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Organic Menu – Is the eco – system ready?

Gone are the days when luxury hotels and restaurants in the country boasted of their imported food stuff in their kitchens. In a role reversal, today the same guys brag about their local procurement, their commitment to empower local peasantry through their farm to fork concept, food sustainability, etc. Increasing number of hotels and restaurants in the country swear by their sustainable food concepts and organic menu today in sync with the burgeoning awareness about healthy eating among the consumers. Supporting this trend is a community of organic farmers and support groups with right intent. Hospitality Biz makes an attempt to understand how organic food concepts are catching up with the hospitality industry in the country…

Two Indian chefs made headlines recently by setting up an Indian fine dining pop up on one of the peaks on the Himalayas thus becoming the first Pop up restaurant as per the Guinness Book of World Records on the highest altitude. The rare feat was accomplished after months of preparations by Chef Soundararajan and Chef Sanjay Thakur not for pleasure of adventure, but for a noble cause. In an interview with our publication they revealed it unambiguously, thus, “Through Project Triyagyoni, we aimed to revive traditional Indian and Nepalese cuisines and bring them to the international forefront. This Guinness World Record also purposes to encourage the global community to emphasise on local and organic food prepared using native ingredients grown in an eco-friendly way.”

The key focus for fourth edition of annual Marriott India Chefs Workshop where more than 50 Chefs and F&B heads of Marriott Group properties in India held at The Westin Gurgaon recently was on food sustainability and ways to reduce food wastage at hotels. The objective of the workshop, as per Marriott Hotels communique, was not only to inspire chefs to rethink their relationship to food and how it impacts society but also to address the global food challenges such as sustainable sourcing and food wastage.

All these testify the growing importance food sustainability, healthy and organic food is getting in the kitchens of luxury hospitality chains and people driving those places. Organic menu is gaining ground in hotels and restaurants and becoming a key selling point across chains and standalone restaurants.

Organic Food market in India:
Organically grown food is the food grown and processed using no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. These are generally cultivated and grown without using toxic pesticides or chemical fertilizers harmful to the soil, or antibiotics or growth hormones or steroids in the process. Organic farming also supports healthier ecosystems by promoting biodiversity, protecting wildlife, and conserving water and soil.

Indian way of farming traditionally has been organic and environment friendly. With the advent of Green Revolution lot of that tradition got lost. However, India is still considered to have a sizeable land mass under organic farming. The market research company Ecovia Intelligence estimated that the global market for organic food reached USD 89.7 billion in 2016. India’s progress in the organic sector has been remarkable. India is emerging as a key player in the global arena, exporting over 300 products in 20 different categories to over 20 countries. Additionally, India is the largest exporter of organic cotton and houses the largest number of organic producers in the world. Alongside the developments pertaining to the global markets, the domestic market is also growing at a rate higher than the global average and are expected to keep growing at a 25% CAGR through 2020, says an EY report.

As per government statistics, the total area under organic certification is 5.71 million Hectare (2015-16). This includes 26% cultivable area with 1.49 million Hectare and rest 74% (4.22 million Hectare) forest and wild area for collection of minor forest produces. India produced around 1.35 million MT (2015-16) of certified organic products which includes all varieties of food products namely Sugarcane, Oil Seeds, Cereals & Millets, Cotton, Pulses, Medicinal Plants, Tea, Fruits, Spices, Dry Fruits, Vegetables, Coffee, etc. The organic food export realization for the country was around USD 298 million in 2015-16.

In the organic market, the highest growth is observed in the organic food segment, followed by textile, beauty and personal care. The current Indian domestic market is estimated at INR 40,000 million which is likely to increase by INR 100,000 million — INR 120,000 million by 2020 with a similar increase in exports, as per a government commissioned study. As per United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), an additional 6 million farmers in India are expected to join the organic farming bandwagon in the next couple of years.

