'We will come of this more responsible': India's food industry rises to the challenge
The pandemic has been a catastrophe for the restaurant industry. The anti-social effects have nearly finished off the first-class stage of restaurateurs and chefs, who altered the dining out scene into a superlative form of urbanity. Speedy halts in cities and states to stanch the coronavirus thwarted restaurants across India into unexpected and utter disarray. Revenue withered up abruptly, workers faced mass layoffs and restaurant executives tried to stay afloat amidst the subsequent chaos.
Well-funded restaurants and bigger chains might have the wherewithal to survive a long-drawn-out lockdown, but the autonomous restaurants may not survive. That said, they are not going down without putting up a fight! As the future unfolds in uncertainty, restaurateurs are doing everything they can to address the crisis, while supporting themselves and their workforces in varied ways and finding ways that will make people want to go back out to eat. Though, without a vaccine, will people even go out when the lockdown is eventually lifted? The biggest test chefs are now facing is the enormous quantity of unknown factors stacked up against them.
HYGIENE AND QUALITY CONTROL
Cleanliness and sanitation are always essential in food service, particularly in a food service setting. This is now exponentially more important, given the way we know that the virus can live on surfaces, like counters or tables or sinks. Harish Rao, the brand chef of SeaSalt Madras, recommends making alcohol-based hand sanitisers available for both guests and staff members and sanitising any surface that could be contaminated.
Meanwhile, food delivery and cloud kitchen businesses will boost the e-commerce platforms and the emphasis will be on zero-contact deliveries. “The supply chains will be relooked at all over again, along with the skill set to yield better results,” explains Tanveer Kwatra, EAM, Andaz, Delhi. There will be a universal behavioural change in how employers and employees treat personal and public hygiene, and this change is certainly for the good.
For Nikesh Lamba & Japtej Ahluwalia, founders of Pricol Gourmet, maintaining hygienic work conditions has always been a very important part of how they run their restaurants, which is why most of their restaurants have live kitchens. “Obviously, we will have to double down on these and enforce
them strictly. Kitchens will have sanitisers at multiple places, there will be visual posters across the back area, reminding employees of maintaining proper hygiene, food packaging will be sanitised and stored appropriately, and employees’ health will take precedence,” explained Japtej.
The pandemic has caused great fear and trauma in many people, and it has begun to reflect in changes in their diet. Although there is no evidence that meat has any role to play in the spread of the virus, most people are abstaining from non-veg food only because they don’t trust the source. “Also it’s good to follow a vegetarian diet these days, comprising of fresh and seasonal vegetables, to boost one’s immunity.
I have also started to cook food with ingredients that are currently available at home. Many a time, during travel, I tend to pick up ingredients and keep them for a rainy day. Now they are slowly coming out of the closet,” says Sushil Dwarakanathan, a culinary academician based out of Bengaluru. Does that mean it’s a good time to invest in the vegetarian restaurant business across all cuisines? Perhaps, there’s a good business opportunity waiting there.
Overall, people’s eating habits will tend towards traceability, ensuring that clean food becomes a norm whenever a guest orders it. Prateek Arora, Director at Qla, New Delhi feels that what was once overlooked in terms of sourcing will now be an important criterion while choosing what to eat, especially when it comes to meat. Indian food with regional expertise might regain its focus, with hygiene being an important factor. And who better than chefs to bring a greater momentum to this movement?
Abhishek Basu, Executive Chef at the JW Marriott Juhu, Mumbai is already reimagining, resetting and restarting things in terms of innovative ways to create a greater demand for healthier food. He’s using this time to research natural produce and raise awareness amongst his team, to champion the cause of creating a better tomorrow.
