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Strategic lessons from the humble roadside chaatwaala

We often view 'strategy' as a very complex term, and associate this very word with suited gentlemen carrying Mac books. However, strategy isn't a monopoly of the degree-holders alone, and at times, the best lessons on strategy come from the people who don't make the headlines everyday. The humble roadside chaatwalla has lessons for India Inc to emulate!  

'Strategies' are some phenomena revered by geeks, venerated by the business tycoons and a subject of sumptuous scrutiny for the academicians. No board meeting ever gets completed without reiterating the said buzz-word. However, the beauty of the Indian business ecosystem is that it cannot be subjected to a single rigid template. Over the years, organisations working with different ideologies have reached the summit of success. Laying a straight-jacketed formula for achieving success is akin to over-generalising the subjective tricks-of-trade.

The romance in the Indian business scenario lies in the vastness of its offerings. Indians are the best exponents of managing chaos. To put it simply, navigating through the din is our second nature. Our cobbled-up contextual shoe-string patch-work fixes (which we fondly call 'jugaad') reflect the creative innovation we are capable of achieving. At this juncture, the term 'strategy' cannot be monopolised only by suited gentlemen who occupy cabins. If the ultimate aim of strategy is to enable success, we have to look beyond board rooms.

At times, the everyday men, found on the quirky buzzing streets of India, teach you lessons which no course in the best B-schools can possibly can. Armed with frightening simplicity and an irrevocable sense of purpose, these small businessmen of India Unincorporated hit the streets and let their businesses do all the talking. If we analyse their traits of doing business, lessons arise in absolute abundance, which India Inc. can jot down in their fancy gizmos.

A common sight on almost every Indian street is the humble chaatwalla, rolling out a lip-smacking concoction of chaat. He often has boiled pulses, puffed rice, spices, some vegetables, fried thin strands of gram flour ('sev', for the unaware), coriander sauce ('chutney'), two variants of tangy water prepared from tamarind and mint leaves in his armoury. However, under the veil of the street-food vendor lies an astute strategist. The bigger corporations can take a leaf or two out of the chaatwaala's book and can incorporate the learnings very handily. The erudition of the chaatwalla extends beyond the plates of chaat.

1. Ensure that all your resources are well organised - Ergonomics at its optimum best

The chaatwalla exactly knows the methodological order and sequence of the things he will require to prepare the dish. The chutney bowls will be physically placed in the exact order in which these will be poured on the dishes. Sev, more often than not, is the last item to be sprinkled on most of the dishes, will be placed in such a way that the free movement of the hand is not hindered. Sev will be kept in a container with a wider opening - so that the busy hand can make its way in easily - but not so wide to be rendered less crispy by the air. (Remember, sev loses its crisp if exposed to bare air for long). If you ever undertake a time-and-motion study of the chaatwaala's processes, you will find close to nil wastage! After a certain point in time, the muscle-memory of the chaatwalla is his most prized asset.

The lesson: Knowing the peculiar characteristics of your resources is of paramount importance. The physical arrangement of resources, though seems to be a trivial factor, can be the difference between good and bad execution. Standard Operating Procedures aren't a standard anymore - it is an inhibition if it is not updated from experience. The sequence of allotting resources has to be a deliberate effort - so that the execution is just a formality.

2. Someone's waste can be the very substratum of your business

The chaatwalla serves his delicacies on used newspapers - mostly procured from vendors who collect used newspapers from households. The negotiated price of the newspapers is many times cheaper than paper-plates; the former is also easier for him to dispose off. Moreover, newspapers have an added capability of being rolled up to hold 'bhel' and are more comfortable for the customers-on-the-go. Besides, given the fact that he has limited place, newspapers occupy lesser space than paper-plates.

The lesson: Know exactly the most favourable attributes you would like your resources to have. When you are on the lookout for these, don't strike off the commodities which are typically perceived as waste by others - for these may be the exact things your business requires. Be broad-minded and nimble-footed when you venture out for procurement.

3. Being well located is the checkbox of demand generation ticked

Typically, chaatwallas locate themselves in areas frequented by a plethora of people. Residential complexes, corporate centers, vicinity of railway stations, bus depots, crowded markets are their typical workplaces. Perhaps, they take Say's law too seriously - Supply creates its own demand!

The lesson: Advantages derived from physical positioning are second to none. When the place of business itself attracts eyeballs, it doubles up as an advertising mechanism as well. There's no bigger bonus to an organisation than being surrounded by customers. Knowing the location of your customers is as necessary as understanding their psyche.

4. Customisation is the soul of customer delight

The chaat stall is the most suitable fragment of land on Planet Earth to understand why customisation is the top-most checkbox to be clicked in the quest for customer delight. No two persons like their chaat served in the same concoction of spiciness and sweetness. Under no scenario can the chaatwalla dare to decline to honour his customer's request. While serving paani-puri, the chaatwalla, at times, registers the reactions of his customers even from their non-verbal cues and the colour of their eyes (the perfect yardstick to gauge how spicy the customer regarded the last puri). The mixture of the next puri will then be amended accordingly. This happens irrespective of the number of customers he simultaneously serves.

The lesson: The invincible one-size-fits-all approach is one for the history books. Customers' choices, expectations, and delight-points are the factors to be closely considered before the product is rolled out. If you don't act as per the customer's exact requirements, the competitors will become the happiest species alive. It's not necessary that the customer's feedback will always be through his words. Be smart enough to read between the lines.

