“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well,” wrote Virginia Woolf in another time and another context. Decades later, as COVID-19 continues its spread, the words echo the wistful longing of those itching to get back to one aspect of normalcy -- a nice restaurant, convivial company and great food.
That vision of ‘dining out’ had receded into the past for many of India’s urban elite, but it’s time finally to press the reset button as the industry gets into high gear to welcome back diners after four months.
As the country grapples with the coronavirus crisis, the F&B industry is reinventing itself in keeping with the times. In a slow, incremental process of pulling themselves out of a slump, several businesses have started with online deliveries and many are also trying to reestablish dining-in with the help of digital solutions.
Social distancing, open kitchens, meticulous sanitising, minimal contact with restaurant staff and digital menus are some steps being taken to instil customer confidence.
Tired of sitting at home since March, when the nation went on a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19, Shobha Mishra is one of those who has started going back to her favourite haunt for coffee, cookies maybe – and some quiet me time away from home.
The extra care for hygiene and social distancing at Blue Tokai, one of her regular haunts in south Delhi, reassured the media professional. While the new rules of distancing were a given in the current situation, QR codes at her table caught her eye.
"The cafe wasn't crowded at all, great relief. In addition, they have put these QR codes at each table. You can simply scan the code with your phone and access the entire menu," Mishra said.
Gurgaon-based HR manager Ankita Verma is still iffy about going out but has been ordering in.
“More than eating out, I miss the experience of going out to eat,” Verma told PTI, adding that she is keen to overcome her fears but is still reluctant.
Restaurant owners are going the extra mile to satisfy both Mishra and Verma as they struggle to get back to business on the twin tracks of online deliveries and luring back dine-in customers. But it’s a tough ride.
Umesh Trivedi, shift manager at Blue Tokai, said that digital solutions have been implemented ever since the store opened for dining-in in June.
“Although we have hardly received any crowds at the cafe since we opened, the QR codes are a better option just in case there is a queue. The customers can check the menu, order from their seats by scanning the code,” Trivedi said.
While Blue Tokai’s digital menu is an in-house solution, new tech entrants such as My Menu and Fastor that offer their clients the knowhow of contactless, self-ordering QR codes are also gaining pace in the Indian service market. The owners believe adapting to change is the only way to sustain business in the current scenario.
By scanning a computer-generated code on each table, a customer is directed to a digital menu on his smartphone. The menu allows them to order from the comfort of their seats and even checkout after the meal, leading to minimum interaction with the restaurant staff.
“Restaurateurs are already adapting to the new normal as they want their businesses to recoup whereas consumers are eager to venture out and dine safely. We are getting requests from not just five-stars but from mid-level restaurants too as they want to opt for solutions that will instil the trust in the consumer to dine at their place,” Neeren Tiwari, country head of My Menu India, said in an email conversation.
My Menu, which launched in India in March, has worked with 600 restaurants, including Taj Hotels, Radisson, Novotel, Ibis, Mercure, Shiro, and Biryani Batuta.
Fastor, another tech start-up, is offering similar services.
“When people come to know that a certain restaurant is taking care of minimum touch points and giving the same service then they will want to come and eat. So self checkout platforms like Fastor are the need of the hour for the hospitality industry,” said Karan Sood, co-founder, Fastor.
Digital menu and ordering are features that reassure Apoorva Sharma, a Delhi-based PR professional.
“I would like to go out but only if it is a renowned restaurant and they are following all sanitary practices in the kitchen. It also makes me more comfortable about dining out if I don’t have to interact with restaurant staff… using digital menus to order at a restaurant is more like ordering through Zomato or Swiggy. You are just eating in a different setting,” Sharma said.
The other strategy is for food outlets to reinforce online delivery systems and expand business with cloud kitchens instead of dining outlets.
In a cloud kitchen model, a business only offers online delivery of food, restricting staff and customer interaction to the minimum.
After venturing into the Indian F&B industry in 2017 and with five outlets in Delhi and Gurgaon, Malaysian quick-service restaurant (QSR) brand Momo King has decided to expand into cloud kitchens in the current situation.
“Due to minimal physical interaction of the consumers with the outside world, the food and beverage industry is currently observing a surge in online orders. This has further inspired us to initiate cloud kitchens and cater to the patrons with our delivery-only model,” Shyam Narayan Thakur, Momo King founder, said in an email interaction.
The food chain has opened five cloud kitchens in Delhi-NCR and plans to expand to 20-25 such kitchens by the year-end.
“The idea behind these kitchens is to eliminate the traditional dine-in experience and focus exclusively on online food deliveries as it would help us in minimising personal interaction between the staff and the customers,” Thakur added.
Harjas, the owner Capri Wings that dishes out Italian food, said the pandemic has hit the hospitality industry the worst with sales down to “20-30 per cent of the pre-COVID numbers”.
Harjas said they have been providing in house accommodation to the chefs in their Noida kitchen “to absolutely reduce contact with outside personnel”.
“Since we are a delivery only kitchen, and no dine-in is offered currently, we are working on safety and hygiene aspects of our kitchen and employees… all measures are taken to ensure limited proximity to people,” he added.
For in-depth, objective and more importantly balanced journalism, Click here to subscribe to Outlook Magazine