SKILLS PAY BILLS
One might not realise from the outside that restaurants are essentially a cash-flow business with very thin margins and high fixed costs. “The revenue generated from daily sales is used to pay employees, vendors, rent, utilities, etc. The ones that are able to tide over this period will look at consolidation and cost optimisations. Expansion for most chains will be put on hold, there will be negative salary revisions, appraisals will be deferred, marketing budgets cut, and so on. From the customer’s point of view, with the emphasis on social distancing and the manner in which this message is being so strongly communicated, this can have a lasting impact on the industry even when things start getting back to normal,” shares Japtej Ahluwalia, Co-founder and Executive Director of Pricol Gourmet.
It is natural for employees in this period to feel insecure about their jobs as restaurant- and fast food chains will look at downsizing to cut costs, but the most vulnerable will be the mom-and-pop restaurants, roadside eateries, food carts and so on, who pay their employees on a daily basis. This segment will perhaps be the hardest hit with no job security. “In my organisation per se, we have assured employees that everyone’s job is secure, but we will have to tide together in this difficult phase, so there are pay cuts across the board, and by and large, all the employees have been extremely supportive. At the same time, we have also doubled down on the relief measures provided by the government — like the one in which they have allowed employees to withdraw 75% of their PF amounts,” explains Japtej.
There is no one set template for handling this crisis, and most strategies or plans are extremely fluid as things are changing on a day-to-day basis. Therefore, the maturity and leadership of an organisation will play a pivotal role in determining how one comes out of this situation. According to Prateek Arora, the most skilled staff will be able to stick it out. As someone said, skills pay bills. That will become all-important. There will expectedly be a trimming down of staff at the lowest tier in the hierarchy due to easy replicability and lack of a specific skill set.
For Anurag Katriar, NRAI President and Executive Director & CEO of Degustibus Hospitality, the future, unfortunately, doesn’t look very promising for the sector at this moment, and he feels that the biggest threat to their existence is the prevailing business model itself. With high proportions of fixed operating expenses, this is a high-risk business and unless that changes, revival is almost impossible, he explained. “Enterprises need to move to a low-risk model by converting certain fixed operating expenses to variables, and by bringing about a general reduction in fixed costs. This isn’t going to be easy but this is the only way out,” he says.
The industry is a fragile one and any small change in economics will have a massive impact, but it is also an industry that is incredibly resilient. “On the other hand, if it does go on for longer, we may all end up drastically changed by this, and public distancing may become somewhat of a norm for many, so companies such as Zomato and Swiggy will also thrive,” says Shaun Kenworthy, a restaurateur and F&B Consultant based out of Kolkata.
Hope — it means that we will begin to consume more consciously, and we will come out of this as a kinder, more responsible and equitable world
— Aditi Dugar
In spite of the crisis, restaurant owners are still up to face the challenge. “We have been running a series called #MasqueatHome on Instagram (@masquerestaurant) with recipes from our tasting menus that can be adapted to your home kitchen. And as another leg of this, we are planning to segue into delivery, which will roll out soon. We had also opened our new Masque Lab just before the lockdown, where our chefs were working on research and flavour development — some of which we are looking to turn into products that we can hopefully put out on shelves soon,” says Aditi Dugar who co-owns Masque Restaurant, Mumbai along with Prateek Sadhu.
The future is hard to tell, there is no sure end in sight and it’s really an unprecedented time. People aren’t going to stay at home forever, but we will adapt to a changing world. “I think this has been a huge awakening in how damaging consumerism can be. I think — hope — it means that we will begin to consume more consciously, and we will come out of this as a kinder, more responsible and equitable
world,” adds Dugar.
To emphasise the biggest learning so far, the future is going to be all about sustainability. “There will be a focus on freezing dried products, food with higher shelf life, and reducing the need for products, so there is zero wastage. It will be good to be self-sufficient too, with hotels owning farms for vegetables and fruits, and packaging or bottling their own preserves, juices and supplies. Our lives will change drastically when this ends. We will come out stronger but also more aware of what we could have done differently. I can’t wait to jump in with all my creativity and my enthusiastic team to make a new and better tomorrow through our food and cooking techniques,” Chef Basu enthuses. We’d all love to believe there’s a better tomorrow, wouldn’t we?