalas too claim shyly that they are the most wanted guys among college girls, who causally flirt with them (read ‘Bhaiyya, ek aur sukha do naa’) and get them into parting with an extra puri at the same price. “Bahutacchalagtahai!” laughs Mukesh naively, evidently pleased at all the attention from these trendy girls, much to the annoyance of their male companions.

Taking over the streets

One of the main concerns that the anti-street vendor brigade voices out is the encroachment of footpaths and other public movement spaces, due to the lack of proper designated vending zones. At times, these food carts even take up a part of the road used by vehicles for commuting, thereby causing traffic snarls. “If the corporation provides us proper spaces where we are assured of decent footfalls, we don’t mind shifting. However, whenever authorities have provided us alternate locations to shift to, they are usually isolated areas with hardly any people around. How are we supposed to do business in such areas?” asks a vendor who wished to remain anonymous.

On enquiring with a corporation official, who also wished to remain anonymous, he said “Where else can we relocate them? Moving them from a high-population area to another high-population area will make no difference to the situation at hand. The only option is to shift them to areas with lower population density and movement, which they will not agree to. It’s a kind of a catch-22 situation here. Knowing very well that this is India, we need to adjust, live and let live.”

Another concern which the activists of the city voice is that these stalls create health hazards in the city with their sheer disregard for keeping their surroundings clean. “Usually, towards the end of the day, once it is dark, these vendors dispose off their waste in the nearby areas, causing it to accumulate and pose health hazards. Street dogs also end up littering and spreading this waste all over the place.” said an activist. On being questioned, most vendors replied that they were helpless in this matter as no civic agency would come and collect their waste on a daily basis. “What else are we supposed to do? Store it? Take it home with us? These are issues that the administration should solve, instead of throwing the ball in our court” said a visibly agitated food stall owner.

Living life on the edge

Speaking of the administration, most of those in power have tried to steer clear of this touchy topic of street vending. One small wrong move could cause intense political backlash, and hence they are quite wary of taking any action. Under the name of Operation Tiger, authorities in Mangaluru have twice (in 2011 and 2016) witnessed massive backlash, after having razed several stalls of these street vendors to the ground amidst the loud cries of the vendors. Opposition parties cited the verdict of the Honourable Supreme Court of India, which had noted that street vendors are an integral part of the city ecosystem and cannot be forcibly evicted. In 2012 again, there was a raid on all PaniPuri stalls in Mangaluru, which was triggered by a statement given on a state TV channel by the owner of a few of these stalls, saying he had paid money to the MCC to run these stalls. Public opinion on the harsh eviction of these vendors was divided, with some lauding the move and the rest calling the administration cruel and heartless. Despite all these challenges, the vendors have managed to stay tall and survive, while also providing a means for the financially challenged to survive.

In legal terms however, there is recourse available for these vendors to safeguard them against eviction. The Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act of 2014 mandates the creation of a town vending committee (TVC) with 40% of its members constituted from the vending community, who will be assigned the task of deciding the stipulated vending zones. More often than not though, the sections of this act are hardly invoked.

Food for thought!

While the people enjoying the benefits of such low-priced food call these vendors a boon, another section of society call them a curse to the modern society, a reason for India remaining backward even after years of independence. “If the poor people want cheap food and can’t afford high-end restaurants, they can visit budget-friendly places like McDonald’s and such other QSR fast food chains, which sell burgers for 20 to 30 bucks” says Ayushi Jain, a student at a reputed institute in Bengaluru. Her friend Ayeshni immediately counters her saying “Who would want such people coming in to McD? Other people would be disgusted, won’t they?”

This simply highlights the class-to-mass divide which is seen in major developing cities across the country, something that was also highlighted in the Irrfan Khan starrer movie Hindi Medium.

When asked if he would mind having a burger over street food, a cabbie Mallesh replied thus “Yen heltira Sir! Namgenammaragimuddesaaru ne sukha.Ee pizza-burger yellanamge sari hogalla!” (Who are you kidding Sir! We prefer a hearty meal of Ragi Balls and Gravy. We cannot adjust to this junk food that these people eat!)

“I once reluctantly visited a QSR (name withheld) outlet in a nearby mall once, on the insistence of my friend, who works there. However, it was quite obvious that I was not really welcome there, with everyone around giving me judgemental stares. Nonetheless, I took a parcel and silently left the place. The food was nothing great, like these youth rave about. VadaPavs from local stalls taste better than these burgers.” said Selvam, who runs a small Idly-Vada stall. Interestingly, Selvam adds that most of the employees of this mall, come over to his stall which is right opposite the mall, and not once has he looked down upon them as an outsider or as a snobbish person. “I treat everyone equally here, whether he is rich or poor, fair like the people inside the mall or dark like me – it does not matter. My idlis are of the same price, taste and quality for everyone, and always served with a smile” he adds. I could notice the tiniest glint of tears in his eyes as he said these words, visibly pained at the way people treat him. As I left the place, I could not help but wonder how genuine both his words and smile were, as opposed to the forced and often fake customary greetings at these fast food chains.

Masterminds at work

While the margins of these food carts may not be as high as the ones in large restaurants (some of whom have profit margins of over 200-300%), the sheer volume of customers they cater to on a daily basis, combined with the fact that they usually pay little to no rent and hardly have any overheads means that these stall owners end up making quite a bit of money.