5. Multitasking is the other name for survival

If you are miserable at multi-tasking, it's time to have some roadside chaat for inspiration! Handling four to five ‘clients’ in a single instant, immersing the ubiquitous crispy puri in the earthen pot filled with tangy water, keeping the count of puris served and remaining to be served to the hungry humans with a bowl in their hand, remembering the ‘spice quotient’ entreaties of customers in subconscious mind, ensuring the precise mix of spicy water and tamarind water, serving multiple dishes at one-go, collecting cash from the satisfied lot without losing a track of the aforementioned things – chaatwaalas have inbuilt processors to execute all these tasks with relative ease. Six-Sigma experts might have new case studies to base their insights upon!

The lesson: The number of tasks in your hand must not determine how effective you are in executing them. Clarity is the most important condiment to counter clutter. Having multiple customers to serve simultaneously should be a source of happiness rather than being a spot of bother.

6. Different packaging helps to cater to customers with different needs

Chaat is now available in the parcel variant with an assurance that it will not spill-over. The consequence - it becomes a handy deliverable food. The local chaatwallas have explored a new segment - corporate offices. Some even provide free doorstep delivery, thereby enabling business in the otherwise lazy afternoons, where the number of 'live' customers isn't encouraging enough.

The lesson: When the same product is packaged differently, it begins to develop an independent market of its own. Businesses exist to fulfill a need, and as a direct extension to this fact, businesses must initiate their proceedings by finding out what do the customers exactly require. A small tweak here and there can do wonders.

7. Inventory Management - Managing rush hours without an iota of lost serving time

You'll never see a chaatwalla chopping cucumbers, onions and tomatoes in front of you, especially in rush hours. The reason - time spent chopping is time lost serving. He has a perfect idea of the expected demand; all preparations are done backstage beforehand. When the customers come, he doesn't want to make them wait unnecessarily. Can there be a better way of managing and showcasing preparedness of 'raw' materials? (no pun intended)

The lesson: Anticipate demand as far as you can, and ensure that the raw materials are in their immediate actionable form. Making customers wait is akin to giving them the mental space of thinking about approaching your competitors.

8. The same inputs can produce a multitude of outputs

A small number of ingredients can produce a wide array of dishes by just changing their composition, quantum and presentation style. The same ingredients can cater to a wide range of people having diverse food-buds. All said and done, the art and creativity of the chaatwalla becomes the most important ingredient.

The lesson - The range of your inputs must not dictate the limits to the range of your output. Creativity is the most important input which can act as a catalyst to catapult your product catalogue. And who knows, your eureka moment may just be around the corner!

9. With great team comes great execution

Chaatwallas aren't always one-man army. Some chaatwallas operate in a team of 3 to 5 people. One of them handles cash receipts, undertakes and communicates the order, refills the ingredients while the others prepare the dishes like well- rehearsed orchestra artists. At times, the chaat is prepared through an assembly- line execution model, while at times, the departmentalisation is done based on the type of dishes. Their actions speak louder than words, quite literally. The concept of idle time is too pricey for them to afford.

The lesson: A team is greater than the sum of its individuals. Know your team-mates so well that you get the message just by looking at them. This plays a pivotal role especially in client-facing situations, when you don't have any room for error since the client is just at an arm's length from you. Even if a team-mate makes a mistake, the other should be ready to lend a helping hand to ensure that the requisite performance is delivered. When the team works in harmony, idle time is minimised and the burden is shared equally. Everyone must know their roles well and yet be prepared to deliver beyond what the job description reads.

10. Never underestimate the power of sukha-puri

Chaat is incomplete if unaccompanied by freebies - the ubiquitous sukha-puri or the kurmura. It is an unpaid delight - perhaps something more than an after mint. It is like a 'thank-you-for-coming' gift from the chaatwaala. It just renders the customer with a happy frame of mind and leaves him with a joyous afterthought.

The lesson: Always be prepared to deliver more than what you are paid for. Your duty towards your customer must extend beyond the agreed scope of work. Everyone loves something extra, and your customers are no exception. When your customer leaves your premise with satisfaction, he is sure to come back the next time. Ensure that your customer knows that you value him more than the monetary value he transfers to your account!

11. Above all, serve with a smile!


It is easier to find a four-leaf clove than to spot a disgruntled chaatwaala. You'll never see a stressed chaatwaala, for you can't satiate people's hunger if you roam around with a mental baggage. Smile is every chaatwaala's middle name. It keeps his business going and his spirit free-flowing!

The lesson: You can't make your customers happy unless you are happy. Happiness is no longer a personal attribute alone - it is a professional attribute as well. We spend more than five-seventh of our lives working. Why shouldn't we strive to make it a joyous passage of time? Joy is contagious - make sure your customers are infected by your energy and glee!

The biggest lessons, more-often-than-not, come from relatively simpler people and from subtle occasions. In our effort to 'jargonise' simple concepts, we often lose the essence and then think of ways to cut down complexity. Doing effective business is no rocket-science; all we need is the ability to culminate and execute simple strategies, a working brain and some portions of large-heartedness!

Hence, once-a-while, block some time for meeting the humble astute strategist - a plate of chaat with a proper chat is good for both the soul and your business! 

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Urvish Paresh Mehta is an Arijit Singh devotee, life’s very own disciple, a perennial seeker of humour, a notoriously spiritual mortal, a treasurer of memories, an enthusiast for metaphors, a religious cricket fan, a keen admirer of the intricacies of the human mind with a penchant for pen, and amongst other things, a Chartered Accountant. He also dons the hat of a co-founder of CAndid, (http://www.can-did.net), which is India’s first-of-its-kind platform exploring the non-technical facets of Chartered Accountants. He blogs at urvishmehta.tumblr.com and can be reached at urvishpmehta@gmail.com. He currently works in the Business Advisory vertical of KNAV & Co, where he meets entrepreneurs having business challenges every single day.