The world as we know it has changed. And the much-loved act of dining out has been one of the most impacted. While food deliveries and DIY kits have kept the cord from being cut entirely, one does wonder what dining out amidst a pandemic will be like?
Despite patrons waiting with bated breath to revisit their favourite restaurants and the latter ensuring safety measures, there’s no denying that we aren’t returning to how we ate out until three months ago. A new normal is in the works, which means the definition of a meal, coffee, or drink out has been altered indefinitely.
India’s top restaurateurs have been working on building this new experience.“Customers may want to come in for a lesser time, pre-order their food, have it fast and leave. With limited seating, there is going to be no bar nights, no events, corporate bookings, or parties,” says AD Singh, managing director and co-founder, Olive Group, about how the essence of recreational dining will change. “Dining is going to become more of an activity based on necessity—a change from eating at home, being tired of home cooking, or even a long-delayed date—rather than purely social entertainment,” says Randeep Bajaj, partner at Ambrosia Hospitality, who started dine-in operations at TownHall (Khan Market), Amour Bistro, and Nege & Ju in Delhi.
Sameer Seth, founder and CEO at Hunger Inc. (The Bombay Canteen, O Pedro, amongst others), is banking on the emotion of enjoyment to make a difference. “At the end of the day, you must remember that people step out to enjoy themselves. So, in all of this, we’re trying to figure out how you bring the emotion into the dining experience.”
Safety measures for dining out after COVID-19
This is a line that restaurateurs are trying to toe, along with health and safety measures. Regular sanitising, gloves, masks, temperature checks, and staying contactless when possible are all par for the course. “We will reduce the menu size, a number of tables, and the number of people in the kitchen to ensure social distancing. We will have live streaming of the kitchen played in the dining area for customers to see the safety measures put in place,” says Priyank Sukhija, MD & CEO, First Fiddle F&B Pvt. Ltd. (Diablo, Plum by Bent Chair, Cafe JLWA, and more). Singh agrees and says, “Our waiters are being briefed to keep distance on tables as orders will be placed through people’s phones. All interactions with guests will be done with areas clearly demarcated.”
Radhika Khandelwal, owner and chef at Delhi’s Fig & Maple and Ivy & Bean, and Bajaj too are implementing digital ordering when they open; the latter also intends to have all food covered in plastic cloche. Parul Pratap, an executive chef at one of Delhi-NCR’s favourite restaurants, Music & Mountains, speaks of one dedicated server per table and fumigation of entire premises before opening and after closing each day.
Though Zorawar Kalra is a firm believer in cloud kitchens being the future, that hasn’t stopped the founder and managing director of Massive Restaurants (Masala Library, Pa Pa Ya, Bo Tai) from implementing a ‘stress-free dining experience’ across all restaurants. “UV lamps will be used to check for any uncleaned spots, and infrared will be used to check the temperature of all food items before service. We will also set up special floor-mounted acrylic sheets when required between tables to create a transparent physical barrier, without affecting the aesthetic. Also, our bar Younion (Mumbai) has been using special robots to serve drinks.”
Contactless dining is being explored in every way possible. From foot-operated sanitiser stations and reservation systems that ensure control of inflow of patrons to avoid crowding to digitised menus on the guests’ phones and settlement of bills through it as well, the solutions being tabled are novel.
Price changes for dining out after COVID-19
A challenging economic situation for the entire world makes this a tough decision. While it’s a given that bigger groups can relatively absorb costs better, stand-alone restaurants may face the brunt most. “Our operating costs will be higher, but unfortunately the economy is in a terrible state, so we don’t think raising prices is a good idea. For restaurants like Olive, we are working harder to keep the experience of eating with us fresh and exciting. We are looking to relate to our customers even better,” shares Singh. It is a sentiment resonated by Bajaj and Pratap, with Kalra also saying that they’ll extend the stress-free dining to the financial aspect too, and will soon come up with special offers.
On the other hand, Seth and Sukhija have decided to play it by ear and predict a slight increase in bill amounts. “If our outlets can keep rents under control through government intervention or aid, then patrons will be able to enjoy services at the same costs. Otherwise, there may be a slight increase in prices,” says Sukhija. Khandelwal shares that she wants to leave no stone unturned to ensure the safety of her guests. However, that may lead to a spike in the charges. “At the end of the day, we’re still running a business. Perhaps we could add it to the service charge, and it will be up to the guests to pay or not.”
Bajaj sums it up: “In any case, operating restaurants currently is a loss-making proposition. But we want to do so to sustain as much staff as possible and to give our regulars the option to dine in, and also, for the community to get a sense of joy and normalcy.”
What will attract patrons towards dining out?
The unanimous call here is to have zero slip-ups when it comes to maintaining hygiene. “Only those where the perception of food safety is key will continue to survive,” says Kalra. Transparency at all levels will be key, and Bajaj hopes for outdoor spaces to be a huge comfort factor and selling point.
Parul Pratap is also all for taking the restaurant to the people. Pratap adds that this would be a good time to initiate a seasonal menu and add value to meals with a small giveaway. “Once liquor is permitted, budget cocktail menus, 1+1 offers can be initiated.”
Uncertain of opening restaurants under current circumstances, Singh has a bleak view. “The entire industry is evaluating whether it makes any sense to open our restaurants without alcohol, with reduced seating, a 9:00 pm curfew, and reduced consumer demand. Most of us will bleed heavily, and we fail to see what sense it made to re-open the industry with all these conditions. We have to maximise our efforts and hope that things get better soon.”
For updates on the re-opening of restaurants, deliveries, and DIY meal kits, you can check their respective social media handles.
All images: Courtesy restaurateurs