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Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015 | 02:50:09 AM

Unhealthy eating habits at home are being buttressed by an increasing tendency to eat out at fast food joints. A number of factors contribute: among them rising disposable incomes in urban middle-class India, brand pull and plain convenience.

At a McDonald's outlet in Connaught Place, New Delhi, there are loads of people who've sorted their systems out--going there on a regular basis helps. Groups have a division of labour. One member queues to place orders, the rest fan out to keep an eye on the one thing that is in the shortest supply: space to sit. That's expending a lot of time and energy for a meal that's hardly a meal. The cheapest burger costs just Rs 20. But it has a calorie content of around 350 kcal. While fats, carbohydrates and some proteins account for half that, the remaining is a mystery. The spokesperson for McDonald's in Delhi says it consists of "fibres and other elements". Whatever it may contain, the Rs 20 burger can hardly satisfy the hunger of a child, forget an adult.

Nevertheless, Indians are spending close to Rs 4,449 crore a year at fast-food joints. The fast-food market in India is growing at 40 per cent a year. According to a survey by consultants AC Nielsen, an adult, urban Indian is among the top 10 in the world in terms of the number of times he or she has a fast-food meal.

A 2004 report authored by the Confederation of Indian Industry and consultants McKinsey said McDonald's earned Rs 125 crore followed by the Indian chain Nirula's at Rs 100 crore and Pizza Hut at Rs 60 crore. Smaller shops also do good business. Top Breads, a food outlet in NOIDA, Uttar Pradesh, is a favourite hangout for working people. "They eat fried chicken, salads, burgers, cheese macaroni, grilled chicken, sandwiches, or cutlets," says Ginni, the proprietor. Fast food outlets cater to people like copywriter Sourabh Mookherjee who live alone. "I hate fast food. But sometimes nothing else is available," he says. Mookherjee eats out everyday, spending Rs 200-500.

There are many drivers behind the eating out phenomenon, however. Convenience is one of them, entertainment is another. Especially with the growing predominance of nuclear families and working parents. Gargi and Chinmoy Bose of Kolkata dine out with their two little boys--Jojo, 7, and Josh, 5--at least once a week, maybe twice. "Actually, it's not so much about eating as it is about taking Gargi and the children on an outing," says Chinmoy, who's a software engineer in an established it firm.

When eating at home, Gargi tries to ensure her boys have their required calorie intake. She cooks healthy meals of rice, roti , vegetables, daal and fish. But the kids are fussy eaters and would rather have pizza and noodles. However, Gargi is not so much into calorie counting when it comes to herself and Chinmoy eats out often. But he tries to stick to light, less oily dishes.

The explosion in the eating out phenomenon is largely being driven by the popularity of fast food. The number of fast food outlets has grown exponentially in the last few years (see map: All over ). The leaders, McDonald's, opened their first restaurant in October 1996 at Basant Lok, Vasant Vihar, New Delhi. Now they have 105 restaurants in India; 55 of these have opened in the last two years. McDonald's feeds 350,000 customers per day in India out of the 50 million customers it caters to every day internationally. That works out to an astounding 7 per cent. The company's nearest competitor is Pizza Hut, owned by Pepsico's Yum Restaurants International, which opened its first outlet in India in 1996 in Bangalore. In 2001, it had only 29 restaurants, which increased to 127 in 2006. This year, the company recorded a sale of Rs 30 crore, with its market share going up from 15 per cent in 2000 to 28 per cent in 2006, according to media reports. Yum now plans to invest heavily, Rs 100 crore, in its two brands, KFC and Pizza Hut. The number of Pizza Hut outlets is set to increase to 150 with a special focus on smaller cities.

Domino's has an annual expansion expenditure of Rs 6.6 crore in India and plans to add 30 more outlets in 2007 to the existing 105. Papa John's opened its first outlet in Gurgaon last April and plans to set up 100 more in north India. Subway opened its first outlet in Delhi in 2001 and plans to invest over Rs 177.1 crore to increase the number to 200 by 2009, from the present 65 outlets. Two more chains--Starbucks, which is entering the food sector, and Burger King--are entering the market this year.

Coffee chains have also become a craze. There are an estimated 500 cafs in the organised sector. Industry analysts say this could increase to 5,000. The Rs 664.1-crore Ravi Jaipuria group has brought the Costa coffee brand to India. Barista, one of the most popular chains, has over 150 outlets in over 27 cities.

But what's striking is that it's not just the big brands. Smaller, local chains are also prospering. From one shop in 1991 to 108 in Kolkata and its suburbs in 2007, Monginis sells inexpensive cakes, pastries, pizzas and other savoury food. Arnab Basu, Monginis's managing director, says the company had a Rs 53 lakh turnover in its first year. That's grown to Rs 50 crore. Savouries rake in the most, says Basu. "Health-wise we put out more untopped cakes and that is popular," says Basu. "The younger crowd is being exposed to western food. There's a growing desire for non-fattening food. But that's expensive. We give a cheap choice."

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