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From rigorous hygiene checks, social distancing norms and a focus on simpler dishes, eating out is bound to change in the post-lockdown world, says Saimi Sattar

Hospitality — the very word encapsulates a whole set of emotions, many of which are sensorial. But when a pandemic has been raging, you know emotions have to be kept on hold in favour of practical decisions. And this is especially true for eating out, an essential element of the industry. For patrons, this was an activity to bond over, catch up, celebrate, unwind and more. While dining out has been on hold for more than a month, industry stalwarts are bracing for the time when they can reopen, as restaurants wouldn’t be the same and the business is bound to remain affected for a long time to come. If you take into account the fact, the food service industry’s market size was `4,23,865 crore and employed 7.3 million people in 2018-19 according to the National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI), the enormity of the situation would sink in.

FOOTFALLS DRIVE THE BUSINESS

Restaurant business, by it its nature, thrives on people coming in and a dip in the numbers means that the proposition becomes untenable.  Chef Vicky Ratnani, culinary directory, GIPL who also conceptualises restaurant menus and food concepts says, “The situation is very uncertain at the moment. We will see a decline in the number of people visiting restaurants during the initial months. However, it will gradually increase if we keep following the safety measures and make our customers feel secure and comfortable. Zorawar Kalra, founder, Massive Restaurants agrees.

Celebrity chef, TV show judge and food stylist Ranveer points out, “There would be an initial reduction in the influx of patrons, especially in the bars and night club spaces but house parties are going to get bigger.”

However, Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, popularly known as Chef Saby is not very hopeful about the restaurant landscape even after it is allowed to be operational. While Saby did not eat out often, he did go to coffee shops or bars for a drink. He asks, “Would I go to a bar? First, will it open? If it does, would I have the feeling of safely sitting at a stool and caressing the table where someone sat before me? I would have apprehensions touching either. The whole fun of having a drink is chatting with bartender and if  you stand a metre away, it would be a silly scenario. So, would you want to go?”

 

DISTANT SEATING

Restaurants are usually located in places where the footfalls and, by that reasoning, the rentals are high. So it is not surprising that ever square foot of space is utilised to break even. Ever noticed, how closely packed the tables are in the budget joints in central market spaces are? But now restaurateurs would have to take into account social distancing norms in seating to ensure adequate space between two tables.

Chef Entrepreneur Tarun Sibal says, “It’s a given that a 100-cover restaurant will now be a max of 60 to 70 covers, ensuring, and practicing social distancing guidelines and protocols. Customers will not venture out to crowded places.” Ratnani,  places the figure at half of the existing levels.

 Brar — who often hosts gastronomical experiences with the Doer’s Club, an experiential platform — has a slightly more nuanced take. He says, “Globally, we are looking at 40 per cent of the cover capacity from the current trend, India’s would be at least 50 per cent of the seating capacity. ”

 

WHAT’S ON THE PLATE?

Will our eating habits change post the lockdown? Will there be an emphasis on slow-cooked food, healthy and mindful eating or do we want to grab a meal and exit quickly so as to spend a minimum amount of time inside the restaurant?

Chef Saby says that there was already a major trend towards vegan and vegetarian food. “Covid has shaken people’s faith on non vegetarian. Many feel that it can move to any domesticated animal. So the steaks and grills would take a backseat. The prices are already prohibitive. So, a switch to vegetarian is likely.”

More than the ingredients, Brar feels the methods would be more in focus. “The dishes being cooked and ordered would be simpler, the menus, on the whole, will be smaller and simpler where dishes use lesser ingredients. Also, typically because when you are running a restaurant to half capacity and with lesser staff, you’d look to reduce inventory and overhead costs and definitely reduce wastage.”

Sibal on the other hand is more focussed on the service. He says, “We will see the initiation of contactless dining where various touchpoints like a menu, bill  and more will be eradicated. This will be done digitally. We will also see smaller menus, dishes that are suitable for delivery, automation in the kitchen, less manpower so on so forth.”

 Kalra too focusses on the safety element of food. “There will be fewer chefs working in the kitchen as we aggressively maintain social distancing. This might make us compress the menu slightly but that is the need of the hour is safety. We all took a lot for granted and this current scenario has made us realise a lot and value a lot.”

 

WILL DINING-OUT BE A NORMAL ACTIVITY?

Do you remember the last meal you ate at a restaurant before the shutdown? Or the second last? Well, that is how much we took eating out for granted. It was as normal as breathing. But then, like all other things, there will always be a pre and post pandemic era.

Sibal says, that post Covid, there will be new rules of engagement and there won’t be a single mantra that will work. “Two schools of thoughts are prevailing, one suggesting that the consumer will become extremely conservative and the other suggesting that the disease has given a new meaning to life and people would want to make the most of what they have. As food and eating out gives joy to people and creates memories for a lifetime, I am optimistic that if we survive the onslaught, we will come back stronger within a year.”

