Restaurants 2.0: The future of fine dining
Masked diners, burgers made by robots, home-delivered DIY cocktails and contactless buffets—here's what the road ahead for fine dining looks like
For Siloj Kumal, 21, the workplace has been serving as a temporary home for more than a month. Since 26 March, he has been living on the premises of the Magazine Street Kitchen, an experimental culinary space in Byculla, Mumbai, with 8-10 other team members—maintaining social distancing norms. This novel dining studio, with its red brick walls and high ceiling, spread across 2,500 sq. ft of what was once a large industrial estate, wears a deserted look these days. Within this sprawling space, Kumal spends his days kneading and rolling out dough to send out an array of breads to eager customers.
Restaurants across the country have been told to close temporarily to avoid large gatherings during the covid-19 pandemic. But teams such as this one have channelled their energies into special delivery menus, which started soon after the nationwide lockdown, to maintain the connect with customers. They are sending out dishes on the menu as well as marinated meats, premixes, weighed ingredients for baked goods, and more.
The delivery menu options from Food Matters, the F&B group co-founded by Gauri Devidayal, includes the best of Indian comfort food from Iktara in Mazgaon and bakery products from Mag St Bread Co, such as the Iktara gulab jamun, sourdough and croissant twiddles. The group’s fine-dining restaurants in Colaba, The Table and Mei 13, however, are completely shut, though The Table is expected to resume deliveries soon. The decision to shift some of the staff, such as Kumal, from their homes to the Magazine Street Kitchen premises was taken to ensure the safety of employees as well as customers. Safe deliveries can only happen if there is minimal contact with the outside world, thus mitigating the risk of infection.
Today, the dining room serves as a dorm. Laundry, meals and health checkups are taken care of. If it weren’t for the delivery menu, Kumal, who is from Nepal and has been working with the group for three years, would have been spending the lockdown in complete isolation. His family may not be with him but he has found a family in his teammates. “I even ended up celebrating my birthday during the lockdown, on 16 April, and the whole team was given the day off," he says.
This surprising integration of Kumal’s work and personal life is a result of the change in consumer behaviour wrought by the lockdown. People’s cravings haven’t changed, nor has the desire to experience a fine-dining meal. What has changed is the venue. The scene has shifted from the restaurant to the home. And industry insiders believe this is going to continue for a while, with waves of lockdowns, followed by short spells of opening up, likely in the coming months. This “open-close-open" policy means restaurants will have to keep switching from dining-in to delivery-only and back. In all likelihood, then, this new way of working and living may be here to stay for people like Kumal.
At this juncture, the Indian restaurant industry—which provides direct employment to nearly 7.3 million people—is suffering possibly its worst crisis ever. According to the National Restaurants Association of India (Nrai), many restaurants may shut down, rendering many employees jobless, if the government bailout doesn’t come soon. This is a sector with high operating costs, including rentals, licences and utility bills, so this lockdown has brought additional woes. “One big difference between us and retailers of shoes or clothes is that our inventory is perishable and theirs is not," says Anurag Katriar, Nrai president and executive director-CEO, deGustibus Hospitality, which runs restaurants such as Indigo and D:OH!
He cites the example of India’s largest alco-beverage chains, where beer worth crores of rupees is on the verge of being discarded. Not only have expansion plans at hospitality groups been put on hold, small and medium-format eateries are finding it hard to survive. The past week has already brought with it some closures, such as that of Le15 by celebrity chef Pooja Dhingra in Colaba, and there are rumours of noted legacy restaurants shutting down. In such a scenario, there is a slight glimmer of hope only for restaurants that choose to de-risk their business models and adapt to changing customer behaviour in order to stay relevant.
Fine dining at your doorstep
Smoke House Deli has started, for instance, a DIY Deli offering for both children and adults in Mumbai, delivering house-favourite marinated meats and chopped/pre-cooked ingredients in kits for pasta Arrabiata, grilled vegetables, Asian glazed roast chicken, and more. These come to your doorstep as compact packages, with recipe notes that feature instructions on ways to finish the dish in your own kitchen. Others, like Social and The Bombay Canteen, are helping customers keep up their spirits by sending out premixes for their signature cocktails. All you need to do is add the alcohol. Kylin is offering ready-to-cook sauces to help you whip up Asian delicacies at home.
