Restaurants continue to adapt, fighting to survive the fallout of COVID-19. Will the rebuilding result in a stronger, humbler and kinder industry?
It isn’t over yet. Although 2020 is drawing to a close, COVID-19 and its gnarly web of associated challenges, from lockdowns to the fear economy, will continue to cast their shadows over the next few years, shaping restaurants and influencing meals.
However, the battered industry is fighting back — including offering groceries during lockdown, kerbside pickups, DIY kits, QR code menus and chef-led cooking classes on Instagram. The challenges triggered invention, innovation and creativity as the virus taught people they need to join hands to survive, and changed dining out in unprecedented ways. What will your next dinner out look like?
Survival of the quickest
“It is a blood bath,” says serial restaurateur M Mahadevan who launched the popular Hot Breads chain, and now has a presence around the world. Speaking from Dubai, he says 40% of their 100 plus restaurants have closed down and “another 30% are hanging… if the situation continues there will be more closings. We have no choice. It is about survival now.”
However, the team has fought back, focussing on retaining jobs with innovations like a first-of-its-kind 10-foot-high dispenser machine that serves hot meals from their speciality restaurants, enabling no contact, pandemic-appropriate dining. “We are managing with whatever we have locally. We are learning to cut costs without compromising on quality, and live lean. We need to be tech-friendly as we tread into the unknown… it’s a whole new brand,” he says.
The pandemic has exposed cracks in the industry prompting restaurants to rethink design and menus, and most importantly focus on staff well-being. “Ours is a people business more than food business. The team matters most,” Mahadevan states.
With only the serious players left standing after pruning their businesses, restaurants will be leaner, but stronger, necessarily run with conviction and empathy.
Luxury cloud kitchens
“All the scum created by the industry, the snobbishness of five-star hotels, the pretentiousness has been destroyed. We are at Ground Zero,” says Chef Vikramjit Roy, from Delhi. After working with some of the country’s most exclusive luxury restaurants, including Pan Asian at Chennai’s ITC Grand Chola and Tian at ITC Maurya in Delhi, Vikramjit launched Hello Panda, a delivery kitchen, in May, despite peak pandemic anxiety.
“I had no choice. I had exhausted my savings. My team was in danger of being on the streets. So my partners and I put everything we had into this,” he says, adding that they found housing for the team of 15, and started supplying their meals from the restaurant. “I was so relieved when we made a profit of ₹50,000 in the first month,” he says, adding that, as promised to the team, they have been able to increase salaries every month, as profits slowly grow.
Buoyed by the success, they added Ginger Garlic, offering comfort Indo-Chinese food, and then recently were able to open a sprawling, state-of-the-art kitchen in Vasant Kunj along with their latest brand, Park Street Rolls & Biryani. The three brands are Delhi-based now, but the team is looking to expand and Chennai is next on their radar. All takeaway outlets, they represent a new era of feisty, organised, chef-led cloud kitchens.
“In 2021, we will see more strong, concept-led takeaways. The landlords’ thirst for rent is always going to be high, so brands need to think of products that can hold their own three years down the line,” says Vikramjit. “Customers are looking for a place with a story. And now, everything has to be fabulous, from food to packaging.”
Successful takeaway kitchens are likely to birth restaurants after proving their mettle and creating a loyal customer base. “This has been a good year for individuals who have entrepreneurial skill. Small restaurants that were chef-led started doing well. People are realising that there has to be heart in spaces,” adds Vikram.
Restaurants that multi-task
Through the worst of the year, many chefs rose to the challenge of keeping their doors open and stoves on, despite shortages of staff and breakdowns in the supply chain.
Bakeries began selling eggs and milk when grocery store shelves were empty. Chefs delivered food to customers who could not leave home. And menus changed everyday depending on what was available at the market, offering family-sized portions for exhausted home cooks.
In return, customers rallied around their favourite restaurants to keep them in business. So not surprisingly, there has been a return to restaurants as community spaces, with chefs, vendors and customers building on bonds forged through the pandemic’s challenges, continuing to support each other.
With ‘Work From Home’ becoming the norm, and many companies letting go of expensive offices to save costs, expect to spend more time working from cafes. Anticipating a surge in demand for co-working spaces, SOCIAL Works, which comes under the umbrella of Impresario Handmade Restaurants by Riyaaz Amlani, is doubling its co-working spaces across cities.
Riyaaz says that they plan to “not only bring hyper-local communities offline once more, but also provide culinary escapism”. Design interventions have also been planned to counter 2020’s physical-distancing induced loneliness. “People will have their own little booths while being in a social environment, we call this ‘Social With Distancing’,” he adds.
Small towns are their main focus for expansion as they have seen the biggest recovery there. The group is also building up on their cloud kitchen vertical and plans to introduce seven brands in the coming months.
The backyard gourmet
When the lockdown began in March and groceries were a challenge to procure, people turned to local farms and backyard gardens. Indigenous fruits and vegetables, native greens and foraged wild herbs were rediscovered. Amateur cooks began experimenting at home, led by bright young chefs who generously shared their time, recipes and techniques on Instagram stories, Lives and Cookalongs.
Mumbai-based Chef Thomas Zachariah, who has one lakh eight thousand followers on Instagram, taught viewers how to cook intuitively through lockdown using seasonal, local greens by demonstrating recipes such as Kashmiri haak te thool with cauliflower and radish leaves, Sindhi sai bhaji with amaranth and fenugreek leaves, and Oria dahi potala with pointed gourd.
“By virtue of being stuck at home, most people took to cooking and they made comfort food. Our comfort food is whatever is native to us. Whatever we grew up eating…” says Thomas, adding, “The response was incredible. Each of the recipes was shared over 1,000 times, and people have been cooking them non stop. Though I have always been a proponent for regional Indian food, it was only during the lockdown that I noticed people were beginning to cook it more.”
The interest in local food also prompted a number of talented home cooks to start cloud kitchens offering regional specialities. While not all of them will survive the year, they have filled a gap in the market for home-style, regional meals, and 2021 will see more players in this space.
It is likely that consumers will continue to hanker for food that reminds them of less complicated times. As Thomas states, “The impact of 2020 is going to last for a couple of years. We are going to look for comfort for a while as we navigate our way through next year.”