Growing awareness about Health & Wellness:
With lifestyle diseases ruling the roost among the urban Indians, people are falling upon organic food like never before. And this trend is necessitating food service businesses to revisit their menu at their outlets. The social media is also fuelling the trend with messages of adulterations, chemical residues and presence of synthetic chemicals in food served by even international QSRs causing fatal diseases, obesity, etc. To combat these, in more developed countries like the UK, movements like Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) have become active to sensitize the industry about the value of being sustainable in terms sourcing, need to celebrate the local and seasonal produce, etc. Although quite nascent, even in India similar groups committed to clean and healthy food has started picking up steam. The Slow Food movement is already active in India. There is a Young Chef Association for Sustainable India active in Delhi NCR.

Getting up to the market demand:
The hotel and restaurant industry seem waken up to the market demand, at least partly by now. Although it is still a niche than a general trend, there is a general appetite to understand the concept and make baby steps. The ranks of hotels and restaurants adopting sustainable food models are started surging over the years. There has been conscious effort on the part of number of culinarians to go beyond the call of duty and engage with farmer community and work with them for a win-win. Hotels like The Park New Delhi host Farmers ‘chaupals’ in the hotel itself where farmer communities are invited to come and sell their produce. “Our seasonal menu is created together with our farmers and their produce for the season. Much before the season begins, we formulate and engineer the menu keeping in mind the ingredients that they will be able to offer us. For example, the Munsiari rajma masala in our summer menu, the rajma is from the Munsiari region of Uttarakhand, cooked with tomatoes. The Original Indian Table works with women farmers of this region for this produce. This really adds a touch to the experience,” says Chef Abhishek Basu, Executive Chef, The Park New Delhi.

There are hotel groups which are setting up organic gardens within to make sure steady supply of at least few seasonal vegetables. Accor Hotels last year had announced that it will plant vegetable gardens at many of its hotels as part of a plan to cut food waste by a third.

“We have our own in-house farm. We introduced the Farm to Table concept with our restaurant Pluck, a modern eatery featuring a unique seasonal menu and fresh ingredients. Every ingredient in the dish served at Pluck is handpicked from the farm at the hotel,” informs Chef Ajay Anand, Director of Culinary, Pullman & Novotel New Delhi Aerocity.

“The owners of Hyatt Regency Delhi has their own organic farm in Chhatarpur in Delhi and most of the seasonal vegetables used in the hotel’s kitchen comes from Shiv Jatia’s farm,” says Rohit Srivastava, Director F&B, Hyatt Regency, Delhi.

Those hotels which do not have their own farms, work closely with farmer groups in their procurement. “We work very closely with Tijara farms. Most of our sesonal vegetables and fruits come from them,” informs Chef Balpreet, Director of Culinary Operations at Annamaya, Andaz Delhi. “Fairmont Jaipur is in the process of setting up their own organic farm close to the hotel.

It will be ready in the next couple of months’ time,” says Chef Prasad Metrani, Executive Chef, Fairmont Jaipur. “We have contracts with Green desk in Jaipur, offering from Farms from Pune, Shreenath Agro Farms Pune, First Agro in Bangalore, Anusaya Fresh from Mumbai; these vendors, farmers and suppliers make our basic dreams come true for organic produce.”

Organic Procurement:
If professional chefs are to be believed the ratio of organic food procurement in the hospitality kitchens are on the up slowly but steadily. The trend of presenting innovative menu based on organic products is definitely catching up with hotels and restaurants. According to Chef Basu of The Park, over 80% of their menu at The Fire is organic and are in the process of taking it to 100%. At Hyatt Regency Delhi, 60% of their procurement is met by their own farm. “We cannot deny the fact that we do end up saving on food procurement as our products are locally grown in our farm. However, we do need to import a few products and often keep a stock of frozen fruits.” At Annamaya, Andaz Delhi as high as 99% of our products are locally produced. “Most products are organic at Annamaya, be it tea and coffee, the organic flour used in making our breads, the artisanal chocolates, the organic farming products or our range of organic spices,” says Chef Balpreet.