Given that these are unprecedented times, this new way of functioning is work-in-progress for most restaurants. And they are tweaking processes regularly, striving to find a balance between operational viability and quality based on constant feedback. Sameer Seth, co-founder, Hunger Inc, which owns restaurants such as The Bombay Canteen, O Pedro and the Bombay Sweet Shop, has just packed a Kheema Pao Juicy Lucy DIY kit for delivery, with spicy cheese-stuffed mutton patties accompanied by pillowy wheat husk burger buns, spicy peri peri potato wedges and pickled tendli (ivy gourd), to be put together at home by the customer. “The menu, even for delivery, needs to be a balance between comfort and excitement. But we have to keep logistics in mind. We can’t pack certain dishes that won’t travel well. Take, for instance, raw fish. This is not the time to experiment with sending ceviche for delivery," he says.
Hotels have also taken the takeaway/delivery route, each in its own unique style. At AnnaMaya, the food hall at Andaz, Aerocity, Delhi, “empathy interviews" have been conducted to understand the emotional needs of guests and what they expect from a safe delivery menu. Based on those, the restaurant has come up with a delivery menu that is in sync with its ethos of “Eat Mindful, Shop Artisanal and Raise Awareness to Life".
Taj Hotels has started “Hospitality@Home", a contactless takeaway service, at 10 of its hotels in Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Chennai, with select dishes from its iconic restaurants available. So you can zip by to pick up kheema pav from Shamiana at the Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, the delicate Delhi-6 Mutton Stew from the coffee shop at Taj Lands End, Mumbai, chicken Tai-chin from Spicy Duck at Taj Palace, Delhi, Blue Ginger’s signature Vietnamese spicy red curry from Taj West End, Bengaluru, butter chilli garlic prawns from Taj Krishna’s Golden Dragon and an aromatic dish from Southern Spice, made with cauliflower and green peas in cilantro and coconut spice mix, in Hyderabad. And much more.
Similarly, Marriott International has launched the “Marriott on Wheels" initiative. Over 20 of its hotels have created a compact menu, with dishes delivered in sanitized vehicles. Choose from healthy options such as the quinoa chaat and artichoke and avocado salad with peppers and lettuce or hearty, comforting dishes like the classic Margherita pizza, smoked chicken tagliatelle, gosht rogan josh and Konkani curry.
Whether it is stand-alone restaurants or hotels, these DIY kits and delivery menus have been priced reasonably, keeping in mind the financial uncertainties in the lives of customers too. For instance, at Ether Atelier Chocolat in Mumbai, chef Prateek Bakhtiani has created bake-along kits for classic recipes such as smoked flourless chocolate cake at price points ( ₹1,500) that are at least 35% lower than his usual offerings.
Swapan Seth, founder, ThisContent, a digital content and online conversation management firm,claims to have his whole life delivered home. He says he has found ordering from AnnaMaya and Oh! Calcutta’s outlet in Gurugram a fine and seamless experience. “At Oh! Calcutta, they measure the temperature of the guy who cooks the food and the person who delivers. This is mentioned on the package. They also have a microbiologist in the kitchen (to gauge how well the food will travel). And above all, the food has just been divine," he says.
New menus for the new normal
However, Riyaaz Amlani, CEO and managing director of Impresario Handmade Restaurants, has a word of caution for eateries. He hopes they don’t get carried away into thinking that deliveries are some sort of magic pill that will bail out the industry. He believes they should simply be looked at as services being offered to keep up customer engagement during the lockdown. “The cost structure of a restaurant doesn’t allow you to be profitable only as a delivery-forward model," he says.
Having said that, working on delivery and takeaway menus during the lockdown has helped restaurants test waters for the day when they finally open up to welcome guests into the dining space. The delivery kitchens have turned into labs for experimentation, with new practices in hygiene, safety, operations and menu creation being assessed.
