Hope was on the menu.
Just a month ago, dine-in was recovering nicely. Consumers had emerged from their Covid bubbles ready to party. After an era of eating on the couch, it was time to dress (and mask) up and go out on the town, clink glasses with friends, listen to music and live life in the pure moment.
The hospitality industry, among the hardest hit during the Covid-19 pandemic, finally saw the light at the end of the dark tunnel. But just as restaurants, bars and hotel operators were preparing to welcome customers during the all-important holiday season, the arrival of the new, highly transmissible Omicron variant has made on-premise dining a challenge once again.
The dent on consumer confidence is palpable amid growing restrictions on travel, drinking and dining. With cities like Mumbai and Delhi imposing strict new curbs like night curfews and limiting restaurant dining to 50 per cent to counter a third wave, a degree of pre-vaccine dread has crept back in.
Restaurants of all stripes, from well-off multi-city chains to tiny artisan cafes, are feeling the heat. Chef Manish Mehrotra (Indian Accent and Comorin) said the trouble started early in December when the government postponed the reopening of international air travel. “This directly led to the cancellation of some parties at Indian Accent, which has a significant global clientele.”
Bars and nightclubs are on edge, too. Though hopeful that Omicron would prove to be less deadly than Delta, Yangdup Lama, co-owner of Sidecar in Delhi, said some damage had already been done. “Our events at the bars for New Year’s eve might not be as successful as we had hoped,” he rued.
The emergence of the variant has exacerbated existing supply chain issues. “Sometimes it’s hard to get things like butter and cream as all suppliers are playing it safe. Staffing is also proving to be a major issue,” lamented Ralph Prazeres of Goa-based patisserie Padaria Prazeres, famed for its delectable egg custard tarts known as pasteis de natas.
The growing fears around the Omicron have left many like Prazeres worrying about the future. “The government should support small businesses by cutting down electricity rates and garbage fees,” he said, hopeful of a reprieve.
With a bailout unlikely, it is probable that the industry will continue to wrestle with staffing issues, limited resources and ingredient availability in the coming months. The road to recovery is a long haul.
But it’s not all gloom and doom. Optimism still reigns in the hospitality world, partly because of the reportedly low virulence of Omicron. Also, people are more prepared this time around. With a Covid playbook in place, the industry is in a far better place than it was a year ago.
Through all its peaks and troughs, 2021 was a year of extraordinary Covid-19 learning. “There was a time when people were skeptical about even ordering food from restaurants. The next phase was for them to feel safe enough to dine-in again. Today, people have accepted a new kind of reality of enjoying the dining experiences, but with norms set by restaurants. We believe this is how we will continue to evolve,” said Sameer Seth, partner Hunger Inc Hospitality (The Bombay Canteen, O Pedro and Bombay Sweet Shop).
Hospitality operators have invested generously on better hygiene and sanitation in the past year to ensure safer eateries and nightclubs. ITC Grand Central, for instance, has equipped its public areas including restaurants and banquets with PHI (Photohydroionisation) Technology, which continuously deactivates the SARS-Cov-2 virus, shared the hotel’s general manager Bhagwan Balani.
Restaurateurs have also mastered the art of running a tight ship. “Owing to the financial stress caused by the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, we tightened our costs with the help of our teams, landlords and vendors. This is key to helping us rebound back in the year ahead,” said AD Singh, founder and managing director Olive Bar and Kitchen.
Zorawar Kalra, founder and managing director Massive Foods, (Masala Library, Farzi Café) echoed the view. “We are not going to sign crazy rents anymore. No more white elephants. We will only be at landmark locations and we won’t expand just for the sake of expansion.”
The outlook for 2022 remains bullish. While conceding the New Year will continue to be a year of transition, hospitality bosses are hoping for a year of uninterrupted operations once the Omicron scare subsides.
Singh doesn’t just expect to resume the company’s old growth trajectory, he’s actually expecting sales to exceed the past for 2022. “Next year we will be opening Olive Cafe and Bar in Chandigarh, Ludhiana and Amritsar, and a new Olive brand extension in NCR.”
Riyaaz Amlani, CEO Impresario, (Social, Smokehouse Deli) expects an even stronger bounce back. With a dozen new Social outlets in the pipeline for next year, Amlani said he was banking on the huge pent-up demand generated by Covid. “People have saved money and are yearning to go out. There is nothing like a good drought, a good war or a good tragedy to kickstart consumption.”
Even Bengaluru-based Abhijit Saha, founder Ace Hospitality and Consulting, who had to shutter two of his restaurants owing to pandemic-induced uncertainties, remained upbeat about his latest launches, The Pet People Café and Glass. “Eating out is a social and gastronomic experience we all love. I am cautiously hopeful that the recovery which began post the second wave will accelerate, and people will go back to restaurants and bars for the real McCoy.”
The New Year will accelerate the existing transformations spurred by the pandemic. Kalra believed the rethinking of restaurant design would see a lot of eateries having social distancing in mind from the ground up. “The distances between the tables will be permanently increased. Also, eateries with terraces and open air will become more popular,” he said.
Karyna Bajaj, Executive Director KA hospitality (Hakkasan, Nara Thai and CinCin) emphasised the importance of deepening ties with patrons. “In a post-Covid world, engaging with guests one-on-one through innovative experiences will gain precedence.” Seth likewise underlined a two-way street of conversation with diners by way of workshops, interactive sessions with chefs or a special loyals club.
Many companies will continue to kick around the idea of a hybrid work environment by straddling in-restaurant dining with home delivery. A case in point is south-based chain Kappa Chakka Kandhari, which only offered dine-in before the pandemic.
“Not only did we adapt our restaurant for home delivery, we also launched DumBir, a delivery-only vertical that specialises in regional Indian biryanis and bento boxes,” pointed Augustine Kurien, co-partner Kappa Chakka Kandhari, which has outlets in Chennai and Bengaluru.
The chain has also introduced curated festival offerings (like Onasadhya meal-in-a-box for Onam and Christmas takeaway box) to engage with customers who are not comfortable to step out of their homes due to the contagion, and yet craving a certain kind of meal on special occasions.
Mumbai-based chef Vicky Ratnani, who pivoted to cloud kitchens during the pandemic, was confident delivery would see a significant upgrade in quality. “The notion that you can only have a below-average, cheap meal come out of a dark kitchen is humbug,” opined the veteran, who has introduced Speak Burgers, a range of chef-driven burgers that come artfully packaged with a handwritten note.
In keeping with the zeitgeist, menus will increasingly veer toward sustainability. Mehrotra pointed to the spiking interest in vegetarian and vegan food in the wake of Covid. “Earlier, we would have one or two people in fifteen days asking for a vegan menu. Now we get at least two in a day. So we are doing vegan tasting menus, and coming up with more meat-free dishes.”
But even as menus and business models get tweaked, no one has a crystal ball. Faced with a super mutant that takes off like a rocket, it is hard to say how things will play out in the short and long term.
Amid talk of another lockdown, Seth conceded there may be challenging days ahead. “We can only tell the consequences Omicron may have on a day-to-day basis. Who can say if this is going to be the last virus? To thrive, we must constantly adapt and evolve, and not be set in our ways.”
Amlani spelled out the survival mantra for Omicovid times: Contract and live on minimal life support when the going is tough. Expand and grow when things improve.
“You have to think like a virus.”
Sona Bahadur is a Mumbai-based food writer.