The Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, is the most important sacred and spiritual site for Sikhs. Every day, more than 50,000 people from all walks of life visit the more-than-400-year-old place of worship in search of peace and prayer. No one leaves hungry.
This is thanks to the fact that the gold-plated temple is also home to the world’s largest free communal kitchen or langar. Every day, villagers come from near and far to donate ingredients, which collectively add up to 6,500kg of flour, 4,000 litres of milk, 1,000kg of sugar and several thousand kilos of vegetables. Each devotee is entitled to one hot vegetarian meal per visit, which is served in the 4,400-capacity communal halls. On weekends, the number of devotees increases to around 350,000, reaching half a million on special occasions.
But it’s not just the scale of the operation or its reliance on donations that makes this langar unique. The temple’s religious teachings expound the virtues of community service, which translates into huge numbers of volunteers working in some of the kitchen’s most important departments: cutting and chopping vegetables, bread-making and the washing and drying of dirty dishes.
Understanding the brief
When Rajat Rialch FCSI, founder and principal consultant of HPG Consulting, and his team were tasked with modernizing the temple’s foodservice operations, they got off to a false start.
“In this profession, we tend to think mechanically,” Rialch says. “The starting point of any project is how to streamline operations: How do we save manpower? How do we save energy?” Initially, the team approached this project like they would any other. Many of their clients are large hotel firms and corporate IT giants such as Marriott, Accor, Hilton, Google, Microsoft and Deloitte. They didn’t take into account the religious or community elements of how the langar has functioned for hundreds of years.
“We planned an efficient operation with a huge reduction of manpower by mechanizing operations and selecting efficient and automated equipment,” Rialch explains. “It was only when we went to present our plan to the religious heads and decision-makers that we came to realize that we had completely removed the most important part of the operations – the seva, or volunteer work – by reducing the human component of the operations. We needed to take a different approach to the project.”
Rialch and his team decided to spend a few days in the temple to observe how the system worked, from the thousands of kilos of ingredients donated every day to the importance of the volunteers, not just functionally but spiritually. “We understood how important community engagement is to the project and were able to understand the objectives of the upgrade much better, which went way beyond reducing manpower,” he recalls.
HPG boiled down their mission to four key objectives: creating a more pleasant environment for volunteers in terms of ambient temperature and places to sit; improving hygiene at every touchpoint; introducing just enough machines to ease the work of the volunteers; and reducing carbon footprint.
In the vegetable processing area, calculations were made around the quantity of vegetables to be processed, the number of volunteers, and their work capacity. This was matched with all-in-one cutting, chopping, washing and drying machines. Seating areas were also added for volunteers, many of whom are elderly women, and equipment was introduced to pick up and move sacks.
HPG took a similar tack in the chapati-making area. On average, devotees eat three or four pieces of bread each. The team worked out how many the volunteers could realistically produce. Chapati-making machines, which can produce 8,000 to 10,000 pieces of bread per hour, were introduced to pick up the slack, and connected to a conveyor belt so they could all be collected in one place. HPG also improved the environment by lowering the manual chapati-making equipment so that volunteers could sit down while working, and removing wood as a heat source in order to lower the temperature.
When it came to washing and drying used dishes, the two big challenges were improving hygiene and reducing food waste without making the volunteers redundant. The solution was to keep the washing manual and introduce a conveyor belt system to take the manually washed cutlery and crockery to a sanitization tank and dryer. Food waste was sent to an organic waste composter.
Energy use and carbon footprint were reduced by switching from a wood-fired system for cooking curries and gravies to a combination of gas and electric with big-ticket steam kettle jackets. As volunteers are not allowed to work in this area due to the risk of accidents, it was also possible to fully automate operations, from the washing of lentils to making gravies, dal and vegetables. In addition, HPG organized the storage facilities for perishable and non-perishable food, created separate storage areas for food and non-food items, and introduced forklifts and electric stackers.
Although the design process was completed around five years ago, implementation has been gradual, due to the unconventional nature of the project. “The tendering process was different as all the equipment was donated, so we had to find the right partners from among the many options and make sure the decision-makers were buying the right equipment,” Rialch says. “In addition, operations could not stop for even a second. We had to install everything and make all changes in parallel to the kitchens feeding thousands of people every day.”
At the time of writing, around 80% of HPG’s upgrades have been implemented; just the dishwashing equipment and a few pieces of cooking equipment are still to come. The most rewarding piece of feedback Rialch has received is that volunteering has drastically increased as the upgrades have been implemented. “Numbers had been slowly dwindling because of the environment volunteers had to work in,” he says. “Now they can sit in a pleasant environment and do their job.” In addition, hygiene standards have risen significantly, food waste has been reduced and pollution from wood-burning has been almost eliminated.
For Rialch, however, the biggest lesson he learned from the project that he plans to take forward into his work in the future is never to forget the human element. “It’s easy to just implement a project and go ahead with making energy and manpower savings, but this project has made me realize the value of a more holistic approach,” he explains.
“Yes, we should always try to reduce energy, but why does manpower always have to be reduced? What will the impact be on unemployment? A single dishwasher installed in a hotel removes the jobs of two or three people. During this project, we had to think about the religious sentiment that was attached to service, but considerations will be different from project to project.
“I come from a small town where everyone gets together for functions to manually prepare and cook food, and this is a form of engagement and participation in society. We don’t want to lose that. We need to be very conscious that what happens in developed nations may not be the right solution everywhere. A huge amount of employment is based on hospitality projects in the developing world.”