At the peak of the August 2019 lockdown, when office-goers faced starvation owing to the closure of the eateries in Srinagar, a young couple decided to deliver affordable home-cooked lunches, reports Aaqib Hyder
In late October 2019, Rayees Ahmad Dar, 29, a Rajbagh (Srinagar) resident, woke up to the frantic calls of his cinematographer friend who had returned from a shoot at Tangmarg. He wanted something for dinner because Kashmir, already in the third month of lockdown, had all the eateries shut.
“I got up quickly and prepared tiffin for him with whatever I could find in the kitchen that time,” Rayees said. “I delivered the tiffin at his office and returned home.”
The following day while collecting the tiffin box, Rayees got an idea which would ultimately bring a huge change in his career path in coming months. An advertising professional for 15 years, he thought of starting a tiffin service in Kashmir, primarily for office goers.
“I had no clue about how to materialize the idea but I knew in my heart that this is what I wanted to do,” Rayees recalled. He discussed the idea with his family and friends who gave him their responses. A business was evolving out 0f a crises dictated by reading down of Article 370. Mere thinking about a new business at a time when established businesses were closing down sounded crazy to his friends but Rayees saw a future in it.
“Starting a new business at that time seemed like a crazy idea to many but he was fully dedicated and determined about his idea” his fiancé and co-founder of Tiffin Aaw, Nida Rehman said. They married in 2020 summer.
Rayees started working from a very young age and as a result, wasn’t able to complete his graduation. He has been eating junk food at lunch for years because there was no other option available around his office. He gave up this routine only in 2015 when one of his friends suddenly died of a brain haemorrhage.
“Doctors termed his bad eating habits as one of the causes of death. By starting a homemade tiffin service, I want to provide an option to office goers which we didn’t have at my time,” Rayees said.
Rehman suggested Tiffin Aaw (Tiffin is here) because it was quite catchy and in the native language, making it understandable to everyone. Its logo is a symbol with several red and green horizontal stripes inside with a small handle at the top. The green stripes denote the vegetarian dishes, red ones symbolize a non-vegetarian part of the menu and the handle makes the whole thing look like a tiffin.
Amid internet ban, Rayees got his Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) license after a friend applied for it from outside Kashmir. He also booked a web domain for his website which took a long time to become functional due to the internet ban. Then he bought a Tata Nano car for delivering the tiffins. Rayees hired a local chef who does all the cooking for Tiffin Aaw but Rayees’ mother supervises the whole process ensuring hygiene and addition of spices in appropriate proportions.
“My mother and I personally ensure no addition of artificial colours and preservatives in the food,” Rayees said. “Moreover, the menu keeps on changing every other day making it impossible to use the leftovers again”. The emphasis continues on food that is clean, fresh and homemade.
“No matter how good a food item is at a restaurant, it can never give you a feeling of home,” Rayees said. “That is why I tried to keep my menu as traditional, healthy and simple as possible”.
Tiffin Aaw started operating from Rayees’s home at Rajbagh in February 2020 with ‘Serving homemade fresh and healthy food’ as its tagline. On the very first day, Rayees delivered 21 orders at a J&K Bank call centre in the neighbourhood. In absence of proper internet services, Rayees was forced to advertise by distributing brochures in city offices and public places.
“In today’s digital age, I had to advertise and put my name out there through old obsolete ways,” he said. “I am sure the response to my business would have been much better if the internet was working properly”.
Initially, owing to the ban on high-speed internet, he uploads short food preparation videos of only a few seconds on social media sites.
A lot of people have appreciated Tiffin Aaw either through phone calls or online messages. Despite the ban on social media, its Facebook page crossed a thousand likes within a week. Now it is about to reach 7000, mostly office goers. Some people who have consumed its preparations have willingly recorded videos in support f the initiative. Last week, when the snow jammed Srinagar, Rayees hired a 4-wheel drive to deliver his tiffins and recorded his day. It was hugely appreciated by the people.
= Costing is crucial in such a business. Rayees said he knew it has to be affordable. “If a person is a monthly subscriber, we charge Rs 85 but if we have an instant order to deliver, the veg meal would cost Rs 100 and a non-0veg for Rs 150,” Rayees said. “We had to close down for a few months because of Covid-19 till the government trained us. Initially, we would serve in tiffins but then I changed the system. I purchased sugarcane bowls which are bio-degradable and hugely clean. It is part of the cost.”
Rayees gets orders for food from students living in hostels and rented accommodations to doctors of major hospitals in Srinagar.
Although initially, Tiffin Aaw was catering to areas close around Lal Chowk, Rayees said he now takes care of almost 80 per cent of the city.
In less than a year, Rayees said his initiative is growing: from an average of 20 meals a day, he delivers 100 a day now – sometimes even 200. Now he has eight employees, three bikes and a car. Now his wife is planning to join him formally.
“I have a dream to make Tiffin Aaw available 24/7 for people across Kashmir,” Rayees said. “By the grace of Almighty, I dream of catering to every district of Kashmir in future”.