Zomato, “Pure Veg Mode”, And The Case Of Its Green Fleet U-Turn
Image Credit: Deepinder Goyal/X

In late July 2019, a Zomato customer shared a tweet complaining how the delivery agent assigned to him by the restaurant aggregator and food delivery app was “a non Hindu”. When they asked Zomato to replace the delivery agent, the company refused and declined to refund the order too. In response to the customer’s tweet, Zomato wrote that “Food doesn’t have a religion. It is a religion.” Zomato co-founder and CEO Deepinder Goyal also responded to the tweet saying the company isn’t “sorry to lose any business that comes in the way of our values” while insisting that Zomato celebrates the diversity of India, its customers and delivery partners. 

Cut to late March 2024, and many people are arguing on social media that Zomato and Deepinder Goyal have done a complete U-turn on their previously reported “values” by now launching a “pure veg mode” along with a “pure veg fleet”. More curiously still, within 11 hours of announcing that Zomato’s “pure veg fleet” of drivers will don green jerseys as opposed to the now-popular red jerseys, Goyal announced that the company is not going to launch this dress code. A day later, Zomato has announced that the entire concept is now no longer to be referred to as "pure veg mode" but a "veg-only mode".

Wondering if you have stepped into a K-drama plot with dramatic twists and turns? It certainly feels like that, and here’s why. 

The Timeline Of Zomato’s Pure Veg Mode 

On March 19, 2024, Deepinder Goyal announced on X, previously known as Twitter, that Zomato is launching its “pure veg mode” based on national-level feedback. “India has the largest percentage of vegetarians in the world, and one of the most important feedback we’ve gotten from them is that they are very particular about how their food is cooked, and how their food is handled,” he said. “To solve for their dietary preferences, we are today, launching a “Pure Veg Mode" along with a “Pure Veg Fleet” on Zomato, for customers who have a 100% vegetarian dietary preference.” 

Goyal then went on to explain that the “pure veg mode” will offer customers a curated list of pure vegetarian restaurants while keeping restaurants with any non-veg menu items completely off the list. A dedicated “pure veg fleet” will handle these pure veg orders exclusively, making sure “that a non-veg meal, or even a veg meal served by a non-veg restaurant will never go inside the green delivery box meant for our Pure Veg Fleet.” 

Initial Response And Swift Turnaround On Fleet Colours 

While the initial response to this announcement was largely positive, many consumers started sharing their concerns about segregating both food carrier bags and delivery partners on the basis of clothing colours. To this, Goyal responded that the fleets must be separated for several reasons. “Because despite everyone's best efforts, sometimes the food spills into the delivery boxes,” he wrote in another post. “In those cases, the smell of the previous order travels to the next order and may lead to the next order smelling of the previous order. For this reason, we had to separate the fleet for veg orders.” 

Addressing concerns flagged by many customers who then became worried about their residential societies not letting in Zomato delivery agents dressed in their regular red colours, Goyal said that his team “will stay alert for any such cases and work with these RWAs to not let this happen. We understand our social responsibility due to this change, and we will not back down from solving it when the need arises. And I promise, that if we see any significant negative social repercussions of this change, we will roll it back in a heartbeat.” 

Why The Rollback And What It Says About Pure Veg Fleet 

To their credit, the Zomato team did do the rollback, if not in a heartbeat then within a few hours. Early on the morning of March 20, Deepinder Goyal took to X again to give the world an update after a night packed with a flurry of concerns raised by people across India. Just like the announcement of the “pure veg mode”, the announcement for the rollback of the “pure veg fleet” dressed in green also got immediate traction, proving that this bit of food news was on everyone’s mind for all sorts of reasons. 

“While we are going to continue to have a fleet for vegetarians, we have decided to remove the on-ground segregation of this fleet on the ground using the colour green,” Goyal wrote. “All our riders — both our regular fleet, and our fleet for vegetarians, will wear the colour red. This means that the fleet meant for vegetarian orders will not be identifiable on the ground (but will show on the app that your veg orders will be served by the veg only fleet).” 

The reason behind this rollback? Goyal explained in the tweet that it was done for two specific reasons: 

1. So that delivery partners dressed in the iconic red uniforms are “not incorrectly associated with non-veg food, and blocked by any RWAs or societies during any special days”. Goyal said this step was to ensure the physical safety of the company’s riders. 

2. Goyal’s team also realised that many customers who eat non-vegetarian food but live in rented places where landlords do not allow their consumption would also get into trouble when delivery partners dressed in red walk in with food parcels. 

Goyal then went on to thank everyone who had responded to the announcement of the “pure veg fleet” for pointing out “the unintended consequences of this rollout”. Curiously enough, Zomato has now also renamed its "pure veg mode" as "veg-only mode" based on feedback, making the whole incident quite the mismanaged spectacle. Here are a few questions people are now forced to ask regarding this entire episode and Zomato’s curious U-turn. 

Firstly, in a country where it is quite well known that food preferences are taken into account, informally, while leasing or renting out homes, how can a restaurant aggregator with Zomato’s experience level fail to take the negative outfall into account while creating a new business strategy like this? This basic fact should have been a part of pre-announcement discussions at least. 

Secondly, with their stance in 2019 (refer to the first tweet discussed above) indicating that Zomato associates food not with any religion but with the sense of joy it brings to the hungry, Deepinder Goyal’s team won the hearts of foodies. Now, in a move that clearly undermines that stance, would people be wrong to call out the hypocrisy of it all? 

Thirdly, for a company that keeps insisting that the safety and wellbeing of its delivery partners is of foremost importance, how can a strategy like green jerseys for “pure veg” and red jerseys for other foods pass the mark before announcement? Once again, it begs the question about Zomato’s strategists being in touch with the ground realities of urban life in India.  

Finally, what did the roughly 24-hour period between Zomato’s announcement and then the rollback prove? In a nation where food is not only associated with caste and community but also notions of “purity”, is it even possible for a restaurant aggregator and food delivery app to please everybody? The simple answer to this is a whopping NO. Whether driven by market demands or the need to create a new customer base, Deepinder Goyal’s “pure veg fleet” and "pure veg mode" U-turn simply proves that in a country where food preferences change according to region, religion, season, community and caste every few hundred kilometres, every strategy needs to be examined keeping multiple spectrums and viewpoints in mind. 

The best bit, as Goyal himself puts it in another post, is that unlike many, Zomato is quick on the uptake and fast with these essential pivots. “We are always listening, without unnecessary ego, or pride,” he says, and that, ultimately, is all this nation’s foodies truly want, need and deserve.