Mystery of the disappearing amti

Tiffin catering services have been hit by the price rise in pulses, finds Neeta Kolhatkar
Have you wondered why your dabba caterer has been getting generous with the runny sambar, rasam and kadhi in your lunch?
Here’s why. Tur dal, which is the favourite of all rice eaters, now costs the earth. Moong is not cheap either. Your caterer cannot reduce the number of items or axe the protein element altogether from your meal. Hence the rasam and sambar, which take up much less dal than the thicker amti. And kadhi is even more convenient because it uses the less-expensive curds.
Using a cheaper brand of dal is ruled out because contract terms issued by companies cannot be bent or changed. (Brands are clearly specified in the contracts.) Inventive catering is then the only way out.
“We cater to over a dozen big companies and provide over 100 tiffins to every company. Over the last three months we have been serving sambar, rasam, and kadhi more often, because the cost of tur has nearly doubled,” said Shivram Shetty, head of Shiv Catering.
Caterers are also cleverly mixing their dals. Moong for instance can easily blend into other dal types. The Maharashtrian cannot altogether miss his varan and amti, so the cook cuts a few corners.
“What can we do? We are mixing tur with moong, and sometimes chana, to add volume. If we make only tur dal, we make it a little more watery. You must understand that the hike in food prices has also pushed up the prices of masalas,” says Vandana Navalkar, chairman of Kutumb Sakhi Sanstha. “Being a trust we cannot make our business profitable, so we cannot even increase the tiffin price either.”

It’s a double whammy for the catering business. On the one hand, they’re battling the high prices of foodgrains and vegetables. On the other, companies are in an austerity mode.
“I have stopped providing tiffins to three companies because when I suggested that they pay more per dabba, they said no. Some have agreed to pay Rs5 more per head. This is not really enough,” says Sudhakar Shetty, head of Sudhakar Caterers.
Shetty has a central kitchen from where he dispatches tiffins to his clients. Where he once made a profit of Rs5 lakh a month, he now just about breaks even.
“I need to pay salaries, pay for raw material. Catering to corporates is no longer a profitable business. They say they cannot get their staff to pay more,” he says.
Facility managers of companies say the quality of food they get from caterers has fallen. Dal is a scarce item and prices have gone up too. “Till 18 months ago, we were paying Rs 45 per head to the caterer. Three months ago he told us he is finding it difficult to manage and he wanted us to increase it to Rs65 per head. Our staff likes the food, so we negotiated it to Rs50 per head,” said Prasanna Porde, facility manager of a studio.

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