Vinod Mathew

Mumbai, Feb 15

DOES having a fast food counter and other related sorties at a petrol pump help the volume of fuel sold go up a notch or two... or, is it a case of the food shop getting more customers than it would otherwise? Surely, it must a case for the cash counter of the food joint ringing more vigorously, being located at a hub where the tired traveller makes a halt.

Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL) has borrowed a leaf from the success story of motels as scripted mostly by the Gujarati Patels in the US. It has started over 100 company-owned fast food joints along various stretches of the 5,846-km Golden Quadrilateral and north-south/east-west corridor, where it has over 1,000 pumps up and running.

That Reliance has taken up the hospitality side of petroleum retailing business in right earnest can be gauged from the fact that it has signed up a technical services agreement with US-based Flying J, a highway hospitality service provider to the transportation sector.

The plan is to set up such outlets every 100-300 km or after four-five hour drive to coincide with the inevitable `break-journey'.

Reliance is said to be pushing this model of value-added retailing in a bid to corner what it believes will be the next sector after railway and air travel to hit the growth trajectory - road travel. According to a source, the company is betting big that this segment will play catch-up with the US expressways and the German autobahns, given the increasing focus on road infrastructure in the country.

"Petroleum retailing is a low margin business and you need to steadily build up volumes. Reliance pumps are already doing four times more business than the public sector pumps. The product throughput variation can only go up with the extra facilities that we offer such as food court and change room. Importantly, more Indians are hitting the road," he said.

It is not that such eateries do not exist in the near vicinity of petrol pumps across the country, but there is no guarantee on the quality of food served at these dhabas. Reliance has put a foot forward in this space by owning up responsibility for this service.

The A1 Plazas serve parotta-aloo mutter or idli-dosa-sambar to the hungry highway traveller, depending on his choice, the stress being on hygienic homely food at a fair price. A `thali' at these counters comes at Rs 24 and a `chai' at Rs 3 and the truck drivers already have stiff competition from regular highway travellers, both of the bus and car variety.

Given the penchant of the Indian to have a wash before sitting down before the `thali', the A1 Plazas are also offering a quick bath at Rs 5 and a more posh one at Rs 15.

Service centres

: Even as Reliance has gone about ensuring the creature comforts of the highway traveller, it has not forgotten the more functional aspect of motoring along the roads. To ensure easy access to reliable repairs, Reliance has set up over 120 automobile service centres (R-Care) to go with the A1 Plazas.

And the next big shout from Reliance on this front would be called `Refresh', up-market eating joints inside select petrol retail premises, to cater the moneyed highway traveller. A start has been made on the Ahmedabad-Vadodara Highway and it would be a matter of time before more such outlets open shop. Clearly, retail business for Reliance, has already started.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated February 16, 2006)
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