One of the first images to stream out of Europe of how restaurants will repurpose to stay alive during the COVID-induced uncertainty was of Mediamatic Eten from Amsterdam. In May-end, its team, led by Willem Velthoven, in a trial run of what restaurants will look like in the future, set up small greenhouses next to an outdoor water body, naming them serres séparées or separated greenhouses. The waiters or servers wore face shields and served food on a wooden board to prevent any direct contact between diners and the staff.
While we were still admiring the greenhouses came the news that Copenhagen’s famous restaurant, Noma— voted as the world’s best for several years in a row on World’s 50 Best list—had reopened as a hamburgers’ joint, where burgers were being served on picnic tables.
Chef René Redzepi’s famous restaurant has been on the radar of gastronomes as a fine diner that leverages seasonal and local ingredients in the best way possible. It was never a one-menu restaurant: people could walk in for lunch, order a fresh cod and a glass of beer for a meal, for instance. Chef Redzepi has decided to bring this kind of spontaneity back to his just reopened restaurant by turning Noma into a wine bar and burger joint with picnic benches.
Perhaps it’s time to welcome a new era, especially given the cataclysmic transformations that the restaurant industry is going through, thanks to the pandemic.
Will restaurants survive?
The figures are shocking. Four out of every 10 restaurants and cloud kitchens will likely be permanently shuttered in the absence of bailout packages, say reports. In the US, the National Restaurant Association (NRA) estimated that 3% of the country’s 1 million restaurants will just not restart. In India, the National Restaurant Association of India (NRA) is estimating as much as a 40% closure rate. And that would be tragic: Numbers indicate that the industry employs roughly 7.3 million people; in 2018-19, it contributed Rs 18,000 crore in taxes.
Several big and small names in the food world around the globe have already begun pulling the plug, not sure how long the COVID crisis will last. In New York, Chef Gabrielle Hamilton shut her popular restaurant, Prune, after 20 years in business. In her own words, “Prune is a cramped and lively bistro in Manhattan’s East Village,” a kind of restaurant that would make social distancing impossible.
With no clear directive from authorities, Hamilton decided to throw in the towel. Literally. She had seen daily sales dwindle—a $12,141 Saturday to a $4,188 Monday to a $2,093 Thursday.
There is news coming in that Eleven Madison Park, rated among the world’s best restaurants several-times-over, may just not reopen after the lockdown is lifted.
India, too, has seen its fair share of casualties. Le15, Mumbai’s foremost café and patisserie, was the first to shutter its Colaba outpost back in May. The rent rates in the city’s premium real estate stretch proved to be too immense for the glass-fronted café with a reputation of attracting SoBo’s influential names. Patissier Pooja Dhingra says, “I just couldn’t sustain the costs and overheads in a lockdown. The business wouldn’t survive. I knew what had to be done.”
Since then, there have been countless closures: Mirchi & Mime and Madeira & Mime have announced they will never reopen; Anurag Katriar, President of NRAI and owner of DeGustibus Hospitality, has shut down four restaurants in Mumbai; Riyaaz Amlani’s Impresario Restaurant shut down Smoke House Deli in Khan Market in New Delhi. “While we have been in constant negotiations with our landlords, we had to take a difficult but necessary decision to shut it, keeping in mind Khan Market’s expensive real estate,” says Amlani.
Chef Manish Mehrotra took a rather tough decision of closing down the London outpost of Indian Accent. In London itself, restaurants such as The Ledbury, Greenhouse and the Ritz hotel’s club have closed permanently.
Says Chef Vikas Seth, Culinary Director, Embassy Leisure (Sanchez and Sriracha restaurants in Bangalore), “There are several issues we were facing: high rentals, large costs for ingredients and other material. The conversations with landlords and vendors are an ongoing process.” Then there is the problem of manpower shortage, particularly in India facing realities of reverse migration.
Simply put, the bloodbath has just begun.
What will reopening a restaurant involve?
Restarting a restaurant will require a lot of money. Indian restaurateurs, for instance, speculate that it would cost at least Rs 50 lakh to put in place safety and hygiene matters, making it unviable for them to survive. Many eateries that have reopened are reporting footfalls as low as 8%.
Reinventing, then, is the name of the game, in which technology will play a big role. In India, delivery platforms such as Zomato and Dineout are talking about tech solutions in the form of ‘contactless dining’. These can be simple actions such as booking a table, pre-ordering meals, takeaway, digital ordering and digital payment, checking out the menu on a phone rather than an actual copy, or something more hi-tech like robots serving you drinks.
Hoteliers, of course, aren’t convinced.
Chef Rahul Akerkar, whose Qualia is already a legend in Mumbai, is trying to still figure out how the entire dining-in experience will change.
The dine-in experience will most likely be a blend: technology and safe service matched with a personalised experience; safe experience and more simplicity in food and service.
There are a lot of conversations about how things can open: 50% capacity dining rooms, a heavy emphasis on take-out, cashless payments and the like. However, cutting down on covers would mean many restaurants will struggle to survive, in countries such as India more so where even in cities that have opened up, there is a ban on them serving alcohol.
