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Crushed by COVID-19, India's restaurants consider radical changes

App-linked cameras in the kitchen among new tactics to lure diners back

A worker rests in a restaurant shuttered due to the coronavirus in Pune, India, on March 26.   © Getty Images

NEW DELHI -- As the COVID-19 pandemic devastates service industries around the world, dining-out culture has taken a particularly bad hit from lockdown regimes. The restaurant malaise is particularly pronounced in India, home to nearly 1.4 billion people, where the leading industry association counts more than 500,000 restaurants as members.

Throughout the country, hotels and restaurants have gone into hibernation, hit by a triple whammy of lockdowns, food supply interruptions and wary customers. "The challenges for the hospitality and gastronomic sector as a whole are the biggest any of us has ever witnessed since the birth of fine-dining or the modern restaurant sector," said Zorawar Kalra, managing director of Massive Restaurants, which operates eateries across India.

"Restaurants are not operational, and the staff in our industry do not have the option to work from home," said Kalra. "COVID-19's impact on the industry is staggering."

The restaurant business is one of the largest elements of the Indian service sector, accounting for approximately 3% of India's gross domestic product and employing 7.3 million people, according to the National Restaurant Association of India, the largest industry body.

The vast size of the industry also points to the remarkable diversity of India's restaurant culture -- from roadside stalls selling meals for the equivalent of 20 cents to lavish and palatial establishments charging prices for a single meal that would keep a family fed for a month.

Zorawar Kalra, managing director of Massive Restaurants, says India's modern restaurant sector is in the midst of its biggest crisis ever. (Courtesy of Zorawar Kalra) 

The NRAI said it expects its members to lose up to $10.5 billion in 2020, with more than 2 million people facing the loss of their jobs and one in four restaurants unlikely to reopen. Takings at formal restaurants have plummeted 90% since the lockdown began on March 25, according to CRISIL Research, a leading independent research organization, in part because India's lockdown was one of the strictest in the world.

This has made it difficult for many businesses to turn to home deliveries, which has emerged as a fallback in many other countries. Some large hotel chains, however, such as the Leela, Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott groups are considering launching delivery chains operating out of centralized kitchens, with home diners ordering through social media sites or food delivery apps like Swiggy, Zomato and Scootsy.

The industry's feeling of helplessness has been aggravated by the fact that the Indian government has not offered much help to struggling restaurants, even though many other countries have treated restaurants as small businesses eligible for government emergency funds. Worse, insurance companies do not cover events such as lockdowns.

Zomato and Swiggy delivery personnel take a break outside closed restaurants in Gurugram, India, on April 5.   © Getty Images

Daunted by the prospect of closure, many bars and restaurants have launched appeals to customers to donate emergency funding, or to buy vouchers for future meals to keep cash flowing.

"The pandemic is having a domino effect on bars, vendor networks and food producers. By the time things normalize, we suspect that the percentage of people dining out will plummet substantially," said A.D. Singh, owner of several restaurants across India.

"Celebratory events, parties, bar nights will all diminish. Disposable incomes post-normalization will also be very tight. All these paint a bleak picture for the dining out industry," Singh said.

The lockdown has triggered a culinary renaissance on social media, with families huddling in kitchens to bake, roast and grill, helped by chefs beaming live cookery tutorials from their own home kitchens. But eating out will take months to recover.

A spread at New Delhi restaurant Together at 12th. Owner-chef Vanshika Bhatia says the lockdown "has made both [restaurants] and the diners realize the importance of food and responsible cooking and dining."

There are two possible outcomes, culinary experts say. Either people will be raring to eat out when they finally emerge from lockdown or they will become accustomed to experimenting and enjoying dining at home. "I see the latter option becoming a lot more popular because the lockdown has been really long and this sort of trend is very habit forming," said chef Ranveer Brar, who appears on Living Foodz, a television channel.

