Movable meals from Kolkata's yummy mummies

Last Updated 29 January 2010, 10:39 IST

Come lunch

Movable meals from Kolkata's yummy mummies

time and the youngsters working at HCL Technologies in Kolkata, head towards their office cafeteria. “Aunty, fish and rice for me today,” says one, while another declares, “The veg plate for me, Aunty.” The woman at the counter cheerfully hands over the steaming food with a word of caution: “Careful, it’s hot. Eat slowly.”

Food that has a home touch and is served just as a home-maker would have done at her place, is the USP of Astha Bhojon, a Kolkata-based Self-Help Group (SHG). Astha Bhojon dishes out sumptuous meals for hungry youngsters studying in local institutes or working in Sector V, the IT hub of Kolkata.

Besides the actual cooking and the running of a mobile food van, the 32 women in the group manage the cafeteria of HCL Technologies, IDBI, Exide and even cater to other companies such as HDFC, Cognizant, Institute of India Foreign Trade, Tata Telecommu- nications and HMV Studio. On an average, Astha Bhojon feeds over 300 persons every day.

From kitchen to counter
“The idea was to generate micro-entrepreneurship among urban underprivileged women who had no other skills other than what they had as housewives. So, we put to use their culinary talent to make them economically self-sufficient,” informs Urmi Pal Choudhury (36), President, Astha Bhojon.

According to Pal Choudhury, the SHG was founded two-and-half years ago by some like-minded friends involved in the social sector. 

The women were chosen on the basis of their need for economic support rather than any hard and fast definitions like coming from ‘Below Poverty Line’ backgrounds. “We conducted a small interview to determine whether these women had the hunger to be entrepreneurs and chose those who wanted to do something that went beyond themselves alone,” reveals Pal Choudhury.

Arati Pal (42) joined Astha Bhojon when her husband abandoned her and she had no independent means of earning a livelihood. She underwent training, worked with the group for some time and now runs her own business with a fellow member Chandrima Banerjee (43). The duo caters food to the Ananda Bazar Patrika media house. “Arati and Chandrima are two of our many success stories,” says a proud Pal Choudhury, adding, “they have actually turned entrepreneurs from being mere workers.”

Recipe for success
As part of an exhaustive training schedule, women are first taught about the business of catering food, the target customer and what one wants to achieve. Then, starts the in-house practical training, which includes cooking, hygiene, packaging, talking on the phone and taking orders, maintaining order sheets, buying the ingredients, maintaining stocks and keeping food at the right temperature. In the final stage, women are sent outside to serve food and learn how to handle money transactions.

The training is for 8 to 10 months. Astha Bhojon has five trainers on its rolls at any given time. The trainers usually include engineers, bank officials, economists and software engineers, who bring practical acumen to the entrepreneurship training. In-house training is given for six months and the rest is outside.
Food is their forte

The rented premises in Salt Lake, from where the group is currently operating, becomes a hub of frenetic activity from 6 am, as the women start making preparations for the cooking. The shopping is done by the women themselves and care is taken to choose the freshest ingredients for both vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. By 11.30 am the cooking is completed and vans are loaded and dispatched in time for the lunch hour — 12.30-3.30 pm — for the ITwallahs. The group also has arrangements in place for keeping the food hot on location, be it in the mobile van or cafeteria.

“Our focus is on two things. One is cooking food that is like home food, not oily or rich like restaurant food. The other is to make the customer feel that he or she is being taken care of. Most of the IT workers come from other cities. They miss their families and homes. We try to give them that extra care. It’s this extra bit that we bring to the service that gives our clients a feeling of home away from home,” says Rama Sarkar (45), working with Astha Bhojon.

R Rajiv, a manager at an IT firm, is grateful for the food the affectionate “aunties” dish out for him every afternoon. “I am originally from Kochi. I really missed my mother’s cooking initially. Restaurant food was horrible. The women who run the mobile food van saved me. The food is non-spicy and not at all oily. They also take special orders some times. I feel cared for when I eat from their van,” he says.
Customer satisfaction has brought good financial returns for the women. The order ownership is with the women. The group leaders total the money and after paying the expenses and rent — about Rs 7,500 per month — the entire profit is divided among the women. The women earn between Rs 3,000 to Rs 5,000 a month,” informs Pal Choudhury.

Inspiring example
The success of Astha Bhojon has not gone unnoticed. The state Panchayat and Rural Development Department recently hired the group to conduct a resource generation workshop for 40 rural women from five districts under the Swarnajayanti Gram Swarajgar Yojna (SGSY).

The women were taught matters related to cooking in a hygienic environment, making packaged food, acquiring and dealing with customers.
 The simple idea of utilising the inherent skills of the women — with a little bit of professional polish — has yielded great results.

(Published 29 January 2010, 10:39 IST)

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