With supply side of organic food improving over time with number of organised players performing the consolidators role, the confidence level of hospitality stakeholders is also on the rise to incorporate organic food items into their menu. “When we first began, it was different from the usual process of procurement. And with meeting Achintya (krishi cress), SMH Yadav (Tijara Farms) and Puneet-Ishira (Original Indian Table), it was such an inspiring journey that they worked with us like an orchestra. I must admit that I gained a lot of insight and special admiration to see how they work and take interest in our menu to celebrate India. They even share regional and forgotten recipes. That’s the extent of interest they take in our efforts to support our farmers and the plant to plate movement for sustainability,” admits Chef Basu.

Supply Side challenges:
Ravi Jakhar, Founder, Truefarm Foods, an innovative organic food company based on nutrition science, expects the supply side of organic food in India strengthening further because of the government initiatives as well as growing consumer awareness. India has over half a million farmers engaged in organic farming and there has been significant amount of exports from the country as a share in overall organic food business. We see this base increasing with government initiatives, improving organic farming yields and consumer awareness on health. Hence, we do not see much challenge in supply side. We create different innovative products using several organic raw ingredients and are able to fulfil our supply chain well, which indicates the supply chain maturity.”

Truefarm Foods currently sources nearly 50-60 organic ingredients for making healthy 100% organic food products. These include grains and millets, seeds and spices and they come from farms of thousands of farmers spread across Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Uttarakhand, Maharashtra, etc. “We have a range of nearly 30 SKUs and we keep adding to it. Most of our products are unique such as Protein Plus flour, super mix dal and the basic products such as Jaggery Powder, Oats and Red Poha also stand out on taste, quality and nutrition parameters. We as a company are trying to engage with such institutional partners to help them move to organic food in an economical way so that consumers can eat healthy and restaurants can be happy too,” states Jakhar.

While there is growing traction towards organic farming among the farming community in India, it is still very small percentage. The Indian farmers are largely tuned to farming using chemical fertilisers and chemicals because of the “inherent risk involved” in organic farming, says Puneet Jhajharia, Co-Founder, CropConnect, an organic food sourcing and marketing company under the ‘Original Indian Table’ branding. This necessitates education and awareness building. The storage infrastructure for organic products are not evolved fully in India, and as the volume of organic products is not as big compared to normal products, per unit transportation cost tends to be high, informs Jhajharia. On the supply side, while there are number of players in the non-perishable organic food sector, in the perishable organic produce there are hardly many players. As it is difficult to hold inventory in the perishable side for long, not too many players are there on the perishable side. A lot needs to be done on the perishable side, he feels.

CropConnect mobilises farmers’ groups and sources ingredients from 20 Farmer Producers Organisations (FPOs) in states like Kerala, North East, Jammu & Kashmir, Uttarakhand, etc. “We are helping them with market access and marketing support,” informs Jhajharia.

Commenting on the supply and demand side of organic market, Pankaj Agarwal, Co-founder & MD, Just Organik said that there are challenges both the on the demand and supply side, both have to addressed simultaneously. “Although the demand side of organic food products need more organized development, the supply side of organic products also have to match the raised demand in coming time.” Besides grocery, Just Organik has complete range of millets and many healthier grains like Quinoa, Buckwheat, Red rice, etc. They also have pulses, lentils, cereals, nurtri-cereals, spices, herbs, oils, tea, sweeteners, and dry fruits in their portfolio.

A lot of product innovations are happening in the organic food segment in India in recent years adding to the convenience of the health-conscious and quality-conscious customers. Sresta Natural Bioproducts, promoters of 24 Mantra Organic brand of organic products, has been adding ready-to-cook convenience food solutions to their portfolio of products targeting both retail and HoReCa market. The company has developed a wide range of tasty products like Ragi Idli, Kanda Poha, Gojji Avalaki, Millet Dosa, Pongal, Whole Moong Khichdi, Biryani, etc., for the retail market. “Our new range of ready-to-cook products has been received well by all types of consumers including hotels and restaurants. These products taste fresh and authentic,” said N Balasubramanian, CEO, Sresta Natural Bioproducts in a recent interaction. Talking about the organic food market, Balasubramanian said that the awareness is picking up among the customers on the health benefits of organic food, which even hotels and restaurants can cash in by making a “differentiated offering” to the customers. “We are ready to work with such people,” he stated. Sresta Natural Bioproducts works directly with over 45,000 farmers with over 225,000 acres of land under organic farming across India.

