Pakistanis are eating out more often than ever before and for a wider range of occasions. This fundamental shift, driven by demographic and consumer trends, has led to considerable market growth in the restaurant sector in recent years.
Gone are the days when hours would be spent meticulously planning lavish, home-cooked feasts for guests invited to lunch or dinner. The concept of dining out was alien, particularly among the middle-class. In fact, it was considered inappropriate not to offer guests food that was prepared at home. Yet, today, Pakistanis are estimated to be spending in excess of Rs 114.78 billion on eating out annually, a figure which is higher than all other developing countries. This is not surprising given that according to State Bank of Pakistan statistics, Pakistanis are spending almost 40% of their income on readymade food.
To identify the factors fuelling the growth of the dining industry, Aurora spoke to the founders of several restaurants, eateries and cafés. There was unanimous consent on two points. First, the landscape of eateries is now more diversified and dynamic than ever before. Second, the exponential growth of the industry has been triggered by changing population demographics and psychographics, the ubiquitous influence of technology, higher disposable incomes of a growing middle-class and the increasing proportion of Millennials in the workforce.
From a consumer perspective, compared to a decade ago, when dining out was restricted to special occasions, it has now become more of a leisure activity and a reason to socialise – whether it is after school, after work, or as a family. Moreover, with an increasing number of nuclear families in urban centres and more women entering the workforce, there is less time (and inclination) to cook every day.
Adding to these factors, Humaira Sattar, co-Founder, Café Aylanto and Fuschia, says that eating out has become a norm, as it offers people a much-needed avenue of entertainment and de-stressing. She is of the view that since time is precious, eating out has become an enjoyable social experience. Even when it comes to entertaining guests, people prefer to do so at a restaurant to avoid the hassle of cooking at home, getting out the cutlery and cleaning up afterwards. She highlights another significant reason for this change. “People used to live in houses with terraces, verandas and open spaces suited to hosting gatherings. With real estate becoming more expensive and the population boom, more people in urban areas are living in flats that have a limited covered area, where it is almost impossible to invite large groups of friends and family members.”
It is not just the increased frequency of dining out that has contributed to the boom in the industry. An important change has been the broadening of the customer base. Until about a decade ago, it was high net worth, middle-aged and discerning individuals who were the real cash cow for the restaurant industry. Today, restaurants are catering to not only this segment, but to a wider cross-section of society, both in terms of age groups and income levels.
Mohsin Ihsan, co-Founder, Cosmopolitan, points out that urban Pakistani Millennials form an integral part of the restaurants’ customer base. “Young people want a cool and hip place to hang out and experiment with new kinds of food and drink.”
Hussain Tariq, COO, Chatterbox Deli, best explains how the increased diversity of the target audience has resulted in restaurants adding variety to their menus. “Our salads and sandwiches from the on-the-go section are usually bought by working professionals or health-conscious customers; our retail section has products sourced from home businesses, which include aslee ghee or good quality kheer that is difficult to find elsewhere, while our dessert section is exclusively targeted towards high-end customers.”
A pertinent question to ask at this point is if the customers are so different, to what extent does pricing effect business? All founders agreed that since the competition is intense and customers come from different income groups, a large part of the target audience is price-sensitive. Restaurateurs mostly divide customers into two distinct groups. The first comprises brand loyal customers who are the regulars. These people appreciate quality food and ambience, and are willing to pay more if a restaurant meets their expectations. The second group constitutes customers who want value for money and are always on the lookout for more affordable options. The first group is the one that restaurants want to keep satisfied because as Sattar points out, “restaurants cannot survive without brand loyalty.”
Fouzia Siddiqui, Founder, FLOC, goes so far as to say that even with a limited number of loyal customers, an eatery can thrive. She points towards a hospitality research which stated that 75% people who eat at a restaurant more than twice are likely to keep returning. “More than 60% of the people you see at FLOC are our regular customers. It is crucial for restaurants and cafés to focus on continuous innovation and service quality as these are the keys to retaining value-conscious customers.”
Siddiqui also pointed out that since globalisation and the pervasiveness of technology have exposed a larger section of the population to international trends, it is no longer sufficient to provide a fulfilling dine-in experience only. To optimise sales, the dining industry must look at alternative means of connecting with their customers and ensure that food is available where people want to consume it.
THE RISE OF OFF-SITE DINING
If ‘experience’ is important for consumers when making most purchase decisions, including food choices, then ‘convenience’ is a close second. While there is no questioning this generation’s love for hanging out and snacking, a Mintel 2015 research revealed that Millennials are more likely than previous generations to prioritise convenience above all else. Initially, the concept of home delivery of restaurant food in Pakistan was restricted to large fast food chains, most of which were franchises such as McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza Hut. This was primarily because adding delivery services entailed a substantial investment in terms of acquiring a fleet of delivery vehicles as well as riders, which was not always feasible for small scale restaurants that did not receive sufficient delivery orders. However, over the years, an increasing number of fine-dining restaurants and even smaller eateries began offering home delivery services, even though this represented a significant addition to the fixed costs of the business. The reason for this strategic change was the realisation that the demand for quality prepared food stemmed from a growing need for convenience, particularly from Millennials, who are less willing to cook and clean up afterwards. Given that the Millennials represent too large and lucrative a market segment to be ignored, adding delivery services became a necessity. According to industry stakeholders, this is what has led to the home delivery service becoming a standard now, otherwise eateries risk losing out on substantial revenues.
