Highway on the 'PURE' plate

Not long ago, a solitary hand pump next to a highway dhaba (eatery) in Punjab was perhaps the last word in hygiene.

One of the dhabas redesigned as part of PURE.

As for the bathroom, you could always attend to nature’s call in the adjoining fields. For most eatery owners, either illiterate or uninitiated into the art of hospitality, their entire culinary experience revolved around a heavily sweetened cup of tea, or a spilling plate of chilly butter chicken that only promised more pot-bellied Punjabis and some soaring business for mushrooming cardiologists in this border state.

Well, much of it has now changed. Just like the Army’s Standard Operational
Procedures (SOPs) for peace and wartime, in place now are several standar­disation norms for these unorganised roadside eateries that promise quality,
hygiene, service and guarantee you would revisit. Its certification Project for Up-gradation of Roadside Eateries (PURE),  that is redefining the business of food on streets in Punjab.

An initiative of the Punjab Heritage and Tourism Promotion Board, jointly with the Chandigarh Group of Colleges (CGC), Mohali near Chandigarh, as part of its corporate social responsibility, ‘Mittran Da Dhaba’, along with its arch rival and neighbour ‘Zamindara Dhaba’, were among the first lot of nearly two dozen dhabas--which were losing clientele to swish glass-fronted plentiful restaurants--that opted for PURE. Today, it’s helping business grow, all for the sake of good food and a fine dine experience for
customers.

On the Chandigarh-Ludhiana National Highway 95, Kesar Singh, one of the PURE subscribers, proudly points to pictures of celebrities gracing the dhaba walls. “If it was not for PURE project, Rani Mukherjee and Sohail Khan would not have tasted our food,” he said. Bobby Deol , Harbhajan Mann, Baba Sehgal, Shakti Kapoor, and an endless stream of politicians, jathedars of Sikh Takhts, have all tasted food here, he flaunts.

So what’s it that led the government and the CGC into reforming roadside dhabas. Of the many quintessential contributions of Punjabi culture, perhaps the roadside dhaba is the most visible across the country, closely rivalling the Punjabi drum beats now virtually a part of every Bollywood box-office hit. Located amid mustard fields, with ubiquitous charpayees (cots) lined up for truck drivers and super-efficient illiterate boys passing on innumerable jugs of lassi all day long, at many places as a complimentary drink, conjured the image of any Punjabi dhaba.

But as fondness to food and hygiene grew, and roadside food travel shows becoming staple viewing, PURE made the first move to rubbish the long-drawn dhaba image of a guy with his arms sweaty serving you extra-butter dal makhni spilling all over your trousers as he places the bowls on a dirty table infested with flies.

Till some time back, Mittran Da Dhaba (Dhaba of the Friends) on the NH-95
wasn’t much different. But with PURE, students of CGC Hotel Management and Catering Technology Institute, less than 10 km away from this eatery, soon put in place food standards at this neighbourhood eatery. “Their kitchens may not be like the swank cooking counters you see in Master Chef India but their skills are no less.

Our experts just needed to bring some perspective, add a few touches, implement strictly some good hygiene habits, and laid a lot of stress on standardisation of recipes,” Satnam Singh Sandhu, Chairman of the CGC Group, whose brainchild PURE project was, said talking to Deccan Herald. Lessons in soft skills to dhaba staff was a part of makeover, he added.

For 17-year-old Shanker from Nepal's Kailali district, all this has made a great difference. Till recently, all he was expected to do at the dhaba was to wipe the steel tumblers for 12 hours for about Rs 3,000 a month. He’s today well-versed in his job, stylishly carries the food-laden tray to the table, and smilingly asks the customer if he would prefer another glass of free lassi. Shanker now earns more than Rs 6,000 a month.

“He’s a PURE child,” jokes Kulvinder Singh, the 10+2 qualified manager and nephew of dhaba owner Kesar Singh. Kulvinder said: “Our income levels have shot up by more than 30 per cent, but there is one worry. Other dhabas are also rushing to upgrade similarly, and we will soon have more competition,” he quips.

So what all had to change to begin with? As for service levels, dhabas employed low paid unskilled migrant children, thinking that all they needed to do is to carry the food on a tray from the kitchen to the table. The food was great, but on an extremely dirty table and cover.

The “daal” was mouthwatering but the chipped badly washed plates could kill anyone's appetite. It was that singular experience that made one think if institutional hospitality experts voluntarily could make a world of difference to these eateries.

PURE was the answer for these low-in-profit ventures. After PURE, some new items appeared on the upgraded menu of Mittran Da Dhaba. Now you could order even “Badshah Paneer” or a “Daal Mehfile Maharani”-- dishes that were only a part of glossy high-end restaurant menu.

The PURE certification has brought in a lot--from squeaky clean floors, liveried waiters in places to tiled exteriors to keep out the dust from the highway. Teams from the CGC or the Punjab Tourism Department make regular surprise checks.

A nicely framed PURE certification hangs from a wall prominently and crowds get getting bigger during the 2 to 4 pm lunch slot. PURE and Sandhu make no promises to dhabas. The certification needs frequent validation so there’s no chance of missing out on any of the “dhaba SOPs’”

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