Tiffinbites, the City's favourite Indian restaurant chain, nearly doubled its size yesterday with the £4.4m purchase of the Bombay Bicycle Club (BBC), rated by Gordon Ramsay as the best takeaway in London.
Tiffinbites has a significant corporate lunchtime following, thanks to its four outlets and to "Tiffin Wednesdays", when it takes over some of the biggest blue-chips' canteens and dishes up 250,000 meals each week. RBS Group, Morgan Stanley and BT are all part of the scheme.
The BBC purchase will add three restaurants and 15 delivery kitchens. The purchase of Vama Group, concluded last month, also adds a top-end restaurant on London's Kings Road and a corporate catering arm.
But Jamal Hirani, the former Marks & Spencer underwear buyer who founded Tiffinbites in 2003, is not content with tripling the size of the company in just three months, and plans to expand to 50 delivery kitchens across the country in the next 12 months.
"There is an economic climate change and the companies that will survive are those that have a market position that can make economies of scale," he said. "The BBC has a great brand and we see huge mileage in the delivery model."
The past decade has seen major changes in the Indian restaurant sector, with the growing popularity of top-end restaurants, mid-range chains and the Tiffinbites lunchtime crowd. There are opportunities now for a different approach, says Mr Hirani.
"The Indian restaurant market was established by the Bangladeshi community over the last 40 years, but there is a lack of drive now because the second generation don't want to work in the family restaurant, they want to be lawyers and doctors," he said. "Consumers also want consistency and quality and brand, and that is what we can do."
It takes different skills to make the jump from a family concern to a chain, according to Ranjit Mathrani, the chairman of the Masala World group, which includes high-end restaurants as well as five mid-range Masala Zone outlets.
"The restaurant sector specialising in real Indian food is very small compared with the curry house sector, which has been very successful but is more akin to a spicy version of fast food," Mr Mathrani said.
"The reason the curry houses have not built up chains of outlets is because they generally are small, family-run, restaurants and the owners generally do not have the resources to put in professional management, capital, sales and marketing etc, required for casual dining restaurants on a significant scale."
BBC was sold by the AIM-listed Clapham House group, which will use the money to cut its debt and fund future developments at its restaurant-only chains Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Tootsies and The Real Greek. Paul Campbell, the chief executive, said: "Whilst we are sad to see the BBC leave our portfolio, it is predominantly a delivery business with a different pricing point and a longer period for return on capital than our other brands. At the current time, it is appropriate to strengthen our balance sheet and focus resources on our pure restaurant businesses."
The original tiffin-wallahs: Mumbai's answer to FedEx
In today's India where the new and the traditional so often seem to be in conflict, the remarkable tiffin or dabba-wallahs appear comfortably to stand at the junction of the two.
In a city such as Mumbai, for instance, just as they have for more than 100 years an army of tiffin-wallahs still ensures more than 200,000 freshly cooked meals, packed into their special boxes or "tiffins", are delivered to office workers in time for lunch and then their empty tin boxes collected each afternoon.
The often illiterate workers still use a system of coloured threads to tell the tiffin-wallahs what area a particular tiffin is from and to which part of the city it is heading. The boxes are hand-sorted, delivered to railway stations and put on trains heading into the city. At the other end, at Mumbai's bustling Churchgate station, for example, the tiffins are unloaded, passed on to another team of tiffin-wallahs and delivered to the customers in their offices.
The teams, using bicycles, carts and long poles on which the tiffins are strung, are famed for making sure the service goes ahead no matter what. Sometimes a tiffin will be delivered up to 45 miles from where the food inside was prepared. The customer can pay as little as 400 rupees (£5) a month
But the tiffin-wallahs – the name dates from colonial times with "tiffin" meaning "light tea" and "wallah" being a suffix denoting someone who does something – are also incorporating the modern world.
Office workers, who often leave home on their commutes before anyone in the house has started cooking, can now arrange their daily delivery through a text message or email. "There is a service called FedEx that is similar to ours, but they don't deliver lunch," one Mumbai dabba-wallah, Dhondu Kondaji Chowdhury, recently told The New York Times.
The efficiency and skills of the tiffin-wallahs and their system have long been recognised by business experts in India and the West, and some of the senior team members have given lectures on their operation. An article in Forbes business magazine suggested the mistake rate of the tiffin-wallahs was approximately one in 8 million deliveries, while their system has been the subject of studies by the Indian Institutes of Management and Harvard.
The joy of the system is that in one of the most densely populated cities in the world, commuters do not have to carry their lunch with them. Then, come lunchtime, the multi-layered tiffin boxes are delivered to reveal a selection of rice, vegetables, chapattis, yoghurt and fruit. All the customer has to do is eat, wait for the tiffin man to return, and hand him the empty tiffin box.
Andrew Buncombe in Dehli