Here's how Chennai's food biz has reinvented itself through the COVID era
Cloud kitchens, delivery apps, QR code menus. Stalwarts of Chennai’s food industry walk us through troubleshooting, tech and transformation post-lockdown
Slowing down can be synonymous with speeding up. Our city’s presently thriving foodscape — is proof of that pudding. In the midst of industries across the board going into chaos and loss because of the impact of COVID-19, this is one space that has seen rapid innovation and reinvention, at every unexpected turn. Cloud kitchens satiated customers while simultaneously slowing the bleed on restaurant resources. DIY meals kits helped the newly-habituated WFH tribe to turn around a gourmet meal in under 10 minutes. And a no-contact meal dispenser in Alwarpet, which slides out a hot lunch set the precedent for technology-driven solutions in an era where touch has become taboo.
Now, while terms like ‘contactless’ delivery and QR code menus are commonspeak today, rewind to the early days of the lockdown and everyone from the waiter to the cashier to the head chef had to ‘unlearn’ the old normal. After all, decades of deep-set conditioning dictate that the business of serving food is synonymous with exchanges like ‘Welcome sir’ and ‘Table for two?’ In essence, human interaction.
“When you’ve got the foundation of the restaurant industry built on human interaction — remodelling and building a robust, safe and effective service procedure was a huge challenge,” says Tarun Mahadevan, head of operations, Advantage Foods, which has brands like Sera Tapas Bar, Benjarong and Writer’s Cafe under its wing. And so the first step, and possibly one of the biggest challenges, he shares, was reorienting the staff. New communication norms, new SOPs and a whole new sanitisation list of metrics to measure. “It was like day one all over again,” recalls Tarun. Incidentally, he was passed on the torch last year to handle India operations by dad M Mahadevan, one of the doyens in Chennai’s hospitality circuit, who started with a Chinese take out place in Nungambakkam, back in 1982.
When you’ve got the foundation of the restaurant industry built on human
interaction — remodelling and building a robust, safe and effective service
procedure was a huge challenge
—Tarun Mahadevan, Advantage Foods
Change it up
While training programmes were being run remotely to gear up for re-opening dining spaces, a separate set of troubleshooting was underway in kitchens around the city. How do you save costs? Smaller menus, weekend specials and catered home gatherings. How do you manage with a near-empty kitchen if most of your staff has requested to quarantine in their hometowns? Collaborate with a home chef, perhaps like in the case of Intox Kitchen run by Sanjeev Verma and Bhavna Arya. How do you earn revenue from a restobar kitchen space if bars aren’t permitted to open yet? Turn it into a cloud kitchen! We find out much to our surprise, from Joshita Ramanathan who runs The Good Life Eatery, a healthy subscription meal service — that everything from quinoa biryani to whole wheat paneer wraps are prepared at the restobar Ministry of Drinks in Nandanam.
Food is one of the few industries, that no matter what shape
it takes, it is bound to keep evolving
— Sanjeev Verma, Black Orchid
While converting to a cloud kitchen is one way to go, manpower is a big concern. Paul Raymond of the Masseys Group Of Companies which owns franchises like Mamagoto, says his team had to adapt to managing with only 30 to 40 percent of their total staff. However, with more people ordering in versus going to a restaurant, this is just as well. Paul tells us that his company started two cloud kitchens during the lockdown — Ciro’s Pizzeria that delivers Italian-style woodfired pizzas and a North Indian menu with Tikka Singh, and two more slated for the end of the year. To keep transport costs in check with deliveries, he tells us, “We have invested in building ‘mobile woodfire ovens’. Each one takes about three weeks to build.” This will also come in handy for small family gatherings via his events and catering vertical, Plated Stories.
Rise of the grocer
From hydroponic lettuce (Freshlings), freshly pressed almond milk (Nutmilk_Chennai) or imported camembert (JK Cheese N More) — you can now order it to your doorstep. Restaurants and cafés which already have access to high end ingredients are now realising a great way to draw revenue from larger dine-in spaces is to simply put them on the shelf. “During the lockdown, we received multiple enquiries from our patrons about purchasing fresh, safe and quality ingredients,” says Ashish Thadani, director of Ciclo Cafe. The bicycle café in Kotturpuram has since opened Ciclo Bazaar which stocks ready-to-cook marinades, fiery bhut jolokia mayo and exotic cheese from sought after brands, as well as signature in-house sauces like pesto and artisanal breads.
The pandemic has meant that some chefs have had to shift cities — whether to be closer to their families or simply, a better opportunity. In August, we heard of chef Anand S who left Kodaikanal where he helmed the restaurant 10 Degrees to focus on Adam’s Cornucopia, a cloud kitchen in Chennai, with his wife and business partner Dhanashree. Expect old fashioned European dishes, Kerala cuisine and lip-smacking pork ribs. Meanwhile, Mumbai baker Husna Jumani (Crust and Crumble) who relocated with her husband to Chennai in January thought she would be flying back and forth to meet the demand of her existing clientele back home. But after COVID hit, her vanilla bean-custard stuffed doughnuts and apple crumb galette has since found her a following in Chennai. The 24-year-old tells us the move has helped her focus on R&D for new products like double-crusted pies and travel cakes. “I started baking things I didn’t have time for earlier and I am enjoying exploring new brands and sources of produce like vanilla from Tamil Nadu and spices and chocolate from Kerala.”
Five-star hotels are making big changes as well. For instance, ordering a meal from ITC Grand Chola via Swiggy might have been unheard of pre-COVID. But with more sales coming from delivery orders than ever before — a wide branch of access to the customer has become an essential. GRT Hotels Resorts started its own cloud kitchen, while IHCL (Indian Hotels Company Limited) has invested in its own app, Qmin, which gives you direct access to restaurants at Taj properties in the city. The advantages for a customer here are five-star service features, in tow with gourmet flavours. Look forward to a dedicated delivery fleet to maintain safety standards, food in insulation boxes and even a scheduling assistant for multiple orders the same day, says Saleem Yousuff, Senior Vice President — Operations, South, IHCL.
In the months to come, expect fewer sprawling dining spaces. “Why would one want to go back to a 4,000 sq foot restaurant when you are getting only 55 percent of your sales from it?”Tarun raises a pertinent question. But what is next on the horizon is anybody’s guess. Although, rest assured — good food is en route, no matter what new realms of change unravel before us.
Pics: Shiba Prasad Sahu | Model: S Suja | Make-up: Aarti Gutta | Venue: The Leela Palace Chennai | Co-ordination: Sunil Menon