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Quarantine conversations with the connoisseurs

For the duration of the lockdown, I have been doing an Insta Live conversation every day with chefs and experts in the food business.

While we have talked about their lives and careers we have also focused on the future: what do they think will happen to the restaurant business once the lockdown is over?

 

Here are the some of the things that emerged during those conversations plus some of the conclusions I came to myself.

 

HYGIENE

 

This should have occurred to me earlier but I only focused on it after Sameer Sain of the Everstone group, which (in addition to its many other businesses) runs over 1,000 restaurants over the world, came up with it.

 

   Covid has been a health crisis. So when people are sufficiently relaxed to go out, it is health they will focus on. In restaurant terms, that means hygiene.

 

   Restaurants will have to pay more attention than ever before to convince finicky guests that their restaurants are safe. In real terms, this means testing staff regularly in a transparent manner, making it clear that there is physical distancing in the kitchen, that employees wear masks (gloves, too, I think), etc.

 

   Guests should be allowed to visit the kitchen if they like. Open kitchens will be more reassuring to guests. And tables and all surfaces should be wiped clean with sanitiser after each use.

 

   All this will cost money but it will be worth it. Restaurants that are not hygiene-conscious will suffer.

 

   Sadly, this is bad news for street food vendors who will have to shell out much more than they can afford to convince customers that they are hygiene-focused.

 

   And even if they do, there will always be people who will shun them on safety grounds as long as the Covid scare continues.

 

   There is a business opportunity in all this, of course. Among the most popular restaurants in Mumbai are Soam and Swati. Both made their reputations serving street food made to the highest standards of hygiene.

 

   I imagine that anyone who opens chaat places elsewhere in India, which serve street food with the hygiene standards (and of course, food quality) of Soam, will find huge success.

 

   People love street food. And if they feel it is unsafe on the streets, they will cheerfully go to restaurants that serve safe and delicious versions of street dishes.

 

DELIVERY

 

I have long argued that delivery is a bigger threat to restaurants than is usually perceived. My feeling is that during the lockdown, when restaurants have been shut and delivery services have been running, many more of us have got hooked on delivery.

 

   Delivery has many advantages. It is safer than going to a restaurant because you need to have physical contact with fewer strangers. And it can be much cheaper than restaurant food because it does not need all the things that restaurants are about (service, décor, air conditioning, rent etc.). Also, in those areas where delivery is strong (say, pizzas or Punjabi food like Butter Chicken or Chicken Manchurian) the quality of home-delivered dishes is no worse than restaurant versions of those dishes. These are idiot-proof dishes that anyone can make. (Yes, some people can make exceptional versions but most restaurants don’t employ these people anyway.)

 

  Delivery, I believe, is set to grow.

 

   How can restaurants compete? Well, I argue, that they must also get into the delivery business – as many were forced to in the second half of the lockdown.

 

"Something like Biryani By Kilo is a nationally recognised brand and its owners have taken it to this level purely on the basis of delivery."

   The problem is that most restaurants don’t understand delivery. They don’t know how to adapt their menus, they are reluctant to match the prices charged by delivery-only operations, which makes them too expensive and they are too reliant on delivery services like Zomato, Swiggy and the rest.

 

   First of all, they have to adapt their menus. Some dishes travel. Some don’t. I order a lot from Sagar in Delhi’s Defence Colony and they always urge me not to order the paper dosa. It does not travel well, they say. Stick to other dishes, they add.

 

   Most restaurants will have to offer well-designed delivery menus, full of dishes that are still good enough to eat half an hour after they are made. They need to also follow the Sagar formula of doing their own delivery – that is the only reliable way of forging a direct link with your customer.

 

   Next, chefs need to bury their egos, I spoke to two of Asia’s best chefs, Julien Royer in Singapore and Gaggan Anand in Bangkok. (Gaggan was Asia’s best chef, four years in a row; Julien has held the title for the last two.) Both have created delivery menus.

 

   Gaggan has had no ego hassles. He knows that the food at his flagship restaurant does not always travel so he has relied on a second restaurant brand (Miss Maria and Mr Singh), which serves Mexican-influenced Indian food. He has no hesitation in making keema rolls (with Mexican influences) in his own kitchen and sending them out for guests to eat at home. He is a chef, he says, and he is happy to cook whatever the circumstances require.

 

   I have seen the lockdown delivery menus of many restaurants and five-star hotels in India. There has been no attempt to adapt the food or to re-adjust the menu. That will have to change in the weeks ahead.

 

BRANDING

 

Even if restaurants cannot expand – and for the foreseeable future, I think people will adopt a wait-and-watch attitude, they still have an asset they can capitalise on to increase their revenues.

 

   The brand names of restaurants are now worth more than they ever were. Most big restaurants chains have expanded into what we used to once call ‘B’ or ‘C’ class centres because their brands are so well known. Somehow, however, they have not fully recognised the value of their brands in the delivery market.

 

   Delivery is much more brand based than we realise – and it will get even more so. Something like Biryani By Kilo is a nationally recognised brand and its owners have taken it to this level purely on the basis of delivery. Sagar is as well known for its restaurants as it is for delivery. Domino’s more or less invented the pizza delivery market in every territory it entered. So the market for branded delivery food is there for the taking.

 

   But the big Indian restaurant brands will have to focus on creating delivery spin-offs. I can understand a big restaurant brand not wanting to lower prices or tinker with its menus when it does delivery. Why would you go to say, Farzi Café, if you could get the same food at a lower cost at home?

 

  So (and I’ll stick with the Farzi hypothetical) it will have to create a brand like say, Farzi Express for delivery only. This brand could serve tweaked versions of the chain’s most famous dishes plus others created only for delivery.

 

   Eventually, I think, even hotels will have to look at that market. If you were ordering Chinese food for home delivery and were faced with a bewildering array of options, wouldn’t you rather order from somewhere like China Kitchen (in Delhi) because of its reputation for quality?

 

   The beauty of this model is that once you have tweaked the menu (say China Kitchen-At-Home or China Home Kitchen), you don’t actually have to cook all the food in the restaurant’s kitchen. You can open a kitchen anywhere (say, four kitchens in four corners of Delhi) and make the food there without having to pay restaurant-level rents.

 

   For established restaurants and hotels, delivery need not necessarily be a threat. It can be an opportunity.

 

   All this, of course, is based on a world that is still worried about Corona. But what happens when a vaccine is made available?

 

   Some scientists say they are confident that we could have a vaccine in wide circulation by next summer. A consortium of drug manufacturers has already begun production of a vaccine based on research from Oxford University. (Their calculation is that the vaccine could be approved by the end of the year so they are stockpiling it.)

 

   Then, is it back to square one for the restaurant business?

 

   That is another column for another time!

 

Disclaimer: The promoters of Dominos are related to the promoters of HT Media but there are no cross holdings. Gaggan Anand and Sameer Sain are co-founders with Vir Sanghvi for a not-for-profit platform to promote Indian chefs.

 

 

Posted On: 02 May 2020 12:37 PM
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