We are good now. In the past few months that we opened for business, we have not only made our restaurants (and its outlets) work, we have also been able to launch not one, but four cloud kitchen brands – each with its own unique character. We have introduced a DIY bao and taco box, and finally get our first microbrewery restaurant kickstarted with the same excitement as we had when conceiving it (well almost).
But perhaps our biggest achievement of this season is working with a slim team and still managing to give our diners an experience that they have come to associate with our brand. How did we do it? Honestly, I wouldn’t have a straight answer to this.
However, what I can tell you is this: a few months ago, amidst the lockdown and the ensuing uncertainty, this would have been a far, far call. In fact, even when the call came for restaurant businesses to reopen – minus the bar, which is at the heart of every modern-day dining experience – the quandary was how would we survive.
A predicament that only became worse as news of growing joblessness and restaurants shutting shops – good ones too. Even as we decided to look the other way with a “we shall cross the bridge when we come to it” thought, and being active on Instagram, Zoom forums and others, the eerie feeling that this may be the ‘kitchen nightmare’ of the decade never left my mind. It was vital to consider options to protect our restaurant and F&B team. With each passing week, I confess, even the finest of optimistic people began losing hope – till we were finally asked to reopen.
The decision was the shot in the arm we needed, albeit rift with another set of challenges. As we shorten our menu to operate efficiently within the physical distancing norms, promote sustainability and reduce wastage, while activating our limited team to their optimal output. We had to reorganise team members to suit the new norm, which means each member present on the ground was handling multiple responsibilities– and this was the case in the kitchen too. Each day was a new challenge and needed different solutions.
Help came from an unexpected quarter – our diners, both patrons and fresh faces – who would walk into our restaurants (in small numbers, initially) with a renewed sense of relief and excitement.
And no one complained about the shortened menu – of course, we made sure there was always scope for going that extra mile, if informed in advance. Like for our Hopshaus menu, the hot-selling Atta Chicken, which was on the menu is now made on special request and needs at least a confirmed booking and a day’s notice compared to the few hours’ prior intimation pre-pandemic. The pandemic had hit our financial backbone, and the only way to repair it, is to have more organised preparation.
A small menu, pre-confirmed bookings helped us ensure quality of food while harnessing our reduced resources to their maximum potential. Having said that, we still could take in a few requests with ease, thanks to a team which has over the years excelled in the art of pro-local cooking. Our endeavour of promoting home-grown produce, and the association that came as a result of that, proved to be another advantage during this time. Their strategy of increasing the product list allowed us to create interesting twists in our special menus made up of the popular dishes that needed extra prep work.
The rise in home delivery was yet another opportunity. Of course, home deliveries are not an ideal model for a full-scale restaurant, but it helped many of us restart our kitchens and run them in good capacity with limited staff members. How did we make them work? Shorter menus, smarter execution. Today, we use each of our home delivery brands to create a new experience in our other brick and mortar ones. We even extended our catering business unit that today clocks in as many outdoors as home parties with a brownie point-worthy bespoke menu where a guest can curate his own selection from the dishes served across all our brands.
What has worked really for us as a team and the F&B business at large? In retrospection, I think it was getting organised, and getting better at it with each passing day. And gratefulness. Much like our diners, we too have become more attuned to the art of socialising through dining out. These are the two lessons, which I feel, will continue to lead us in 2021 (and ahead), situation notwithstanding.
(Chef Vikas Seth is the Culinary Director of Embassy Leisure, Lounge Hospitality that owns Sanchez, Sriracha & Hopshaus among others)