Scope for Menu Innovation:
Despite the growing receptibility and urge to include more organic recipes into the menu, the hospitality players are highly concerned about the high seasonality of organic farm products. While the hotel and restaurant menus are planned for a quarter or so, even consistent availability of ingredients becomes a challenge. “Organic value chain is seasonal and perishable and to get that for long is a challenge,” informs Jhajharia.

However, this opens opportunities for menu innovation based on seasonal ingredients availability, feels chefs. “Local procurement assists chefs to create and recreate menus of highest experience with a story attached to it. India as a country is very rich and varied in its food eating habits and so is its vast cuisine supporting and making unique ingredients a part of menu an experience for the common guest,” observes Chef Metrani, Fairmont Jaipur.

Chef Anand of Novotel and Pullman Aerocity who oversees the organic garden in the hotel also feels the same way. “The menu is seasonal as the vegetables are grown on our in-house farm. For example, right now, you will see eggplants, bitter gourd, bottle gourd, ridge gourd, chillies, mint, etc. During September and October month, we will sow winter seeds of vegetables and herbs like radish, cauliflower, turnip, beetroot, coriander, broccoli, etc., for the winter vegetables in Delhi. The growth of vegetables and herbs in Delhi depends on the season as the weather in Delhi keeps changing. We focus on changing our menu every quarter.”

Cost Factor:
In a highly competitive industry, controlling the procurement cost becomes quite important. Organic products come at a cost higher than the general category products. This creates a challenge in a competitive market scenario where consumer is quite price sensitive. This puts a lot of onus on the F&B players to work hard to engage the customer and explain the additional facets of the food they are presenting to them. The organic ingredients are generally priced 25 to 30% costlier than the mass-produced alternatives.

Cost continues to be a limiting factor, informs Agarwal of Just Organik. While there is a pull for organic products from the hi-end hotels and restaurants, the price sensitive mid-level market is yet to look at organic alternatives, he says. Food is considered as cost driven item across service industries excluding luxury hotel business. This is because their customers are more quality conscious than price sensitive when it comes to food.

The F&B industry, however, is divided on the cost impact of organic products on their food offerings. Chef Basu of The Park feels that there hasn’t been much impact on the food pricing after going organic at Fire. “It has worked very well and our restaurant is a true example of how guests love to eat fresh, eat local and eat healthy at Fire. We want our guests to know exactly what they are eating and the farmers we are working with.”

Organic food products are expensive because of their limited supply, high production cost, high post-harvest handling cost, etc., and therefore reflect on the food cost as well, confirms Chef Metrani. Expressing similar opinion, Chef Balpreet said that costs tend to be high for “artisanal products”. However, he said that because they are able to create flavoursome and innovative products which appeal to the taste buds of food connoisseurs they are able to sustain with the high food costs.

Organic kitchens are still a niche in India although the same is a reality in many parts of the world. But the trend is definitely catching up in India as well as . There is a growing interest to jump into the organic bandwagon amongst the Indian FBOs of late, but it is hard to ascertain whether it is driven by real passion or just for fashion! But, the recent studies are showing increasing alertness among the young Indian population on what they eat and the health aspects of the food they eat.

A recent study report conducted by Deloitte for Retailers Association of India (RAI) on consumer behaviour pertaining to millennials – Trend-setting Millennials: Redefining the Consumer Story – revealed that millennials are increasingly becoming more health conscious and placing higher importance on physical and emotional wellbeing, thus swiftly moving towards healthier and organic options. Research indicates that 36% of Indian millennials have a fitness app installed on their phones and about 45% think leading a healthy life is essential. Therefore, even though ‘eating out’ as a concept has significantly increased, specifically amongst millennials, focus on healthy alternatives is also on the rise.

So, it’s a wake up call for stakeholders in the organic food value chain!