June 2020 | 1427 words | 5-minute read
The days when households cooked all meals — breakfast, lunch, dinner and even snacks — from scratch is becoming a thing of yore.
Curiosity to try new cuisines, individualistic food behaviours, hectic lifestyles and time crunch have all acted as a catalyst in more people opting for ready-to-eat (RTE) meals, today.
Traditionally, marketers in India believed that this category was often plagued with a feeling of guilt — the guilt of not cooking meals at home. “Previously, brands launching RTE advertised their products as being close to ‘traditional’ or ‘homecooked’, primarily to assuage the ‘guilt pangs’. Such normative notions no longer exist, especially among millennials who feel neither conflicted nor guilty about making smart choices, even if it means not cooking at home,” says Mr Balark Banerjea, CEO, Tata SmartFoodz, a subsidiary of Tata Industries.
The genesis of RTE meals
The idea of Tata Q came from the Chairman Emeritus, Mr Ratan Tata. In 2009, when he posed the question, “Why can't people have access to tasty and nutritious meals at a reasonable price, tasting as close to the genuine product as possible? Why do people have to be dependent on restaurants for this?”
Although the RTE market in India was tiny then, Mr Tata was able to foresee the trend. Demographic trends and digitisation were gradually paving the way for the nascent RTE market to come into its own in the years ahead. In 2011-12, Tata Industries got involved in the Tata Q project.
“We started with Mr Tata’s original vision of a product and have backed it with the right technology, which is today the key enabler of the product,” says Mr KRS Jamwal, executive director, Tata Industries.
The idea of Tata Q
Based on guidance from the then Chairman Mr Ratan Tata, Tata Industries worked towards launching Tata Q — a ready-to-eat food range. “Mr Tata saw this trend coming, over a decade ago,” says Mr Jamwal, adding, “The rise in nuclear families, urbanisation and increase in the number of women joining the workforce all added up to a premium on time, resulting in the ability and/or willingness to cook diminishing with every passing year. Also, the attitudes of people in the past decade have changed."
"In 2011-12, a majority of the RTE products in the market were retort technology-based products that had limitations in terms of packaging, texture, retention of taste, etc,” explains Mr Jamwal.
“We needed to find a technology which did not compromise on the quality and taste of food. However, the technology for shelf-stable foods (retort technology based) was very limiting, and frozen meals was not the answer because cold chain capabilities for frozen food distribution in India are limited,” says Mr Banerjea.
Finding the right technology
After extensive research, the Tata Industries team zeroed in on a nascent technology that was then being developed by Washington State University in the US. In due course, the technology and the company that owned it were brought under the Tata Industries ambit. The outcome was a shelf-stable product, with a shelf-life of 12 months.
“If we consider the nutritive value of fresh food as 100%, Tata Q’s nutritive value is in the 85–95% range depending on the product, compared with products made with other technologies that have a nutritive value of 30–35%,” states Mr Banerjea.
“Today's consumer is aware and wants to check the ingredients before consumption. Towards this, for any enhancers that we add during manufacturing, we give the codes at the back of the pack so that consumers can look it up. Everything that goes into our packs is naturally occurring because that is the promise of the technology, which can disrupt the industry,” Mr Banerjea says. The next step was researching the target group (TG) for our products.
Targeting millennials and mothers
A consumer study revealed two distinct target groups: One, the millennial consumer who states, ‘I do not have time to cook; when I have to cook, it is a hobby; I cook on weekends and I eat out for the rest of my meals.’ The other was mothers who are willing to try new products.
“The team felt the value proposition would be the highest for 20–25 year olds, ‘young, migrant, working adults’, among others, says Banerjea, adding, “We found a lot of what the millennials do is aspirational for others; based on this insight, we hope people of other age groups also follow suit.”
“We were conscious of the fact that we needed to build in elements of a quasi-quick service restaurant (QSR) because the millennials are used to that kind of experience,” he says.
What's in a name?
The name — Tata Q–Quick Quisine — is used with the target consumer in mind. The company wanted a quirky element to it, which is the ‘Q’. Incidentally, it was the working title that ended up being finalised as the product’s name and logo.
In the packaging of different products, the logo's 'Q' element varies because Tata Q built in the ingredients used in the pack into the brand itself, which is the Q. For example, in the Cheesy pasta pack, the Q looks like cheese.
A full meal solution
Tata Q wins big on the convenience front. Portioned for one person, Tata Q comes in a convenient microwaveable/water bath friendly tray with a spork and serviette. It eliminates consumption hassles like getting plates and cutlery; eating with a spork, frees the other hand for the TV remote or smartphone; finally, no dishes have to be washed!
In June 2017, Tata Q began a pilot test to analyse consumer feedback on the product. “We chose Pune, India, for the pilot because it is a cosmopolitan city, with a lot of millennials. Besides, it enables you to test multiple store formats at the same time in a small geographical cluster,” Mr Banerjea elaborates. “The product ended up exceeding expectations as we were selling three times what we estimated in the pilot and were constantly getting feedback,” he adds.
“We ended up doing the pilot up to February 2018, to ensure that the results were sustainable and went beyond people just trying a new Tata product out of curiosity,” says Mr Jamwal, adding, “We found merit in going directly to the consumer. The packaging and the Tata brand convey a certain expectation — an assurance of quality, hygiene and safety; but we wanted the consumer to try the product with an open mind.”
Spoilt for choice
“Consumer research guided our choice of dishes,” says Mr Banerjea. “We did multiple rounds of consumer dipstick studies, where freshly cooked QSR meals were benchmarked against our recipes. We also worked with leading flavour houses to ensure that our flavour and taste profile are contemporary and in sync with evolving taste trends. We looked at what the millennials would prefer, and pasta emerged a popular choice followed by Chinese cuisine, biryani and Thai curries,” he adds.
"We modified our dishes following some interesting learnings from the pilot. For example, consumers prefer to sprinkle a seasoning mix on their pastas. So, we added a sprinkler sachet to the pack. In terms of texture, pasta cooked beyond al dente was preferred, and, in fact, outsold the biryani two is to one,” says Mr Banerjea.
In July 2018, the company began production at its factory in Tamil Nadu, India, and started seeding products into the market around September 2019. It began with a few Star Bazaar outlets in Bengaluru, Mumbai, Pune and Hyderabad and is even available across e-commerce sites for the digital savvy shopper.
By June 2020, Tata Q aims to have its products in 1500 outlets across seven cities in India, namely Mumbai, New Delhi, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Chennai, Kolkata and Pune. Tata Q is also available in the food court section of certain malls.
“We plan to have an exciting range of food items in three broad categories: classic Indian and international dishes, snacking items and, finally, a range of multi-course breakfast options,” says Banerjea. He adds, “We are looking at a range for breakfast options — continental breakfast, south Indian and north Indian breakfast dishes.”
For a product that was first envisaged in 2009, the Tata Q team believes in taking time but doing it right. Summing it up aptly, Mr Jamwal says, “It is early days yet. Up to now we haven’t got the kind of response that indicates we may need to course correct; in fact the initial consumer response has been heartening. Either we succeed or we course correct as needed until we succeed.”
Photographs by Tejal Pandey