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Chefs, restaurateurs, caterers, food specialists, food growers—everybody in the F&B industry is prepared for a six- to 12-month-long hiatus from their conventional jobs, thanks to COVID-19. But does that mean that we, the consumers, will simply have to wait it out? Not really. By Rashima Nagpal & Sushmita Srivastav (Illustrations by Meghna Patwal)

You must wonder how dining out has suddenly become a distant dream. It’s true. But you must know that in the meantime, the food gods are cooking up something new and interesting. Before we delve right into what the new norms of dining out might look like post COVID-19, let’s take a moment to nicely say goodbye to the not-so-old days of pure revelry. To impromptu lunch dates, to big fat family dinners, and partying until the wee hours… Times have changed, not for good but certainly for a good while. And the only thing that makes sense, for now, is Darwin’s theory. That, and the foresight that we’ve gathered from industry experts from across India!

Restaurant Experiences Will Come To Your Home

new norms of dining out

Zorawar Kalra, the man behind Massive Restaurants—the company that parents brands like Farzi Cafe, Pa Pa Ya, and Masala Library—has put all his outlet expansion plans on hold. But he’s certainly not ruling out the possibility of expanding guest experiences. “There will be a segue in our company towards deliveries and cloud kitchens. A lot of delivery-related and delivery-only brands will be created in the near future. There’ll also be a dine-at-home format that we’ll introduce. All our brands are considered experiential; we’ll try recreating the same experiences for guests at homes.”

“Our strategy going forward would be to take the product to our guests rather than expecting our guests to come to us. We have forged tie-ups with online groceries and milk delivery companies such as Suprdaily and BigBasket to allow guests to pre-order and subscribe to our range of breads, tea-cakes, cookies, and daily snacking items from the comfort of their homes. We are also trying to make our products available in large housing complexes through tie-ups with dedicated grocery stores that serve at those complexes,” shares Kainaz Messman, the Founder of Theobroma, a brand that’s earning brownie points for its delivery/takeaway services since the beginning of the lockdown.

Catering businesses, such as Chef Chinu Vaze’s Gaia Gourmet, would also modify their approach and focus more on pop-ups at home. Unlike pre-COVID times of catering for brand events, weddings, and celebrity parties, Vaze is now considering a home-delivery model that could pay the bills for her Versova-based kitchen and the 15 cooks who run it. “I think we’ll start by the end of this month, as soon as the staff is able to access the kitchen again. We have a menu ready, with less gourmet stuff and more things that people want to eat every day.” Other than cooked meals, she also thinks there’ll be takers for “ready-to-cook baskets.”

Hotels are upping their game too. George Kuruvilla, General Manager, Radisson Blu Atria Bengaluru tells us, “Radisson Food Delivery Company will deliver food and drink products to homes and offices. Apart from the exclusive drive-in and takeaway points, curated dining experiences in open-air zones of the hotel, contactless in-room dining, and institutional catering are some of our robust plans going forward.” As trends evolve, hotel F&B departments will need to be more adaptable and agile than ever before to adjust as the situation evolves, thinks Seema Roy, area managing director for South Asia, Middle East & Africa at Preferred Hotels & Resorts. “Re-designing or re-laying of restaurants will become important to provide comfort to the consumers, more PDR (Private Dining Room) options will be considered,” adds Roy.

Bars Go Online And Dream Of Cocktail Deliveries

new norms of dining out

Some of the states in the country—West Bengal, Punjab, and Chhattisgarh—have officially allowed the delivery of liquor. More might follow the lead. Globally, in places like New York and Washington, cocktail takeaways have become a thing! Minakshi Singh, Co-Owner at Sidecar, and Cocktails and Dreams Speakeasy, wonders if that could be a possibility in Delhi too. Till then, Singh says, “We’ve started conducting cocktail workshops through social media. And it has been really nice that people are readily signing up and paying a thousand bucks even though there’s no real product that we’re offering.” One of the country’s most well-known mixologists, and also the co-owner at Cocktails and Dreams Speakeasy, Yangdup Lama, shares, “It’s important to stay connected with our guests during this period. For instance, two of our regulars in Gurgaon, who are now in their respective hometowns in Varanasi and Panchkula, are constantly in touch with us through our activities on Instagram and Facebook.”

More Street Food Will Make Its Way To Restaurants

new norms of dining out

“Street food will take a huge hit as quality and hygiene will be a key tickmark for consumers. This also means that there will be an opportunity for street food to come [more] into mainstream dining concepts,” says Tarun Sibal, chef/restaurateur at multiple restaurants such as Café Staywoke in Gurugram, Street Storyss in Bangalore, and the recently launched Titlie, Goa. “In today’s world, our next conversation is our last meal… if we are able to survive the onslaught, we will re-surge stronger within a year.”

