Ashima Sharma loves to hang out at Mannat Dhaba in Murthal village, about 50 km north of Delhi, on National Highway 1. Sharma, who just completed her Btech from a nearby college, can’t get enough of the dhabha’s aloo-pyaz paratha, served with locally made white butter, and masala chai. To add to the allure, Mannat Dhaba sits in the midst of 2.5 acres that has sprawling seating areas, well-kept lawns and a spacious parking zone. Not only is it a favourite hangout zone for students like her, but the 150-seater restaurant has also become a key pit stop for those travelling to or from the cities in the region.
“The national highway connects Delhi with many tourist cities,” says Virender Kadyan, MD of Mannat Group of Hotels. These restaurants also draw other patrons. “We are also seeing a large number of people from Delhi, Gurugram and Sonepat driving down to these dhabas to have a quality time away from the concrete jungles they live in. We serve at least 2,000 people a day and the number could go up to 5,000 on weekends or during summer vacations.” The group — which has eight such outlets and an annual turnover of Rs 35 crore — is on the lookout for more highway locations but has no plans to open restaurants in larger cities.
“This is a non-traditional segment in India and the growth is now being fuelled not only because the restaurants provide amenities for highway commuters, but also because they’re helping the hospitality industry declutter from the metros and service smaller cities and towns,” says Rahul Singh, president of the National Restaurant Association of India. The highway restaurant sector was likely to scale up exceptionally in the coming years, the NRAI said in a report in July. Even during a workweek, people were looking for options away from cities.
Highway restaurants with open spaces and greenery were fast becoming the preferred option, it added. Highway restaurants got a leg up with the government’s move to improve the motorways, making road travel easier and convenient. Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari said in June the government would construct 12,000 km of national highways this financial year, up from 10,800 km in the previous financial year. The National Highways Authority of India’s policy to develop wayside amenities was a windfall. In 2017, the NHAI said it had acquired land at 183 locations along highways to provide amenities such as food courts, toilets and fuel stations. The ministry of road transport and highways wants to develop 1,000 such amenities across the country in two years.
“The old highway restaurant model of basic food doesn’t work anymore,” says Umang Tewari, a coowner of Delhibased restaurant chain Garam Dharam that set up a dhabha in Murthal last year. ¡§We are now planning to open a few more outlets on highways near Palwal, Gurugram and Ghaziabad by the end of this year.”
“There has been a significant growth in highway restaurants along major corridors and expressways across the length and breadth of the country in the past five to six years,” says Anuj Puri, chairman, Anarock Property Consultants. “Following the governments major impetus to building a sound infrastructure, several fast-food chains have been expanding their business along major highways. Simultaneously, popular local restaurant chains are also setting up shop along highways.”
Hardcastle Restaurants, which operates McDonald’s in west and south India, says the group operates 25 highway restaurants and plans to add more. The government’s focus on highways is a driver of this trend, says Sanjay Soni, senior vice president-development, Hardcastle Restaurants. “We are possibly the only organised player with a compelling presence on the highways in the south and west.” McDonald’s has five outlets on the 95 km Mumbai-Pune Expressway, and is adding one more soon.
The highway food service industry in India could be about $10 billion almost 15% of the food services industry in the country, says Rajesh Kumar G, founder of Bengaluru-based startup Highway Delite, which provides a verified and reviewed listing of highway services such as restaurants, dhabas, fuel stations and mechanics. Kumar estimates the growth rate of the sector to be 15%, against the industry average of 9-10%. “More people have cars now and highways have become better and safer. Highway tourism and eating are, therefore, becoming a trend across India.” But there are challenges such as unregistered eateries and restaurants that do not adhere to hygiene and other standards, he adds.
The opportunities along the highways come at a time when the industry has seen a stagnation in growth in budget restaurants in cities such as Bengaluru. “Over 1 lakh people use the highways around Bengaluru during weekends,” says Akashrai Kamat, COO of Kamat Yatrinivas. The group has 17 highway outlets in Karnataka. ¡§People like to get away from the city on short outings and this is adding to our business greatly.”
The country’s 1,31,326 km national highways could well be the new driver of growth for the restaurant business.