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The future of restaurants

Somebody recently asked me if I saw a silver lining to the Coronavirus crisis.

As questions go, it was probably one of the stupidest I have ever been asked, on par with “Apart from that, how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”

 

So, of course, I responded rudely to the person who expected me to find a silver lining to a crisis that has killed tens of thousands and will cause more poverty and suffering than we can imagine.

 

   Later, when I had cooled down a little, I still thought that the question was silly but I began to wonder what the food and beverage world would be like once this crisis  subsided (whenever that may be).

 

   Here’s what I think will happen. I think that once we have been told that it is safe to go out many of us will flock to bars and restaurants to enjoy the pleasures that were denied to us for so many weeks. (Some people will remain cautious even if the virus has been largely beaten, though.)

 

   But will people keep going to restaurants after the initial excitement has passed? Or has there been a fundamental change in our attitude to food that is not cooked at home?

 

   As some of you may remember, I have long argued that restaurants face a less-than-glorious future as the cult of delivery catches on. Most restaurant food in India – oh dear: here it comes – is hardly outstanding. A cloud kitchen can make food of roughly the same quality at one-fourth the cost.

 

   Nor are restaurateurs investing very much in improving the quality of their food. Let’s take the two most popular restaurant cuisines in India. Punjabi-north Indian (Butter Chicken, etc.) or Sino-Ludhianvi (Chicken Manchurian, etc.) There are a few places with very good butter chicken and there must be some with excellent Chicken Manchurian (though I am not sure that such a thing exists). But for the most part, the food is roughly the same no matter where you go.

 

   All the great Indian chefs you hear of cook Western food or Modern Indian. In the mid-market sector that constitutes the bulk of the business, cooks come and go at the whims of the restaurateurs.

 

   Even when expats are hired, rarely are they very good.  (Does every Indian you know make an excellent Rogan Josh? Similarly not every Thai person knows how to make a good red curry.)

 

   Indians were already coming around to the view that most restaurants don’t pay enough attention to food, which is why the fast food chains (Burger King, KFC, McDonald’s, etc.) are able to sell Indian-flavoured fast food at low prices so successfully. It is also why the delivery segment has kept growing so phenomenally. The food from a good home-delivery service is usually as good, if not better, than an average mid-level restaurant.

 

   Over the last three weeks, my wife and I have stayed at home for every meal. I shouldn’t be saying this – as a man who supports the Indian restaurant industry – but, honestly, we did not miss going out at all.

 

   Mostly we (here I use ‘we’ as an extended pronoun for my wife) cooked ourselves. Partly this was because we had the time to do this during the lockdown but it was also that, like many other families, we enjoyed eating all meals (including lunch) together. I imagine this is true of most of us. Hardly ever have husband-wife-kids all been at home together at lunchtime except on weekends.

 

   We were also able to turn our cooking into an adventure. We had been fascinated by an urad dal that we had at Kesar Da Dhabha in Amritsar. They wouldn’t give us the recipe, of course, so my wife, Seema, recreated it from memory after much experimentation. We tried to perfect oven-roasting new potatoes till the outsides were crisp and the insides soft. (We discovered the secret: it depends on getting the right variety of potato. And in India you are stuck with whatever potatoes the sabzi wallah has that day so no recipe is foolproof.) We cooked a Neapolitan-type pasta made from rice flour as a concession to my aversion to gluten.

 

   I would be lying if I did not admit that the cooking is more fun now because we get better ingredients in India than we used to get before. The McCain aloo tikkis are a staple in our house. I made an Oriental fried rice during the lockdown using the Veeba Roasted Sesame sauce. All my meats came from Artisan Meats (who I wrote about many months ago.) There were deli products: Smokey Mexican chorizo, spicy Italian sausages and delicious (if not entirely authentic) Goan chorise along with Keema, pork chunks for curry etc.

 

"More people will go out for cocktails and mixed drinks than for food once life returns to normal. They will eat but it will be finger food mainly, not real meals."

   The cooking was going okay till I declared that I would review takeaway services during the lockdown in an effort to help the food industry. My wife was not keen (she is germophobic, which may well be a good thing in the present circumstances). But I pressed ahead, claiming it was my duty to help food providers. As a concession to her reservations, I made everyone I ordered food from send me a photo (taken right away so they had no time to stage it).

 

   We started with the curiously named 4 Girls And a Burger (inspired by the Five Guys chain, I guess), which sent us two burgers – one vegetarian and one mutton – and an order of chicken nuggets. I was not so keen on the vegetable burger but Seema thought it wasn’t bad. I liked the mutton burger and the chicken nuggets were the real thing: the chicken was freshly cut in the kitchen before cooking.

 

   What impressed me the most was that the food was hot, though it must have been cooked at least 30 minutes before we received it and the fried dishes (onion rings, the nuggets) were not soggy. This was restaurant quality (better than fast food quality) food on my doorstep.

 

   The next day, two places I had ordered from backed out of delivering because the Delhi police were beating up and harassing delivery boys for no apparent reason. By the third day, I was able to order from Sassy Begum. They sent me a very nice Hyderabad biryani; a very teekha Andhra-style mutton fry and a good haleem.

 

   I know a little bit about the food of Hyderabad (though much less about the food of Andhra in general) and I thought the dishes were very good. The meal was about one-third of restaurant prices.

 

   So here’s what I think will happen. Young people who live with their parents may still want to go out to be with their friends. But for anyone who has his or her own home, it is more fun to watch Netflix/Amazon at home and order in. It is one fourth the price of a restaurant experience and the food is as good.

 

   The restaurant sector will have to struggle to cope. As it is, the government makes it difficult for the restaurant industry to survive but restaurateurs do themselves no favours by not upping their game when it comes to food or doing more to attract customers. It is only a matter of time before guests begin to log out.

 

   There is one part of the F&B sector that will do more than okay – and will probably grow. Almost all of my friends conceded that one of the advantages of eating well at home was that you didn’t have to pay restaurant prices for alcohol. We drank a fair amount of Indian wine (well, one Indian wine – the Fratelli Sette) during the lockdown but most other people I know knocked back Johnnie Walker Black and Tanqueray. So the liquor business may actually have found more adherents during this period.

 

   More people will go out for cocktails and mixed drinks than for food once life returns to normal. They will eat but it will be finger food mainly, not real meals.

 

   Last year, when I judged the World Class cocktail competition, I predicted that we were heading towards a situation where bartenders would be the new stars, on par with celebrity chefs.

 

   Diageo which organises World Class has taken note. Shortly after the Coronavirus crisis hit, the company announced that it would pay for insurance cover up to Rs 5 lakh for the 300 bartenders who were registered with the World Class competition.

 

   Bartenders are often not given the respect they deserve so they were thrilled by the gesture. From their perspective, it was one more sign that they were finally being valued. From Diageo’s perspective too, it makes sense; the bar sector will thrive even as restaurants struggle in the post lockdown phase.

 

   You can’t make an innovative cocktail at home or recreate the spirit of a bar. Nor can you have a cocktail delivered to your residence. It is true that most bars stop being trendy within a year and the crowds move on to newer places. But that’s okay for the liquor companies: they will just supply the new bars.

 

   So is there a silver lining?

 

   No, of course, there isn’t.

 

   But the post-Covid food and beverage world will be significantly different from the one we used to live in.

 

 

Posted On: 04 Apr 2020 12:57 PM
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