 

SAFETY FIRST

Washing hands frequently, sanitising and maintaining hygiene  are some of the actions that have become second nature to us, now in all our interactions. In food, it cannot be overemphasised. Ratnani says, “All the safety guidelines and hygiene protocols will be revisited. The chefs and owners will push their staff for personal hygiene and work practise ensuring that each employee wears masks and gloves. Hand sanitisers will be provided at every table while thermal probes will be installed to check the temperature before people enter a restaurant. Takeaway will probably play a bigger role in the near future.”

Brar agrees and adds, “The hot and cold food temperature logging and recording standards will be revisited as will the personal hygiene of the server and chef.”

Kalra has mapped out a large plan for his restaurants like Farzi Cafe, Masala Library and more. “Our aggressive and dynamic plan for safety include extensive screening of all employees and guests within the restaurants, maintaining all social distancing norms not only of the front team but in the kitchen as well. There will be fewer chefs working in the kitchen. Deep cleaning will take place daily. We are also contemplating putting up live cameras so anyone across the globe can log on to our website to see how we are operating. Sanitisation will be given utmost importance using high-tech instruments for surface cleaning and ultra violet-enabled technology to ensure cleanliness especially during table turnovers. Staff training and awareness has already begun over zoom calls.”

Sibal  says safety protocols would vary depending on the establishment and format but will be stringent. “From guest management, floor control, safe distancing, medical checks of staff, deep cleaning every week, fumigation and sanitisation drills all will come in play,” he says.

 

SEA CHANGE IN CHOICES

 With lesser money in the pocket, high concerns about safety and less inclination to venture out into crowded places, dining will undergo a sea transformation.  Brar feels that the shift would be towards affordable luxury. The industry, now, instead of waiting for people to come to them will now go to their homes. Restaurants will look to cater to more house parties, as also doing more meal kits.” Saby has been brainstorming with others in the industry about the viability of food trucks that serve hot and fresh food by taking the restaurant experience to one area one day and another the next.

Ratnani, who has been the host of a number of popular food shows and has been associated with the Doers Club twice, says, “Customers will most likely rely on takeaway more than dining at the restaurant and avoid travelling for food for the first few months.”

Sibal foresees a spiral in pizza deliveries and in order to attract customers, “Restaurants will boast about hygiene rating and food safety procedures. Coffee shops, casual dining restaurants will be the flag bearer for the resurgence as guests might take more time to be back to luxury restaurants, clubs, and high-end bars. Street food will also take a huge hit, as the humble gol-gappa cart might be a thing of the past, as quality and hygiene will swing it for consumers. This also means that there will be an opportunity for street food to come into mainstream dining concepts.”

Kalra sees a re-jig in the way the business will operate. “New projects will have to be put on hold for some time while every single cost would be controlled. So the ones that are not related to the guests experience will have to be revisited. Most costs will go down except for food which will probably go up because the main concern would be safety and hygiene standards which needs more investment. Packaging will have to be far better and superior. There will be no compromise on the food preparation and delivery aspects.”

 

WILL THE POCKET FEEL THE PINCH?

With more expensive ingredients, investments on safety equipment and disposables as well as reduced covers, the likely outcome is a price spiral. Ratnani believes it will depend on the restaurant if they wish to push prices up or not. Brar thinks that the costs would be brought down and this would reflect in simpler restaurants, simpler decor with smaller menus and courses.

Sibal believes that costs are bound to go up as the same real estate and infrastructure will now be utilised for a lesser number of guests. “Also, the additional cost of technology and safety procedures will add its weight to the cost,” he adds.

Saby on the other hand points out that it will take at least six months to an year for a restaurant to start again. “This is as good as starting new as all the old stocks of groceries would have to be thrown out or donated to food banks, beers drained. This along with having to pay the employers and rents needs something  around `50-60 lakh.”

 

WINDS OF CHANGE IN THE INDUSTRY

Like all businesses, the industry is suffering during the lockdown and stares at uncertainty when it opens up. Ratnani says, “Every single person would have to come forward and work together to revive the industry. Cost-consciousness will be a main factor and unnecessary expenditure would have to be controlled while maintaining consistency in quality. The menu would be short, simple and creative which will be important for customer retention and there could be a huge shift in attention towards home deliveries and takeaways.”

 Brar thinks that the entire industry would surely have to re-jig itself. “There’s going to be real-estate corrections, profitability figures are going to look very different. A large sum would have to be parked away for contingencies, insurances as also for health and safety regulatory compliances. High rentals won’t be viable anymore.”

Sibal feels that the ones that survive will become stronger, leaner and effective. “A cut in the overall salary brackets of the employees is on the cards.”

One thing is for sure, dining will not be there.

Crystal gaze on dining
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