The Food On Your Table Will Be More Fresh And Seasonal

With limited movement possible, in the beginning, and also with the limitations on imported goods, we are all the more dependent on our local vendors and producers for food. Eesha Sukhi, the Director at The BlueBop Cafe, Mumbai, is particularly happy for the local vendors. “The potential of our farmers will be brought into notice and local sourcing will be in a lot more demand, which will eventually add to the national economy. So, there is a silver lining to it.” Chef Vaze too, who otherwise works with a lot of imported gourmet ingredients, takes the challenge of working around local produce sportingly. “We could build a community of local vendors like this,” she says.

Health And Hygiene Will Take Centre-Stage

new norms of dining out

“Cleaning should not be a behind-the-scenes affair!” advises Simon Rastrick, Food & Beverage Specialist. “I urge all large operators to employee a full-time Hygiene Manager to oversee all aspects of hygiene and safety within a venue. It will build confidence.” In newer restaurants, Rastrick also thinks, open kitchen designs will become more popular.

Rakshay Dhariwal, Managing Director, Pass Code Hospitality has another interesting approach. “At PCO, instead of offering water, we will start with an immunity shot!” he says.

Chef Michael Swamy, who dons many hats and is best known as a food media stylist believes, “We must start re-training our staff completely, optimising proper hygiene procedures and standards. The labour section will also have to be educated and will have to adapt to the new rules. The implementation of the rules is paramount in the near future.”

“Six months post lockdown would be the time to stabilise our existing operations and simply make them robust on hygiene,” Vishal Anand of Moonshine Food Ventures shares his basic strategy.

Amit Wadhera, the Executive Chef at THE Park New Delhi, believes taking up proper sanitary measures is not only crucial to winning back the customers’ trust but also to ensure the well-being of the restaurant family. “We are in a business where people serve people. People are our assets and can never ever be ignored. The work conditions and workplace have to be well compliant, both for our employees and for our customers,” says Wadhera.

All Hail Technology

“There’ll be a lot of online or technological incorporations, whether it is through aggregators or our own loyalty programme,” informs Kalra. Vaibhav Bhargava, Consultant Chef and Head Chef at Mic Drop feels technology could really come in handy now. “Contact-less dining demands a no-touch approach and apps that can make it happen. Right from the menus, to placing orders, to repeating your drinks or portions, and to making payments—everything is done online. This could change the game of how restaurants used to process,” says Bhargava.

On The Other Side Of The Counter

new norms of dining out

The business of food is a business that fills hearts and pockets alike. Which is why it’s also important to understand what the people who have been devoted to satiate your taste buds are going through.

Chef and Owner at Fig & Maple and Ivy & Bean, Radhika Khandelwal believes there are bigger worries to ponder upon. “There’s an obvious dip in demand because of which it’s hard to even estimate what kind of supplies we need. Then comes a shortage of ingredients, increased prices (causing our food prices to go as high as 40 per cent), and expenses like rent and other overhead costs. Also, our industry is heavily reliant on interconnected networks, so we’re witnessing a domino effect of the shutdown that’s impacting restaurants, bars, vendor networks, and obviously restaurant staff and workers.”

“The restaurant industry is the second largest employer in India, after agriculture. It employs nearly 73 lakh people, and that’s just in the organised sector. It contributes to two per cent of India’s GDP. There’d also be some key policy changes required, such as the rate reduction of the input tax credit for GST, for the restaurant industry,” Kalra explains. “The personal strategy will revolve around a lot of cost control. The P&L statement will need to be able to control it. A lot of ancillary costs apart from that ones that affect the guests (food costs), and third-party costs that keep a restaurant running will have to be reduced.”

A single origin spice company such as DiasporaCo, that sources high-quality spices directly from farmers in India to sell them to the consumer in the USA in less than six weeks, is particularly going through a rough patch. “Our turmeric is waiting in the fields, our chillies are waiting in the cold storage, our peppercorns are literally at the port waiting for one signature in order to get onto a ship. The toughest part has been the total freeze of our supply chain. And the thing about being a single origin spice company so dedicated to investing in your farms is that you truly cannot just find another turmeric farmer, or purchase from elsewhere,” shares founder Sana Javeri Kadri. On the brighter side, Kadri shares, “The farmers are doing so much better than folks in the city in terms of daily life—our farmers grow multiple crops, they all have vegetable patches, they are self-sufficient on their farms and can go into the fields every day regardless of the lockdown. They have a luxury of space—quarantine on 10 acres is quite different than quarantine in a 500 sq. ft. space.”

Chef Suvir Saran, chef-owner at The House of Celeste, emphasises on the importance of humanity and feels. “As industry leaders, we can’t be thinking about us individually. It’s the question of survival of us all. We must all come together and ask for stimulus packages from the government—not to fill the pockets and coffers of the brands and owners but to make the inflow of money trickle all the way down to the people who need it the most. It’s very important to provide them with work, money, and dignity to keep going in these tough times,” says the Michelin-star chef.

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