In his study, “American Diner: Then and Now”, the leading diner expert Richard J.S. Gutman makes mention of a vendor named Walter Scott who in the year 1872 parked his small wagon in front of a local newspaper office. The idea was to serve sandwiches, pies and steaming cups of coffee to journalists and pressmen who worked till the wee hours of the morning. “You can trace the whole industry to him.” writes Gutman. Perhaps it was Scott who saw the niche and opened the first documented food truck in the U.S.A. Since then, the trend of food trucks has gradually spanned to other parts of the world.
Do you know the man behind the first food truck in India?
It was in 1976 when India was in an emergency mode and civil liberties were curbed that a 23-year-old young man, Aroon Narula was running a canteen called Cafe Commune in Lady Sri Ram College with success. Eager to try something different, he toyed with the idea of a mobile van selling Chinese food and ice creams at various locations in Delhi. Aware that an unheard concept as this, in India, would present stumbling blocks he decided to tackle them one by one. He shared his ideas with Sunil Bhandari, a dear friend of his who had a keen sense of designing and roped him in. At a prodigious amount of four thousand rupees, he bought a Dodge, discarded by the American Embassy. With the help of Sunil, he designed an 18 square feet kitchen and made provisions for the basic necessities needed for the operation of a kitchen. Two tanks were installed, one for clean, running water and the other served as a wastewater tank. There was a freezer, an exhaust on the roof of the van, the service counter was made on both sides with fly proofing and the driver seat was converted into a cashier counter when selling food. After the conversions, fittings and changing to a diesel engine, he had spent Rs 23,000 in all.
The food truck was all ready when the stumbling block came. There was no rule or bye-law of Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), which could enable licensing of such a venture. Still not ready to give up, he knocked many doors till a friend’s uncle who was on a top position in MCD, gave him the necessary documents and he finally saw his dream come true.
On 3rd September 1977, the bright yellow and white painted food truck named “Hawker” opened its counters at the gates of the Art Faculty, Delhi University temporarily, a month after which it shifted to a pavement in front of D school, better known as Delhi School of Economics. A concept like this received positive reviews and crowds thronged around the truck. The prices were reasonably priced and only a limited menu was offered- Chowmein (Rs.6), Chilly Chicken (Rs.30), Chicken Sweet Corn Soup (Rs.4) and an ice cream cone (Rs.10). The final schedule set then onwards was D School till 1:00 p.m, ITO crossing thereafter till 4:00 p.m. and finally from 6:00 p.m till dinner at South Extension. Hawker became a business model for many entrepreneurs thereafter and more food vans selling Chinese food could be spotted at strategic points in Delhi. The money was good, the “meals on wheels” concept rocked and it attracted a lot of media attention. For twelve years, Aroon made “Hawker” a brand that both young and old loved.
The birth of Chef Gutu
It was in 1988 that Aroon wanted to explore further in the culinary world and away from the food truck business. A food cognoscente and having a deep interest in the innovation of recipes he took over the catering at the Escorts Heart Institute where he ran the hospital kitchen, innovated Mughlai recipes under stringent low calorie, low cholesterol advice of the dieticians. He ran this kitchen for 21 years with a staff of 170 employees under him. Alongside he was involved in projects such as running a bakery and the management of a few restaurants in Connaught Place and Vasant Vihar. With much experience tucked under his belt, in 2010 he became a restaurant consultant. Today, he’s popularly known as Chef Gutu in the food circuit and specialises in setting up new restaurants, bars, hotels and scaling up their hospitality business. He gives advice on turnkey projects, staff recruitment, Food and Beverage control, breakup costs, menu ideas, training existing staff, innovative food, new cuisines and everything that you need for being an entrepreneur.
(To know more about his specialization, press here.)
From “Hawker” to “Hawkers”
“What happened to the food truck, Chef Gutu? Is there no Hawker? Did you sell it off?” I was curious. I wanted to know.
“Yes, There is no Hawker.” He paused. And then smiled. “Instead, we now have four Hawkers.”
Once he decided to join the Escorts Heart Institute, he handed over the food truck business to his brother. Today, his nephew Abhinav Narula runs the show. 42 years till date, it is the longest running food truck in our country. The food truck “Hawkers” stands in three different locations in NCR – Hawkers in Vasant Kunj and Priya Cinema, Hawkers Kebab on the Kerb in Vasant Kunj and Hawkers Unforked in Vasant Kunj. The cuisine served is predominantly Chinese though the menu is much more elaborate. There are soups, vegetarian and non-vegetarian appetizers, Kathi rolls, noodles and rice, chicken momos and a wide variety of both vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes in the main course.
As the conversation was heading to its fag end, images of modern, snazzy food trucks around conjured up in my mind. The Delhi Food Truck Festival will be held in Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium on the 14th -16th of December in its 3rd season this year.
“Will the food truck fever further sweep the city? What, according to you, is the future of food trucks in India, Chef?” I threw one last question at him. His reply left a lot to ponder upon.
“The future is uncertain. The municipal bye-laws are not clear on the matter of food trucks/ carts. Dealing with the local municipality and government officials, procurement of licenses like the NOC from the police, FDA license and fire license is not easy. There is no clarity of rules and regulations pertaining to food truck parking. There are more challenges than what meets the eye. The food truck business could be a game changer in our economy where unemployment is on the rise. Yes! it could be a fillip to job creation if only the laws are entrepreneur friendly and enable them to start their own business.”
What do you feel is the future of food trucks in India? Do leave your viewpoint on the comments below.