Meanwhile, with little or no income from established outlets, restaurateurs and hoteliers are desperately exploring the use of technology to buttress floundering revenue. The NRAI is working on a digital platform that will offer online ordering, food delivery, loyalty programs and contactless payment options to diners. The association is partnering with alternative delivery and logistics companies, and using social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram to provide visibility and ordering facilities for restaurant partners.

"We have taken the critical first step of seizing control of our businesses through digital initiatives," said Anurag Katriar, president of the NRAI and managing director of Degustibus Hospitality.

Ranveer Brar, a chef who appears on television channel Living Foodz, believes the pandemic will change dining habits forever. (Courtesy of Living Foodz)

Other emerging trends offer a pointer to the changes that will be needed for restaurants to survive, such as stricter hygiene practices and socially distanced restaurant layouts, with tables placed at least 2 meters apart to ensure physical distancing. Kitchen and service staff will wear masks, gloves and other protective gear at all times, and temperature checks will be mandatory for staff.

The Hyatt hotels group plans to appoint "hygiene managers" to ensure adherence to new operational protocols, as will the New Delhi-based Oberoi Group of hotels. "Care By Roseate," launched by the New Delhi-based Roseate Hotels and Resorts, will allow guests to book tables online through an app, scan the menu, order from it and see their food being prepared in the kitchen.

The bill will be issued through the app and paid via a payment card. "These initiatives will make guests feel more comfortable," said Ankur Bhatia, executive director of Roseate Hotels and Resorts.

To further put customers at ease, fewer chefs will be working in kitchens, and the number of guests per table will be carefully regulated, hoteliers say. Disposable crockery and cutlery and tableside sanitization will be prioritized, using high technology instruments for surface cleaning to ensure cleanliness, especially during table turnovers.

"Live cameras in our restaurants will be streaming on the internet so anyone across the globe can log on to our website to see how we are operating," said Kalra.

Top: Kheer, a restaurant at the the Roseate House hotel in New Delhi. The hotel's operator is launching a service that will allow guests to book tables online through an app, scan the menu, order from it and, as pictured in the bottom photo, see their food being prepared in the kitchen.

The pandemic may also nurture some positive trends that were sprouting across Indian commercial kitchens before COVID-19. These include ethical dining, optimal utilization of resources, respect for local produce and farmers, and zero-waste practices.

"The quarantine situation has made both us and the diners realize the importance of food and responsible cooking and dining. Sustainability will now extend beyond food to other aspects of the business as well, such as turning the air conditioning off when not required and minimizing single-use plastic," said Vanshika Bhatia, chef and owner of the New Delhi restaurant Together at 12th.

Bhatia said she consciously crafts menus that encourage diners to eat responsibly and healthily by including local, seasonal produce. She said she also makes sure there is biodiversity in the kitchen by cooking regional dishes from far-flung locations, and uses vegetable peelings and other secondary ingredients to make soups, stocks and cocktails.

Vanshika Bhatia, chef and owner of the New Delhi restaurant Together at 12th. 

With supply chain disruptions expected to continue, chefs will concentrate on local and seasonal produce. With a lot of ingredients -- especially imported ones -- out of reach, menus will be crafted with what is local, fresh and available. More vegan and vegetarian options will cater to a growing demographic of those undergoing a drastic lifestyle change, said Bhatia.

In addition to these changes in the kitchen, cost-cutting will be common and expenses revisited. "We will be looking at complete cash conservation, [and] all new restaurant launches will be on hold," said Kalra. "Food costs will surge as we will invest a lot in food safety and hygiene, right down to the source of procurement of material, food preparation and delivery aspects."

Every relationship will need to be redefined and realigned, said the NRAI's Katriar, whether it is with customers, clients, the government, landlords or partners. "The dining world will be looking at new rules of engagement as we will have to hit the ground running with new protocols."

It will also be a time to reflect, review and reboot; to make businesses sustainable for the country and for an interconnected world. Innovation, creativity and consolidation, not expansion, will be the mantras going forward.

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