It's no secret that the pandemic has deeply affected the hospitality industry. With more questions than answers, the industry seemed to have lost its balance for a while. But the industry has proven to be resilient, braving the pandemic and coming up with the most innovative ideas and techniques. For instance, did you hear about India’s first COVID-response restaurant? The brain behind the same is someone who’s always been innovating and has kept the industry on its toes with his concepts and ideas—Riyaaz Amlani. The CEO & MD of Impresario Handmade Restaurants—famed for the chain of SOCIAL spaces—has introduced SOCIAL with Distancing.
Bio bubbles, collapsible shutters, stacking eating posts one above the other, all of these elements can be seen at the newly opened SOCIAL outlets in Thane and Dwarka in Delhi-NCR. And it sure has turned heads in the industry.
We caught up with the man himself, socially distant of course, to know all about his latest offering:
Tell us about the design thinking behind the new SOCIAL outlets in Thane and Dwarka.
Launched in October 2020, Dwarka SOCIAL is India's very first COVID Response Ready Restaurant. It is a blend of three ideologies that seamlessly come together to make this a reality: the streets and alleyway shops of Vietnam that have inspired the design, the intricate lattice arrangement of Dwarka’s various sectors, and a world that’s ready for the ‘new normal’. The space has been planned and designed in such a way that it is primed to promote social distancing in the best possible way.
Thane SOCIAL was launched in November 2020. The outpost dons a distinct design identity that’s synonymous with the ‘city of lakes’. A historic trip to the past, the outpost depicts how traditional places to chill are experienced. It’s a true embodiment of the Thane maxim: it’s not just a place, but a vibe. Housed inside Viviana Mall, local homes and small businesses feature in the interiors in unique ways. Drawing inspiration from the makaan-dukaan concept, SOCIAL’s now iconic booths have been stacked on top of each other—made to look like a home above and a shop below—reminiscent of the busy streetscapes of Ram Maruti Road in Thane. The concept is also very much a part of SOCIAL’s new take on space design in the post-COVID era of social distancing.
How did you come up with the idea of creating a physically distant seating arrangement? Could you detail what makes the spaces special vis a vis safety as well as ambience?
The entire point of communing now is about ‘coexisting’ and not ‘overlapping’. Dwarka SOCIAL, is one of our newest, and most distinctive locations to date. The maxim for this outpost is ‘SOCIAL with distancing’, a space where we’re keeping the safety and hygiene of patrons and staff as our priority, along with SOCIAL’s signature irreverence. The outpost is a response to the “new normal” of the post-COVID world. With bio-bubbles set six feet apart, collapsible shutters and blinds, and staggered two-storey seating booths, it is a template for socially-distanced dining.
In terms of the materials used, we’ve natural wood, rice bricks, and corrugated steel sheets. Natural concrete lights have also been sourced especially for this outpost. What’s interesting, however, is that it was conceptualised long before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country, and was slated to launch in March 2020. As luck would have it, it had been designed in a way that perfectly aligned with the regulations of social distancing and it was for the brand SOCIAL which allowed for that bit of wordplay—SOCIAL With Distancing.
One of our other newly launched outposts Thane SOCIAL also serves as the COVID Response Ready Restaurant ideal for the new normal. #ThanyacheSOCIAL pays homage to Thane’s historical relevance, hyperlocal food culture, active interest in the performing arts, and the people’s unique way of living a quiet life despite the commercialisation of their surroundings with each element intricately crafted to reflect its rich traditions alongside the evolution of dining out in the new normal of ‘SOCIAL, with distancing’. At Thane SOCIAL, in a post-COVID world, one can dine at a barber’s shop, a chai ki dukaan, or the neighbourhood tailor shop, all of which are intimate yet isolated pods represented inside the outpost. The katta seating has tables that can be rearranged while the open dining areas have flexible seating that can be separated—all initiatives that accomodate adequate social distancing.
What were the challenges you faced in creating such an arrangement?
The pandemic postponed our plans, but we then decided to address the concerns about social distancing in the design. COVID is going to be here for a while, so we have to get used to living our lives. People do still want to go out and have a good time. We just have to find a way in which they can do so safely. For the new Thane outlet, we wanted a creative solution, which made people feel safe yet not compromise on the ‘restaurant’ experience. We wanted them to not think of the virus while they are there. After all, you are going to ‘hospitality’ and not a hospital. And because the outlet was in the fit-out stage, we had the ability to design it accordingly. We created little cubicles and rooms where diners can dine-in yet see people around. Be social yet responsible.
How have you embedded your restaurant's ethos with this new design?
A lot of the furniture at Dwarka SOCIAL has been repurposed from SOCIAL's other locations across the city. The result is a composite of granite table-tops, original leather benches, Jeanneret-inspired cane-back chairs, teakwood tables and tables topped with slabs of concrete.
How has the response from the visitors been for the same?
People are stepping out again and the confidence in dining out at restaurants is back. Currently, we are doing about 60% of the business as compared to pre-COVID numbers, but customers are gradually feeling safe and opting to dine out. The coming months look promising. We are very, very enthused that the demand for dining out is back. There is always delivery, but the future of dining will always be stronger and better and that will hold us in good stead.
Are there any upcoming new concepts that we should look out for?
We are taking SOCIAL to Indore this month. The design would also see elements that promote ‘SOCIAL With Distancing’.
How do you think that the socially distant seating arrangement will pan out in the post-COVID world?
While incorporating elements of COVID-readiness in the restaurant’s design itself is a smart move, the most important change in any restaurant will come in the form of digitisation. The hospitality industry is a people-to-people business, so there will always be interaction. But contactless interaction with the digitisation of menus, payment etc is the one change that is here to stay, as we do our best to keep ourselves, our customers and our teams safe.