Just when things were looking up, the second wave of coronavirus had to mess things up, hitting the hospitality industry hard with restaurants and bars remaining shut till April 30.
Dine-in outlets had barely started recovering from the first wave of pandemic and now with the surge in Covid cases and curfew, it’s the final nail in the coffin. Vishal Anand, founder, Moonshine Food Ventures, Delhi says, “We understand the risk of going out, and hence most of the restaurants have been following strict protocols and safety measures. Anybody who’s not being compliant should be penalized separately and not the industry as a whole. While delivery is being permitted, the integration is not as easy for dine-in outlets as it may seem.”
The hospitality sector was one of the worst-hit in the first phase itself and was trying to get back on its feet before the second wave. Anand adds, “Knee-jerk reactions by the government without involving key stakeholders will now lead to the hospitality sector taking a huge toll with many business owners shutting down resulting in huge job losses for all.”
Delhi will shut down this weekend to “break the chain of transmission” as it tackles a steep rise in Covid cases, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal announced on Friday. Essential activities, including weddings or travel from airports and train stations will be allowed with curfew passes. Auditoriums, restaurants, malls, gyms and spas will be shut down and movie theatres will be allowed with a third of their capacity on weekdays. Eating out is banned again and only home deliveries and takeaways will be allowed.
Dealing with the situation
Two days back, the Maharashtra government declared all hotels and restaurants will be closed for dine-in and only takeaways and home delivery will be allowed. The new “Break The Chain” guidelines introduced by the state government have forced almost 90 per cent of restaurants to shut down completely owing to continued losses.
Vikrant Batra, Co-Founder, Passion Hospitality & Batra bros Pvt Ltd says, “We are left with no choice but to either shut down our few outlets for some time or to start our operations a bit early from the routine timings. We are also experimenting with strategies that can possibly work for us in getting some sales.”
Just when the restaurant industry was bouncing back from last year's loss and was about to boom again, the new rules and decisions came in. Batra adds, “We have learned one thing that the show must go on and we have to try our best to adjust in this situation. So, we have started delivery from a few of our outlets last year and by god's grace we have been doing well in delivery.”
The fear of eating out during the pandemic last year gave an impetus to cloud kitchen and food delivery services and now again this year again people are back to square one. Sameer Seth, partner at Hunger Inc Hospitality (The Bombay Canteen, O Pedro, Bombay Sweet Shop) says, “It’s obviously been devastating for the industry to once again find itself in a situation like this. It’s been over a year that the entire industry is trying to cope with it and it’s just getting harder and harder because let’s face facts that at the end of the day the delivery business is not in line with the cost the hospitality business has taken up.”
Seth explains that it’s not easy to suddenly create new revenue models with the kind of cost they have to bear in terms of rent and salaries that they have to pay which will be sustainable in the long run. He says, “The only dream that we have right now is that this situation is temporary and we hope that we get some support from the government so that we can get through this situation. But we still hope that this lockdown is only for two weeks and we can come out of it soon.”
“With the lockdown comes a lot of negativity. All of us are dealing with this for over a year. Hunger Inc. started with two acts: something sweet, something savoury. So, two online ventures of food delivery were launched: one was Brun & Babka and the other was King Fu Canteen.”
Brun & Babka --- an online bakeshop where old school cakes and bakes get a modern makeover with local flavours and King Fu Canteen’ --- an ode to all things tasty. “You can just take your taste buds on a trip down Chinatown lanes with our smoky steamed chorizo buns, hot and spicy mutton momos that you will definitely want seconds of, crispy beef short rib and marrow wontons. Vegetarian specials shine in our corn and asparagus drums of heaven, crunchy dragon tofu toast and crispy lotus root dry fry.
In Bengaluru where there is no full shutdown, people and restaurateurs still feel takeaway is the best option rather than dining in restaurants. Kappa Chakka Kandhari, Bengaluru, reopened in March 2021 but had to shut down the dine-in again as virus cases went up. Chef Regi Mathew of Kappa Chakka says, “We now just have the takeaway model with comfort food. We have curated a special menu for our takeaway section.”
Poojya Prasad, co-founder of The Caffeine Baar, Bengaluru, says, “We had nearly 60 per cent occupancy in March 2021. It is down to 25 per cent. We are a part of the F&B sector, which will be impacted by the pandemic, regardless of official closures or not. We are mindful of this situation and we are optimising our costs. Takeaways and online deliveries are increasing. We are focusing on adding new dishes that are more suited to this format. Additionally, we have also launched specially packaged coffee beans, which appeal to coffee connoisseurs.”
Sailing through the difficult times
Aavika Chhawchharia, co-founder of Honey & Dough, Delhi, says, “It is extremely difficult for the owners, chefs and other workforce right now since we only have takeaways. We cannot operate at 100 per cent staff capacity, and we only call a limited number of staff members which further affects their livelihood.”
Chhawchharia pointed out is that during last year’s lockdown, mall owners were considerate enough to give rent concessions which helped the brands survive that phase. But now, since it’s neither a complete lockdown nor a complete operational situation, nobody will be considerate enough to cover the rents due to which it will become extremely difficult for restaurants to survive and pay those huge amounts of rentals to the landlord.
A lot of newly opened restaurants, who opened a year back, are also trying to survive this uncertain situation. The sales went up during the festive season, but drop again when the cases rise. “It’s a rough road for everybody right now and we are trying to support our staff as much as we can even during the lockdown. But this situation feels never ending at this point and we don’t know when things are going to go back to normal again,” adds Chhawchharia.
Pandemic is here to stay
For new innovative ideas, people are concentrating more on home deliveries, party packs, DIY kits and various other things they can deliver for a get-together at home. Chhawchharia adds, “People are becoming more and more creative. This second wave came as a shock to everybody because everything happened within a week. Nobody got time to prepare for anything, and now everybody is just waiting for things to settle down and get better.”
This is probably the worst time that the restaurant industry is going through. Chef Udit Maheshwari, co-founder, Pitaara Kitchen, Delhi, says, “Last year, we were looking for a space to set up a restaurant, this was before the cases had started rising around Diwali. We were quite perturbed to see that rents weren’t changing and unfortunately restaurants were still shutting down. It was a tough decision but we felt that right now a delivery kitchen is the most viable option. There is still a lot of reluctance on the part of diners to go to restaurants and eat. People would much rather eat restaurant-like food in the comfort and safety of their homes.”
Talking about how Pitaara Kitchen came into being, Maheshwari mentions that faced with a uncertain future, financially also it made more sense to run a delivery kitchen with overheads being lower vis-à-vis a restaurant. It will take some time for Covid to subside and customer confidence to come back. With home cooking picking up majorly in 2020, people looked inwards and started appreciating regional Indian cuisine more than ever.
People have their ways of coping with the situation. Chef Vikramjit Roy, the co-founder of Hello Panda, a gourmet Pan-Asian delivery service, explains that under the current situation, the key to sustenance is to make sure that everything around the business is controlled. “Whether it is the supply chain or your people, you have to make sure that everybody is safe. The primary concern is hygiene and sanitation processes that are followed regularly during this situation. It is extremely important for these processes to be followed without any flaw. We have to imbibe the processes that have been laid as a part of our lives, and make sure that we move with it. Lastly, it’s important to make sure that your fixed costs are low, and you are doing enough within whatever scope you have in terms of business to make sure you stay afloat. This is a time to prevail and that is exactly what we plan to do.”
The pandemic is not going away. Restaurateurs says that post the second wave of Covid, there has been a drop in walk-in customers. Even when restaurants and cafes were open, people were apprehensive of going out. This has impacted a large portion of revenue, which was dependent on walk-ins.