Before 2020, we took a lot of things for granted, and dining out was one of them. Little did we know that one day we may be denied the joy of eating our favourite meal at a restaurant of our choice. The lockdown days may feel like a fever dream today, but the way we dine has changed forever. The changes that were once implemented to help the industry tide over the pandemic have now become the norm.
Now, with COVID cases spiking all over the country and no reliable ways to predict the course of the pandemic, the restaurant industry is on its toes to always stay one step ahead of the virus.
After having laid low for months, diners are now seemingly throwing caution to the wind and thronging restaurants.
"There is also comfort in the fact that the government has relaxed the mask mandate. Over the last two months, footfalls in restaurants are back to pre-covid levels and even better," says Prashant Issar, the Founder & CEO of Stratix Hospitality.
Perhaps, the need to socialise also overrides any residual paranoia about COVID, especially after the two lockdowns in two years.
The dining industry is thriving and the stock market is proof, according to Zorawar Kalra, the Founder and Managing Director, Massive Restaurants Pvt. Ltd. "The food and restaurant industry stocks have been flourishing. It shows that the fundamental of the industry is very strong and the industry is recession-proof."
As India returns to dining, what top challenges and innovations lay in wait for the hospitality industry?
Challenges are aplenty, starting with the pressing issue of hygiene, which is the top priority for the restaurant industry, according to Arvin Tucker- the owner of Chufang Asian Kitchen and Bar (Mumbai).
"The standard of cleanliness has risen to a point where everything needs to be checked constantly," says Tucker. "Cost of the goods, keeping quality staff, and digitization of operations are now only minor challenges for the food and beverage sector."
Along with giving customers the confidence to dine, every restaurant also must ensure the health of the staff, opines Issar.
Covid has also been a masterclass in running a tight ship, according to Kalra. "Cutting costs has been one of the key things that we have learnt, and going forward, the industry will become a lot leaner," he points out.
Calling the pandemic a "learning curve", Keenan Tham, Managing Director & Co-Founder of the Mumbai-based Pebble Street Hospitality highlights the severe impact of lockdown and restrictions on the supply chain. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise. "It also taught us to create new avenues of procurement, which will help us in the long run."
The silver lining on the cloud
"Dining out will always be one of the most preferred social activities, but the pandemic has made the delivery of premium foods more acceptable," points out Tham.
If you can enjoy restaurant-quality food at the same cost from the comfort of your home, why step out in the first place? Will take out finally knock out dining in from its pedestal?
"Ultimately, both will progress at a balanced pace," says Tucker. "Takeouts are quite simple and convenient, so inevitably people will decide to order when they are busy, and they will undoubtedly decide to go out and enjoy the ambience and vibe at the restaurant when they have free time, so for me, both are the future."
"Delivery has become an essential vertical for us. Both dining in and delivery are coexisting well and have helped strengthen our toplines," informs Issar.
The ease of ordering in has led to the mushrooming of cloud kitchens everywhere, and their unit economics are "quite superior" compared to offline kitchens, according to Kalra. "Sales from a 300 sqft cloud kitchen can rival that of some 4000 sqft restaurants, which is why we are allocating 50% of our resources to this side of the business."
What's on the menu?
Dining has always been an indulgent experience, but even that seems to be changing in the pandemic era. In 2020, the term "immunity" dominated search trends on the internet. According to Google Trends, it saw a steep rise in March 2020.
The trend reflects the renewed interest in wellness and health. Globally, veganism, keto and low-carb foods are taking centre stage. So how are restaurants reshaping their menu to suit these changing needs?
"While pandemic has bolstered healthy eating and wellness, the country was bitten by the fitness bug close to a decade ago," points out Issar.
Speaking about his brand new venture Legume at Mumbai's Palladium mall, Issar explains how non-veg foods are now being re-imagined. "Think a vegan anda burjee and plant-based 'chicken' nuggets."
At Kalra's Slyce Pizza and Louis Burger, pizza and burgers are shedding their "unhealthy" tags. "One can have the grilled chicken burger with a bit of cheese wrapped in lettuce, avocado pizza in a thin crust, which is your salad on a pizza."
While Tham's Foo and Koko are driving the Jain, gluten-free and vegan trends, Tucker's Chufang is leaning towards vegan and vegetarian options. "This is how changes are happening as a result of the customers' health consciousness," adds the latter.
Of robots and 3D-printed sushi
Automation in the restaurant industry may seem like a newfangled concept, but in the west, it has already become widespread, according to Issar. "Unlike India, the west has a workforce challenge."
Food chains like Dominos have been dropping off pizzas with delivery drones in Germany. Another California-based company Zume has been using robotics to make pizzas in trucks while they are on their way to deliver the order.
In India, automation has been overtaking restaurant operations at a steady pace. The need for social distancing and the migration of skilled workers to rural areas during the lockdown has only added to the momentum.
Right from ordering food online to contactless pay, technology has improved customer experience by leaps and bounds. It has encouraged a seamless and non-intrusive dining experience; increased efficiency; reduced labour costs, and brought in innovation.
Evolving technology will also help understand customer needs better, predicting their dietary preferences, and spending habits. "Avenues to reach out to customers would get more personalised," states Tham.
With metaverse poised to become a reality, who knows what new possibilities are in store for the industry. "It will position itself between the virtual and real world. The actions you take in the former will give you real-life benefits in the latter," says Kalra whose company is trying to get most of its plans online.
In the age of automation, sci-fi lovers also have a lot to look forward to. Soon, we may have robots cooking meals. "3D printed sushi is also just around the corner, and will soon be gracing your plates!" adds Tham.
Sustainability is never off the table
The industry is also putting its heads together to minimise its impact on the planet. This includes efforts to shorten supply chains, reduce food wastage and use more ethical means to produce crops.
Recently, the Indian government cracked down on single-use plastics. Beverage companies and restaurants that depended on plastic straws had to think on their feet to come up with a viable and cost-effective solution in record time. "We always find a way. Businesses today are adept. While certain costs have gone up, some have come down. We have adapted to the situation, and have learnt to work with a slightly lesser workforce to make such innovations happen," says Issar.
Massive Restaurants has been sourcing local ingredients for its culinary uses. "The ingredients are cheaper, the food tastes better and you can provide a better experience at higher profit margins. Everyone's a winner here!" says Kalra.
Prashant Issar Stratix
Arvin Tucker Chufang
Restaurant trends 2022
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