What You May Experience The Next Time You Go Out To Eat
Stepping out of the car, you notice that the valet’s gloves and face mask match with his outfit. You hand over the keys and pace into the walk-in area. It’s deserted.
A hostess, also with a mask and gloves on, greets you but keeps her distance while aiming a thermal scanner at you. She points to a bottle of hand sanitiser. You rub it on and she pushes open the door.
There is more space inside than you last visited. A table close to the door is not there anymore. Nothing in the middle either. The restaurant is sparse—less than half the space is occupied.
Your place in the corner is at least six feet from the nearest one—maybe even more. Before you take seat, two stewards sanitise the chairs, the table and the vase on it. A bottle of sanitiser sits in the middle.
It strikes you. The restaurant doesn’t smell of food. The air inside reminds you of disinfectant.
Like in a hospital.
The manager offers greetings, showing you the QR code on a stand. You scan it for what’s on offer. The dal you loved is missing as the whole menu has shrunk almost by half.
You order from whatever remains on it. The manager returns, pointing to a screen on the wall. You see your meal being prepared. Everyone in the kitchen is wearing masks and protective coveralls.
Like in a hospital.
There’s tension outside. The stewards avoid touching anything unless needed. Guests avoid getting up. The staff takes instructions from a distance.
Your food arrives. The sanitising drill follows, this time with cutlery. You are reassured everything is safe.
Later, as stewards remove plates, again avoiding any contact, the bill pops up on your phone. It’s much more than you thought. You swipe and pay.
Outside, the car arrives. The valet with matching clothes, gloves and mask opens the door. You are now at the wheel, ready to drive home. But the car smells different.
Just like a hospital.
The world’s strictest lockdown has wiped out two months of business for Indian restaurants, putting thousands of them on the verge of collapse. While the government hasn’t allowed eating joints to reopen for guests, the ones that hope to survive prepare for a costlier, tougher future—where extreme hygiene and distancing will take precedence over food.
Segregating tables and plexiglass divisions to separate enclosures, restaurants worldwide are spending more to reassure patrons in time of Covid-19. In India, they also plan live-streaming from kitchens, sanitising tables, screening staff and more.
“The priority is to make sure all the people coming into the platform feel safe. The margin of error is very less,” Abhayraj Singh Kohli, owner of Grandmamas Café, MRP, Pritam Da Dhaba and Roll Company, told BloombergQuint over the phone.
That’s when India allows them to resume operations. Till the fourth phase of the stay-at-home orders ends on May 31, they can only deliver food to homes. Not many are ordering in though. Crisil estimates India’s Rs 4.2 lakh crore organised dine-in industry is expected to lose 40-50 percent revenue this fiscal. According to National Restaurants Association of India, the sector employing 7.3 million people could see large-scale business closures.
Still, the plans for when the business resumes are ready—covering everything from the moment valet opens the door to taking a seat and placing an order. Masks and gloves for staff, thermal screening of guests and santisers are everywhere.
“The aesthetic of the restaurant will take a back seat to practicality,” Zorawar Kalra, managing director of Massive Restaurants Ltd. said. Social distancing and sanitisation are going to be key, he said.
Massive Restaurants, the operator of Masala Library, Farzi Café and Made in Punjab, is studying what other countries have done. Kalra said the focus is on restricting interaction between the tables. His restaurants plan to remove tables from walk-in areas and create space so that guests do not come in contact with anyone else other than the hostess, who will be wearing a mask and gloves.
For the company’s staff, a Covid-19 test will be mandatory and it will be done across all its 27 restaurants in nine cities in the country.
Kalra said every restaurant will be deep-cleaned every two hours and once the guest leaves the table, it will be sanitised. The firm plans to buy ultraviolet lamps and disinfectants and chemicals used for deep cleaning—like the ones used in hospitals. And he even plans to live-stream food preparation in the kitchen to reassure clients about hygiene.
Kohli of Grandmama’s Café is removing every alternate table from restaurant to ensure distancing. All the cars taken to the valet will be sanitised. Before a customer takes a seat, sofa or the chair will be sanitised.
He is even looking at options to make employees stay in offices to avoid the risk of catching the infection while travelling.
To reduce interaction between staff and customers and narrow the list of things guests have to touch while dining, the NRAI partnered with online ordering and payment platform Dotpe to digitise menus and payments online. “Digital ordering is a minuscule part, but it builds confidence that the person is not touching anything that has been touched by others,” Anurag Katriar, president of NRAI, said over the phone.
Katriar said restaurants should set up a new department to process and and sanitise all the supplies. “It is not just for optics. Restaurants will need to invest.”
Dining Out To Cost More
Safety measures will increase costs and make dining expensive experience as well. Katriar said there is no other option but to pass that on to customer.
If the industry doesn’t get support from the government, restaurants will have to increase prices, said Pranav Rungta, who runs Café Royal, Headquarter and Tamak restaurants in Mumbai. “We have certain fixed costs which will have to be amortised over this reduced business.”
And that alone won’t suffice. They will prune other expenses as well. Rungta plans to convert its bar into a restaurant as he sees food business resume earlier than the bar. Grandmama’s Café is looking to cut costs by removing 40 percent of the items on the menu and reducing a third of the staff.
Despite plans to improve hygiene and safety, restaurateurs agree that the delivery model will survive. Five-star hotels and premium chains, including Kalra’s Massive Restaurants, that didn’t take orders online now are considering it.
Yet, Kalra said, home delivery will only cover a fraction of costs. “It’s not a saviour but will help for sure.”
For now, restaurants are hoping for a return to normal. Kalra doesn’t see that happening till December or even March. “It will be a gradual restart, we might be able to achieve 70-80 percent of the monthly business by December.”
By then, many may go insolvent. Online food delivery platform Zomato, while laying off staff and cutting salaries, said it expects the lockdown could force 25-40 percent outlets to shut. Restaurateurs BloombergQuint spoke with said another 25 percent or more may collapse in the coming year if things don’t improve.
As Katriar put it, the next year is going to be about survival.