This change in consumer preferences has not gone unnoticed by the restaurant industry. A case in point is the recent launch of Chatterbox Deli. According to Naila Naqvi (who previously established Pie In The Sky, Café Chatterbox and Aztec), Founder & CEO, Chatterbox Deli, “what makes this enterprise different from the previous ones is that we now have a designated, ready-to-eat menu for working professionals with a hectic schedule and who want quality and hassle-free food. There is a separate menu for dine-in customers; the differentiating factor is that people have the option of walking in, choosing from a variety of healthy, ready-to-eat food options, and walking out within minutes.”
A discussion of the rising trend of off-site dining cannot be rounded up without analysing the influence of digital. For a country that did not even have digital regulations until the announcement of the Digital Pakistan Policy in April last year, the rate and extent of digital adoption is impressive. Internet penetration stands at approximately 18% (more than 35 million users); social media penetration at 16% (more than 31 million users); more than 40 million people have smartphones, of whom at least 39 million are using 3G and 4G services; and perhaps most interestingly, at a minimum, 28 million people now access social media from their mobile phones. This increasing usage of smartphones and data packages has paved the way for a new service to enter the market. Instead of calling and waiting for their order to be taken, people can now place their orders on their mobile phones through food delivery apps (see our interview with Nauman Sikander Mirza, CEO, Foodpanda on page 24). This not only increased convenience for consumers, but allowed small or niche restaurants to add another stream of revenue to their business model, at a fraction of the cost that it would have taken to have a self-owned delivery fleet.
The impact of digital is not restricted only to enhancing the consumer’s dining journey and providing supplementary revenues to limited volume players in the market. Digital is also playing a major role in influencing the consumer purchase decision. Sattar points out that people look up a restaurant’s reviews on social media blogs and pages before making a reservation or placing an order and all it takes is for one negative experience shared online to go viral to derail a business. Although there have been instances of biased comments and unwarranted criticism posted on digital, there seems to be consensus among restaurant owners that the trend of sharing dining experiences online keeps them focused on providing consistent quality, day in and day out. From the restaurants’ perspective, digital allows for highly targeted marketing, with customised messages reaching only those who fit the audience profile. As Siddiqui points out, “for specialty start-ups with limited resources, digital marketing is the ideal platform to use. As FLOC is a specialty coffee shop and relatively new in the market, our customer base is very niche and this is why we rely on digital to promote new offerings and increase footfall.”
The impact of technology and digital on the customer dining journey cannot be overestimated – from ordering, scheduling delivery to paying for food with a click or a tap, technology is doing almost everything except creating dishes and putting them into people’s mouths.
THE ROAD AHEAD
Notwithstanding the favourable customer dynamics and the many advantages that technology is providing to the dining industry, there are inherent challenges that new entrants must be aware of in order to succeed. The first is that running a restaurant business is not as glamorous as it might appear to be. The statement that ‘if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself’ is pertinent to the industry. According to Sattar, “most entrepreneurs believe that setting up a restaurant is the difficult part and once they have done so, they can drop in occasionally to see how the business is faring. On the contrary, as a founder you must always be on your toes and keep a close eye on everything. This is what has kept us in the business for so long.” Ayaz Khan, Founder, Okra, seconds this view. “As a restaurant owner, if you don’t understand every aspect of your business, from sourcing ingredients, cooking techniques and the costs and time involved, you will be taken for a ride by the employees.”
Apart from these issues, being able to find trained and skilled staff, and retain them, is the greatest challenge. There is a dearth of culinary schools and hospitality institutions, which is why Pakistan’s dining industry does not even come close to international standards. Almost the entire staff, from the chefs to the waiting staff, are trained on-the-job and have no prior education in the discipline. Khan adds that the lack of motivation and discipline among the restaurant staff is a problem he has not been able to completely solve, despite being in the business for more than 18 years. “Most come and work only for a salary and they do not share my passion to provide excellent food consistently. They have a tendency to slack off, despite the training, if not supervised all the time. The ones that you train end up leaving once they have learned the craft and developed a reputation in the industry.”
Given Pakistan’s long-time affair with food, it may be safe to conclude that the trend of dining out and home deliveries will grow. With new restaurants and eateries opening by the dozen, the only question is whether there is room for new entrants and for existing players to stay profitable. Despite the lack of skilled resources and stringent controls on the quality of produce used, people in the restaurant business believe there is room for new players in this burgeoning market and expansion is on the cards for most of them. Cosmopolitan have recently launched their premium Gelato and sorbets, while Naqvi is planning to set up an Aztec/Chatterbox Deli kiosk at Dolmen Mall and stock products at the convenience stores of Shell and Total. As Ihsan puts it, “the pace of increase in supply does appear to outgrow demand at the moment. However, if you are willing to offer great food and service and are able to create differentiation, there will never be a shortage of customers.”
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