For instance, will it still be possible to import that smoked salmon from Norway or the special bincho-tan charcoal for grilling from Japan in a post-lockdown world, given the financial cloud that hovers over the industry? Many such questions are being worked out right now. “A lot of imported ingredients will be substituted by local and seasonal produce to support local vendors," says chef Jatin Mallick, co-founder, Tres, Delhi. “At our 2.0 version, menus will be shorter, considering low paying capacity across sectors and decrease in imports."
Going forward, the emphasis will be on designing experiences and bringing some joie de vivre back to the experience of eating out. The Hunger Inc team, for instance, is launching a programme at the Bombay Sweet Shop, The Bombay Canteen and O Pedro, titled Countdown to Good Times, that allows customers to subscribe to certain experiences. “We have a host of experiences that can be consumed at home and some at the restaurant eventually," says Sameer Seth. So, in the coming months, you could purchase an year-long subscription to Eggs Kejriwal or have chef Thomas Zacharias or Shahzad Hussain cook for you at home with your ingredients.
There is no doubt that reopening the fine-dining space will be fraught with challenges. The most critical of these will be reassuring diners that eating out is safe. For some time, fomite fear will be all-pervasive, creating a mistrust of all surfaces. “The elephant in the room is the trust deficit that will develop within a large number of customers. Everyone is suspect now. The final solution will only arrive with a cure or vaccine in place," says Manu Chandra, chef-partner, Olive group of restaurants.
To reassure customers, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) already has a list of guidelines in place for food businesses, specifically keeping the covid-19 pandemic in mind. These range from cough etiquette to screening of employees and guests alike using non-contact thermometers. They also spell out new social distancing norms for the staff and food handlers, who are required to maintain at least 1m distance from one another even while handling their lockers. In small kitchens in cities such as Mumbai and Delhi, one wonders how this will be enforced. “I can’t move a range that weighs 300kg. But we can cull the menu in a way that people are not required to work in sections placed next to one another in the kitchen," says Jaydeep Mukherjee, brand head, Smoke House Deli.
The FSSAI guidelines also recommend the creation of a local emergency team, especially in large food businesses, to deal with covid-19 infections, with one person designated as a covid-19 coordinator. The coming months, then, will see existing staff recast into hitherto unheard of roles, such as that of a hygiene manager. In fact, at St Regis, Mumbai, this is already being put into practice. The hotel has also tied up with hygiene partners to get the right kind of masks, gloves, safety gear and learn the best sanitation practices.
Staple offerings at fine-dining restaurants will be tweaked keeping these new safety norms in mind. For instance, at Marriott’s hotels, the buffet system is under review. Gone are the days when guests were allowed to serve themselves from a common container using a long spoon touched by countless other diners before them. The buffet will be reinvented completely, with more live stations and small single-serve portions. “At live counters, guests can see their food being prepared fresh in front of them. The entire focus is to reduce common touch points as much as possible while sanitizing the remaining ones," says Khushnooma Kapadia, area director of marketing, South Asia, Marriott International.
The table you eat at will also change. Vases full of exotic flowers, dainty tea lights and condiments will now share space with disposable menus, sanitizers, wipes and disposable, single-use table mats. “We are also looking at individual sealed pouches of sanitized cutlery. Air-conditioner filters will be cleaned frequently as they have emerged as a cause of concern," says Amlani.
The crowded restaurant concept will no longer work. According to chef Regi Mathew, co-owner and culinary director, Kappa Chakka Kandhari (Chennai and Bengaluru), the number of guests might have to be distributed by assigning different time slots. “We will also need to discourage big group bookings. We are planning to keep alternate tables blocked. Plans are afoot to open another floor in Bengaluru as well so that the overall capacity isn’t diminished," he says.
Contactless dining—a term that has been doing the rounds for a month now—will mean there will be less interaction with the serving staff. Delivery aggregator Zomato, which has been advocating this concept vociferously, outlines the experience in three steps: Scan a QR code on the table to explore the restaurant menu with dish and pairing recommendations and order through the app (you don’t need to talk to the wait staff to place an order or modify one). The server will make an appearance just once to get your order. When done, pay the bill via the app and leave. Don’t be surprised if someday you have robots delivering food to your table.