We have already reported how Chef Daniel Boulud launched Daniel Boulud Kitchen, a delivery concept with a weekly-changing menu, through an online platform, Tock To-Go. Since May, they have been making food at Daniel Kitchen that follows social distancing guidelines and it’s delivered with the same precautions. “The only way to survive is to innovate. We have come together as restaurateurs to form a lobbying body that will work with the government to revive the restaurant industry,” he says.
In Italy, cafes such as Zia Rilla have opened up just the outdoor section, spacing out the seating, each marked off by blue painter’s tape. Its capacity has been reduced by more than half, to 12 seats. A black spiral notebook sits on a back table, a log for customers’ names and phone numbers that would help if contact tracing ever became necessary.
When the pandemic struck, Chef Ferran Adria was in the final phases of preparing to reopen his world-famous El Bulli restaurant nine years after it closed. The Catalan chef has used the lockdown to work around the clock to ensure the August opening goes ahead as planned.
The Other Big Changes
When restaurants open, the focus will be on seasonal, smaller menus and safety and hygiene. More protocols, more sanitisation and huge bills!
For a while, most restaurants are unlikely to allow any walk-ins. Diners will have to make reservations for now as that will allow us to tell them what to expect.
New formats, new verticals
Gourmet home deliveries are a global phenomenon now.
Owner Aziz Bellarbi-Salah says it was a good way to get rid of perishable food items and attract passers-by in the well-populated neighbourhood.
Bellarbi-Salah has also stocked storefront shelves with face masks. He sold toilet paper and yeast in bulk when those items were missing from shelves at major supermarkets. “That was a great way to get customers,” Bellarbi-Salah said, claiming some of those retail items will stay even when his restaurant is fully opened back up.
Several restaurants in Singapore and a few in India are offering dine-at-home experiences. Two-Michelin-starred Saint Pierre at One Fullerton, an upscale contemporary French restaurant with Asian flourishes in Singapore, is organising virtual experiences that enable diners to enjoy an eight-course omakase bento set—a meal where the chef chooses the dishes — while chatting with friends. In the island country, F&B businesses have been ramping up their digital infrastructure to keep up with the flood of delivery orders during the circuit breaker period.
In London, tech-backed platform Banquist has partnered with Michelin-starred chefs to sell hampers stuffed with signature dishes. London’s temples of haute gastronomy have been experimenting in their own way. Michelin star restaurateur Andrew Wong’s famous eateries across Mayfair, Knightsbridge, Notting Hill and Chelsea are offering takeaways, online cooking classes and recipe boxes.
In Dubai, fine-dine Peruvian restaurant COVA delivers its famous dishes to people’s homes; a playlist accompanies the meal to help recreate the restaurant ambience.
In L.A, Chef Wolfgang Puck’s team is doing takeouts at Spago, a little takeout at Bel-Air Hotel and another one at Chinois.
Back here in India, restaurateurs and chefs are working around new formats to stay alive and hopefully, open. There is a scramble to get on to the home deliveries bandwagon to ride the storm. Restaurants are launching brand new home-delivery dining brands, DIY kits and curated experiences at home. “It may not be sustainable in the long run, but right now it is helping us stay afloat,” says Devidayal. She has collaborated with Amninder Sandhu —the chef credited with making Arth and slow cooking a phenomenon in Mumbai—to launch a home delivery-only brand, Iktara, which serves Punjabi and Awadhi cuisine, besides food from the northeastern regions, central and western regions of India.
A few restaurants such as The Bombay Canteen and O’Pedro in Mumbai are working on “recreating the emotions our food evokes”, says Sameer Seth, Founder and CEO, Hunger Inc. “People eat with us because of our food philosophy, our menus based on seasons and festivals.” Besides, their online poee-making workshop with
Executive Chef Hussain and cocktail-making classes with bar manager Rahul Raghav is a huge hit.
Kalra’s Massive Restaurants is recreating Masala Library at people’s homes—including sending servers, chefs, and food. “I am planning a premium line of delivery-only Indian dishes under my father’s legacy brand—Jiggs Kalra. At AD Singh’s restaurant, Guppy, meal deliveries come with playful things, such as specially designed fridge magnets, laptop stickers, puzzle cards to while your time away.
The meal comes with separately packed ingredients including chopped onions, parmesan cheese, fresh leaves, and a QR code for a video link of Chef Dalmia explaining how to cook it. Yet, most restaurateurs say they will need government help to keep the industry alive.
In the US, owners of independent restaurants are pushing hard for more assistance in a new stimulus package announced by the government. The World’s 50 Best is auctioning experiences with some of the best restaurants on their list to raise money to help those in trouble. In India, NRAI has launched ‘Rising for Restaurants’, a programme where you buy credit that can be redeemed later while dining at the restaurant you buy it from. This way, restaurants have some money to continue paying their staff.
According to a survey from the James Beard Foundation, 68% of restaurant owners said they have money to only keep the doors open for another month. America has in place the PPP, or Paycheck Protection Program, but James Beard Foundation reports it is completely inadequate for what restaurants need. What it desperately needs, the report says, is a special fund for the segment.
Either way you look at it, the dining out experience has undergone a sea change. Restaurants have to upgrade, upskill and meet the challenges of a new era. How long will it take before customers finally step out, celebrate in groups and enjoy their favourite meals at their favourite eateries? We will hopefully know the answers in the next few months.