At a time when food businesses are folding due to the coronavirus pandemic, Chef Vikramjit Roy launched his standalone Hello Panda Gurgaon. Here he talks about what went into this colossal uphill task.
That the food industry is perhaps second to the travel industry in terms of taking a hit due to COVID-19 is no news. While restaurants are striving to continue operations the best they can—from deliveries to DIY kits and everything in-between, unfortunately, some have had to shut shop. And when at a time like this someone not only survives but thrives, it makes you sit up and take notice. That’s Chef Vikramjit Roy for you, who accomplished the mammoth task of launching Hello Panda amid a pandemic.
“Much before Lockdown, we were planning our own restaurant of a bigger size and a completely different concept for which almost everything was finalised. But unfortunately, all of that had to be deferred.” However, pivoting from there to Hello Panda is seamless for Roy, who has 18 years of experience, and has been associated with establishments such as The Kimono Club, Whisky Samba, Antares, ITC and Taj hotels, and many more. His speciality is Asian cuisine – the name and concept of Hello Panda is a natural choice. At the moment a delivery and takeout venture, they’re doing pan-Asian comfort dishes, artisanal cocktail premixes, and responsibly sourced water. Chef’s also paired up with Freddy Birdy for the quirky menu design, the popular adman behind designing The Kimono Club amongst other restaurants.
“Hello Panda was born to help our team members, who were unemployed and without pay for months, small-time farmers and breeders whose products were being thrown away because of the dearth of demand. We wanted to make sure that we added positive value to our industry and contribute even in a small way where we could see light at the end of the tunnel.” Interestingly, Roy wants to demystify the ‘limited menu’ wave that’s being predicted to take over restaurants in the new normal. “We truly believe that the perception of delivery spaces having fewer dishes could be pushed and guests should be given bigger, if not an equal selection of choices.” To ensure a gourmet experience, they’ve carefully chosen packaging which ensures that textures and heat are preserved and is tape-free.
In his endeavour to change the perception towards cloud kitchens with quality & sustainability practices, the chef is not purchasing from the open market, where the source of origin cannot be traced back. They’re sourcing from the likes of Mr Hare Krishna who grows potatoes, eggplant, carrots, chillies, etc. at his farm in Bhiwandi. “Our chicken is bred by Mr Mansoor Ali, whose farm in Outer Noida is cage- and drug-free. And we grow our herbs and micro-greens in our kitchen using organic manure from coconut husk,” Roy shares. Although, the journey hasn’t been as easy as he makes it sound, with immense challenges on the way. “We neither had contractors nor labourers to carry out the civil work. Sealed borders meant equipment or ingredients also could not be brought in, hence we had to restrict ourselves to developing everything in and around the restaurant.”
Slowly and steadily, they built Hello Panda to enthuse positivity in the industry and society at such a downtime. “The team took the responsibility of breaking walls to plastering, fixing tiles, drainage, etc. ourselves. For hardcore technical jobs like electric and carpenter work, we struggled a lot to get the right people who were also safe.” Satisfied with the result, he’s happy to have had a once in a lifetime experience of building a restaurant from scratch. Having completed this uphill hike, his key takeaway includes: “Focus on quality, consistency & taste. Making sure that the primary objective is to make delicious food. Everything was directed to making sure we attain deliciousness.”
That’s not all though, as one can’t forget your team, customers, and functioning during a pandemic. “Be empathetic towards one and all. Support small-time suppliers, build confidence in guests about hygiene levels and safety of every touchpoint. Document every check, right from vegetable washes, hand washes, sanitisation cycles, personal hygiene, etc. Make sure the delivery is as contactless as possible. Be considerate towards guests and respect their choice.” And they certainly haven’t left any stone unturned for Hello Panda—ramen bowls, sushi, cold plates, mini-meals, and dim sums are not even half of the extensive menu.
In a time when things seem glum, Roy has managed to spark hope, especially for the food industry. Hello Panda makes us believe that the pandemic overcast is receding and good things are not far.