Social media is likely to play a stronger role in communicating these new safety measures to the customer. In fact, it already has. Recently, Devidayal had put up an Instagram post showing the processes in the kitchen and steps taken to mitigate the risk of infection. “It so happened that the pizza delivery incident (where a delivery boy tested positive for covid-19) took place in Delhi a few days later. And people wrote that they felt much better after seeing our video. Customers may not necessarily be able to see what is happening in the kitchen, so to be able to convey that and reassure them will be the key thing," she adds.
Going forward, some restaurants might want to show daily live feeds from the kitchen, or of the clean down once a table has to be prepared for new customers. “To reassure people, (social media feeds) could be supplemented by visible display of a third-party independent daily audit report, health report of all staff members, a report on regular sanitization of the restaurant, within the physical space as well," says Anindya Basu, a Kolkata-based food writer and content creator.
Putting this safety network in place is going to visibly add to restaurant operating costs but eateries believe earning customer trust will be key to survival in a post-lockdown world.
Meanwhile, what do such stringent protocols spell for the fabric of dining out? One can already get a taste of things to come from the experience of diners in other parts of the world where restaurants are now open. Andrew Genung, a Hong-Kong based food writer, stepped out for a meal at Frank’s after weeks on a Friday night in April. He chronicles this evening out in Eater, a food news and dining guide site, in a piece headlined “Here’s What Eating Out Might Look Like When Restaurants Reopen", dated 21 April. “I ordered at the bar, got my drink at the bar, and then immediately had to walk away from the bar and stand against the far wall. The bar itself had no stools, and featured printouts explaining that customers could not hang out at the bar. In a total reverse of the usual crush to buy drinks, the few guests in the quarter-full room were clustered in small groups against the far wall with me. Only they weren’t with me at all," he writes.
As Chandra explains, people used to dine out not just for the food but also for meaningful social interaction. Now, with strict guidelines in place, and not more than four guests allowed per table in some countries, the vibe and buzz of an eatery threatens to become a thing of the past. With servers and guests engaging in a pantomime of sorts, trying to gauge what the other is saying from behind masks, communication itself is likely to be a problem. “But that is a reality. I am hoping that the coming months will see restaurateurs come up with innovative multipronged approaches to the challenges to create the best possible experience for the customer," says Chandra.
NEW FORMATS: RESTAUMARTS, A MICHELIN-STARRED MEAL IN A BOX
- Restaumart: In an article for Forbes, writer Phil Lempert wonders if a grocery store inside a restaurant is perhaps the new reality.
- Michelin-starred restaurants start takeaways: Bo.Lan in Thailand, which has one Michelin star, has curated several takeaway options. Especially interesting is the Community-Sourced Agriculture package filled with organic veggies, curry pastes and protein of the day, all prepped, peeled, cut and ready for cooking, with recipes from the chefs provided.
- Robots are here to stay: At Creator, a gourmet burger service in San Francisco, all refrigeration and cooking processes are under the watch of a computer-controlled system, rather than “eyeballing it". According to a company statement, each burger is built completely inside a takeout box and never touched by staff.
- Takeaway cocktails: Now get an entire cocktail, shaken and stirred by expert bartenders, as a takeaway. It is already happening at The Old Man Singapore, which features in the World’s 50 Best Bars.
BAILING OUT THE INDUSTRY
A wish list from Anurag Katriar, NRAI president
- At a time when restaurants have been shut for over 40 days under provisions of the national Disaster Management Act and have been left with no cash reserves, they should not be asked to pay rent.
- The Union government should declare this a situation of force majeure wherein all contractual obligations stand suspended.
- The government should allow Employment State Insurance funds to be used to pay partial salaries.
- The government should change policy to restore income-tax credit on goods and services tax for the sector and draft an equitable e-commerce policy that protects the interests of small and medium enterprises.