Restaurants went out of their way to incorporate deliveries in their menu, some more than others. Of course, that was a given since the Covid-19 induced pandemic brought life to a standstill across the country and the world early this year.
As Anjan Chatterjee, founder of Specialty Restaurants Ltd. that runs popular brands like Mainland China, Oh! Calcutta, Hoppipola, POH, Sigree among others told Lounge, “These are unprecedented times for the hospitality industry. We’re facing huge cash burn and we need to get out of this rough patch.”
However, the sheer adaptiveness and constant pivots make for a compelling story that amplifies what it means to survive through one of the most unpredictable times for the hospitality industry. Here are just a few ways in which restaurants managed to stay afloat and serve customers through the pandemic.
One of the most innovative ways in which restaurants adapted to the pandemic was by launching their own apps, be it a QSR chain in Punjab or a five-star group like the Taj. The former is Uncle Jack’s with five outlets in Punjab that used its in-house app to streamline deliveries and constantly stay in touch with customers.
Ankush Arora, Founder and MD of Uncle Jack’s India said that the app also helped profitability to a great extent. “From about 20 deliveries pre-Covid 19, we were doing about 150 deliveries every day during the lockdown. On our app, we could offer good deals, communicate directly and even launch merchandise for our customers.”
Indian Hotels Company (IHCL), the hospitality company with the Taj hotels brand, also launched Qmin in June that serves signature dishes from their iconic hotels right to customers’ doorstep across 13 cities including Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, Kolkata, Pune, Lucknow, Hyderabad, Jaipur, Amritsar and more. Qmin has also recently expanded its scope to launch the gourmet Qmin Shop in Mumbai with more coming up across cities soon, and will also extend to the Company’s loyalty platform, where guests can earn and burn points using Qmin.
“We worked round the clock to ensure that the Qmin app was launched by July,” a representative from IHCL said. Only recently, TajSATS - IHCL’s air catering brand launched a new brand, ANUKA, on Qmin. ANUKA is a multi-cuisine virtual restaurant available on Qmin for customers in Delhi and Mumbai, currently, offering a repertoire of gourmet delights to guests in the comfort of their home. And extension of this is ANUKA Comfort, which delivers authentic and wholesome meals in the comfort of one's home.
“As far as financials are concerned, costs are higher due to packaging material involved and the percentage party platforms like Swiggy, Zomato etc charge. And restaurants are also at the mercy of availability of delivery personnel at any given time. These platforms charge additional for guaranteed clicks and visibility of your brand on their platforms. This reduces the profitability to a huge extent,” Karan Khilnani, partner at Pune’s Elephant & Co Gastropub explained.
To counter this, both Uncle Jack’s as well as Taj group use their own riders to cut down on commissions charged by third-party apps. It’s a trend that extended to many restaurants who were conscious that their food be delivered the same way its prepared.
By ensuring deliveries were handled in-house, restaurants could be assured that their meals would travel safely until the customers’ dining table. With that in mind, Udita Khaitan, who owns the chic dining place Ditas near Qutub Minar in Delhi decided to deliver food in her own car.
“To keep my staff and customers safe, I asked customers if they wanted the food delivered in my car. In the end, 70% of customers preferred if we delivered in my car,” Khaitan said.
Restaurants also opened up new ventures to keep themselves in the black as the lockdown restrictions started easing.
In Mumbai, Gauri Devidayal turned her B2B bakery concept Magazine Street Bakery to a B2C concept and even expanded the geographical reach by extending deliveries to Alibaug. Devidayal, who has a family home in the satellite city, said gauging the ecosystem made her realise that many well-to-do families had come to Alibaug for a break.
“For me, it was important to grow revenue rather than cut costs. We launched our bakery products for the public and started once-a-week deliveries to Alibaug. Now we do daily deliveries of all our brands to Alibaug,” Devidayal, who also counts fine-dining places like The Table and Miss T and delivery-only Iktara among her ventures, said. Not only that, Devidayal also found the lack of DIY pizza options baffling and recently started Mag St Toppings for Alibaug folks with a Mumbai launch planned for December.
Mansij Vaidya, Founder Partner at Tulli Turmeric in Mumbai also started Rabri Aur Jalebi this month, a sweetshop delivery service dedicated to serving mithais like motichoor laddoos, pista rolls, kaju katli and of course rabris and jalebis among others. “We had a halwai on board and we thought it would be best to utilise his skills during this period. We always wanted to branch out to sweets after we did a small test run last year and I am happy to say that Rabri Aur Jalebi is a full-fledged brand operational throughout the year that makes 20 types of made-to-order sweets.”
In Pune, Khilnani said they’ve started a new delivery business too. “Deliveries provide an added revenue. We have started another brand that does Kolkata-style rolls by the name Kathi Roll Inc which is a QSR delivery model that we are operating out of the same kitchen as Elephant & Co. The response has been decent so far and we would definitely continue this focus on food deliveries going ahead.”
Restaurants did not shy away from experimenting with new dining formats in the virtual world. Many of them curated special menus and meals that were recreated online. As Ranbir Nagpal, Partner at Mumbai's Yazu said, “Through the Yazu online experience, the customers were able to dine together on the same day, same time from home, during their group calls, by just placing the order a day prior, with the dishes picked from the exclusive monthly menu.”
Qualia tried a similar format wherein they championed weekend family meals that had different cuisines from around the world. “We did Greek, Iranian, Italian, even Gujarati and Maharashtrian weekend meals for 2-4 people with 5-6 food items on weekends during the lockdown that was very successful for us,” chef-owner Rahul Akerkar said adding that the format also ensured that taking pre-orders for the weekend specials was a great way to manage ingredient cost and cut down on wastage “at a time when we were very conscious of controlling all costs”.
The New Dine-In Experience
With lockdown rules easing up, the focus has shifted back to dine-in for most establishments. “The awareness about the pandemic is much higher now and people know exactly what precautions to take. People are no longer afraid to step out. Weekends see a decent amount of footfall and guests aren’t afraid to celebrate special occasions like birthdays and anniversaries outside at restaurants,” Khilnani of Elephant & Co Gastropub said.
To ensure that the dine-in experience is as seamless as possible, premium restaurants are going the extra mile to take care of their guests. Khaitan of Ditas, who has put up teddy bears at empty tables dressed with coffee and ginger ale and holding signboards like ‘No Hugging’ to maintain social distancing norms, is surprised by the number of footfalls at her restaurant.
“We were shocked to see people out and about once the lockdown restrictions lifted. We cut our delivery menu short and expanded our outdoor area and added the teddy bears to make the dine-in area look cheerful and full,” she said.
Akerkar says that kerbside dining is the accepted form of eating out across the world and thanks to it, Qualia has been able to get full occupancy on weekends in the limited period it has re-opened in Mumbai.
With deliveries and dine-in options both open to the public now, its safe to assume that the innovations from the hospitality industry will only continue to grow in the weeks ahead.