On being asked how much money they earn in a month, most vendors were apprehensive about sharing the details, probably because they were scared that the authorities would swoop down on them. I then decided to take the high road, asking them their sales figures and the profit margins. While Mukesh told me that after all the costs involved, he makes a profit of 5 rupees on a plate of PaniPuri worth 20 rupees, and he sells 150 to 250 plates a day on an average, and 300 to 400 plates on weekends, I did a quick calculation based on these numbers. This translates to overall sales of around 1.34 lakh rupees a month and profits of around 34,000 rupees. Other PaniPuri vendors too had their numbers around the same range. IT guys in the city, you’re jealous now, aren’t you! First the cabbies and now this!

The 101 varieties dosa vendor confided in me that the average price of each dosa is around 60 rupees, which considering all variables, costs around 25 to 35 rupees to make. He added that he sells around 100 to 200 dosas a day, even on weekends. Keeping an average of 150 dosas a day, this translates to sales of 2.7 lakhs and profits of 1.13 lakhs a month. These are huge figures, considering that all this money comes to the vendor directly in the form of cash, and is often unaccounted, thereby evading tax. The numbers may be slightly lesser in smaller cities, as they do not have as much volumes in sales, but they still manage to save quite a bit.

A recent survey conducted in Bengaluru has shown that there are around 25,000 street vendors. Even at an average profit of 30,000 a vendor, this amounts to profits of 75 crores a month, on which no tax is being paid – Roughly around 15 crore rupees direct tax loss to the exchequer from a single city!
But then again imagine a scenario where bringing these vendors under the ambit of all the regulations in place would mean higher operating costs for the vendors, thereby driving up prices and making it unaffordable to the common man.

This would cause the entire ecosystem to collapse. Thus, the administration is again in a fix. As a temporary solution, it has been decided to provide these vendors with ID cards, with the hope of bringing in some proper framework in the long run.

Until then, as a common man, you can enjoy tasty street food while at the same time, saving big financially. Also, instead of championing a power-and-money hungry international corporation which gives scant regard to your health with respect to their mass-produced fast food, you’re helping a hard-working person earn well enough to sustain his family (and perhaps educate their children too).

Some Must-Visit Street Food Stalls:

Hopefully after reading this article your perception about street food vendors and street food in general has changed. If you feel courageous and confident enough to take the plunge, here are a few places you can start at…
Bengaluru
• The Ramzan special stalls across Bengaluru (Frazer Town, Shivajinagar, Tilaknagar, Bannerghatta Road – Do not miss out on Haleem, Khichda, Baida Roti, Camel Meat, Quail Fry, PatttharkaGosht, Rabbit Meat, Desserts, Sulaimani Chai etc.)
• Food street, VV Puram, Bengaluru (Snacks at VB Bakery, Benne Masala Dosa, Twistatos, Paddu, RasagullaChaat, Floating PaniPuri, Gulkhand with Fruits and Cream etc.)
• RBI Layout Food Street, JP Nagar, Bengaluru (Fish Fry, PudinaKabab, Italian Pizza, freshly steamed Idly-Vada with hot sambar and chutney, Biryani, Momos etc.)
• Stalls opposite Bengaluru Football Stadium, near Garuda Mall (Idly, Vada, Bajji, Chaats etc.)
• Food Street HSR Layout (Momos, Omelettes, Chaats, 101 Varieties Dosas etc.)
• Food Street Marathahalli, near RMZ (Kathi Rolls, PaniPuri, 101 Varieties Dosa etc.)
• Food Street ITPL (Lemon Rice, Omelettes, Chicken Curry Rice, Parotas, Meals, Kabab, Biryani etc.)
Mangaluru
• Near Mangala Swimming Pool, Ladyhill (All kinds of Egg preparations like Egg Chilly, Burji, Omelette, Roll, stumbler etc.)
• Near Canara High School, UrvaMannagudda (Chinese Bhel, Dahi Masala Puri, Fresh Sugarcane Juice etc.)
• Near St Aloysius, Light House Hill (Damanna’s Boiled Charmuri, Egg Chilly, Cola Lime, Orange Lime, Fresh Sugarcane Juice etc.)
• Kankanady Main Bus Stand (Dosa and Fish Curry, Kappa Biryani, PuttuKadala Curry, Omelette, Half-boiled, Indo-Chinese preparations etc.)
• Near KMC, Jyothi Circle (Padengi, PuriBhaji, SajjigeBajil, Uppittu etc. hot and fresh in the wee hours of the morning)
• Sahil’sShawarma Stall and Halli Mane Rottis, Gandhinagar (Masala Plate Shawarma, AkkiRotti, JoladaRotti etc.)
• Kadri Food Street, opposite Kadri Park (Chaat items, Sugarcane Juice, Chinese items at Hot Dragon etc.)
• KuntikanaUnderbridge Food Zone (Multiple food carts serving a variety of veg and non-veg items)
• Pork dishes at stalls near KPT junction and Maryhill Junction
• PaniPuri stalls opposite Bharath Mall, near Juice Junction, opposite Besant College, outside Empire Mall etc.
• Mumbai Street-style Sandwiches (Attavar opposite Casa Grande and inside Saibeen Complex, Lalbagh)
• Food stalls at Panambur and Thannirbhavi beach
• Temple Square, Car Street (Raja Special, Balli’sPodis, Charmuri, Pacchodi, Corn Chaat etc.)
• Central Railway Station Road (Appam, Dosas, Samosa, Idly, PuriBhaji etc.)
• Food stalls near Forum Mall, Pandeshwar (Chicken Kabab, Noodles, Fried Rice etc.)

Do you have any other suggestions for clean and hygienic food stalls? Contact the author directly on Twitter @sudyspeaks or mail us at brian@newskarnataka.com.


Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Karnatakatoday.com and Karnatakatoday.com does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.