In a recent conversation, food expert Rinka Banerjee was describing the upswell in two opposing food trends as a consequence of the heightened focus on wellness. One, obviously, is eating healthier. The other is diametrically the opposite – food, drink, snacks and desserts that are purely indulgent.

This got me thinking about how we as a country indulge ourselves. There are examples aplenty in, say, automobiles, or high-end electronics. There are indulgence brands, offline and online, in makeup, skincare, and fragrances. Clothes and fashion, of course, will always be an indulgence mainstay. Which is probably why these are the images and brands we see in glossy magazines.

Interestingly enough, food seldom seems to feature on these lushly photographed, beautifully art-directed, 300 gsm spreads. Restaurants do. As do hotels and resorts. Sure, you’ll find the occasional Häagen-Dazs ad, or a Magnum one. But in a world that can afford indulgence, and obviously enjoys it in several areas, couldn’t this be an interesting ‘white space’?

We indulge our tastebuds when we dine out, or these days, when we order in from a home chef or a specialty restaurant. We try out fancy cuisines when we travel. We splurge on great whiskey and multiple bags of Swiss chocolate at Duty-free Shopping. But in the everyday context, we seem to be forced to choose from the same kind of indulgence our parents had – even if our bar of Cadbury may now be whole hazelnut, or our ice-cream, a Häagen-Dazs Tiramisu.

Internationally, there are many destinations that indulgence lovers can make a beeline for. If you are in London, it’s Fortnum & Mason, and if that doesn’t please, then off you go to the Harrod’s Food Hall. If you are in one of several cities in the USA and want to cook Italian, you drop in at Eataly to get the choicest olive oils and the best herbs and cheeses. And so on. In India, the options are very limited – a few Foodhalls and Nature’s Baskets.

When we travel overseas, we love to savour and bring back icons of indulgence. 18-year single malts, vintage Burgundy wine, mature European cheese, gourmet chocolate from Lindt & Sprüngli, truffle oil, Cuban cigars, delicious biscuits and preserves… When I asked colleagues about indulgent food brands in India, the names that were top-of-mind were mostly restaurants or bakeries, whether international, like Magnolia Bakery in Bangalore, or local like Theobroma in Bombay, or even food outlets in well-known hotels like the Taj. Some Indian brands have brought in indulgence from overseas, like Hindustan Unilever’s Magnum, or imported Cadbury blocks from New Zealand and the UK. One Indian brand that seems to be making headway here is ITC’s Fabelle, a notable exception that underlines the opportunity for an Indian company to create an original indulgent food brand.

Curiously enough, we’re seeing Indian brands occupy the indulgence space quite fearlessly in categories other than food. Forest Essentials and Kama Ayurveda are now well-known brands with loyal audiences. But who will be their equivalent in food?

We spoke to a few founders of new-age brands who are crafting interesting and engaging relationships with consumers seeking indulgence, and here’s what they had to say.

What is indulgence?

 What role does provenance play?

 What is the gap your brand fills?

How do you create brand mystique?

Any tips for other entrepreneurs entering this space?

At Fireside, we’ve been seeing how millennials increasingly decode ‘homegrown’ to mean authentic and desirable and not plain or familiar. Brands are now beginning to build on this insight. From narrating a unique origin story, to blending handpicked ingredients to create authentic flavours, they’ve all enveloped their brands in a premium, memorable experience that centres around the product, but is greater than just food alone, that moves the experience from pleasing only the taste buds to teasing multiple senses. They have a thriving digital ecosystem to target their market, and supply chain innovation to make the delivery of perishables possible. The time is right for consumers to experience made-in-India indulgence.

There are many categories in which indulgence can be a force to reckon with. Brands like Blue Tokai, KC Roasters, and – somewhat unfortunately-named for 2021 – Third Wave, are bringing home the nuances and flavours of single-estate coffee. Tea Trunk, Vahdam, and Infinitea offer authentic, ceremonial grade matcha tea all the way from Japan – in some cases, shade-grown, stone-pounded, and sommelier-approved, and of course the finest of Indian teas. Brewing and drinking these beverages add to the sensory – almost ritualistic – experience.

Herbs and botanicals raise the humble tonic water to a subtly-flavoured indulgence – Svami Tonic is just one example. Condiments, sauces, and spices too, have been elevated from the generic to the exotic: Sprig encourages you to choose between habanero and jalapeno and bhut jolokia for your hot sauce; Gourmaison offers a bewildering array of gourmet cheese blends created from imported cheeses – choose from Japanese, Mediterranean, or Italian, or pick an ingredient like truffles, pistachios, or even chillies; Urban Platter gives you a wide selection of Korean pastes, Japanese batters, and Italian antipasti.

Home bakers, artisanal bakeries, organic stores, and micro-bakeries serve up bread that is anything but humble. Handmade, delicately-flavoured, tastefully textured – these breads aren’t just making baguettes and sourdough mainstream, they are also introducing making the mundane loaf of white bread, new and exotic. In some cases, like The Bombay Chef, literally 🙂

Today’s gourmet stores are also offering up Italian sausages, hams, and cold cuts – that allow you to recreate an authentic deli sandwich at home. After all, the word ‘delicatessen’ comes from the Latin delicatus, meaning ‘pleasing.’

Indulgent experiences stem from a combination of ingredients and products that come together to engage multiple senses and from narratives of terroir and artisanship. We’re curious to see what new combinations today’s entrepreneurs are crafting for millennial and Gen-Z India. We hope to see more brands that build on our Indian heritage to win customer love in India and around the world. To steal a line from Magnum, we think it’s time to “take pleasure seriously.”

Many thanks to the founders and co-founders of Bombay Sweet Shop (Hunger Inc.), Carra (Whitespan Living), Didier & Frank (Snowlan Epicure), Le15 Patisserie, Näo Spirits, NOTO, Pascati Chocolate, and Terai (Gigglewater Beverage Concepts) for sharing their thoughts with us.

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