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Unlock 1.0: Opening your restaurant? Ask the healthcare experts

Restaurants across the country are taking the help of healthcare firms to ensure safe practices in a covid-19 world

Izumi, a popular Japanese restaurant in Mumbai, is one of the eateries to partner with workplace healthcare management company QB Health Technologies Pvt. Ltd (Qube) to establish new protocols for hygiene.
Izumi, a popular Japanese restaurant in Mumbai, is one of the eateries to partner with workplace healthcare management company QB Health Technologies Pvt. Ltd (Qube) to establish new protocols for hygiene.

One of the lesser inconveniences for chef Nooresha Kably, who runs the popular Japanese restaurant Izumi in Bandra, Mumbai, is that every time she tries to taste a spoonful of her cooking, it goes straight into her mask.

While this instinctive motion may present a Chaplin-esque visual, it’s taking Kably time to get used to the change. She has only recently started takeaways from her restaurant, shut since late March.

Still some distance away from hosting customers, especially in a city like Mumbai that accounts for a fifth of the covid-19 cases in the country, establishments have had to adapt to keep businesses running. Someone like Kably, who had her hands full at Izumi, a place with long waiting times for a table, had not even considered the takeaway or delivery model before the pandemic.

When the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) issued guidelines for businesses during the crisis, Kably decided to partner with workplace healthcare management company QB Health Technologies Pvt. Ltd (Qube) to establish new protocols for hygiene at Izumi. For all restaurants and their staff, the new normal is not merely about maintaining distance or washing hands—it starts with the way raw material is received, stored, sanitized, processed and packaged.

The Bandra restaurant has been converted into a sort of dormitory for the staff, so that they don’t have to travel daily and the chance of infection can be reduced. On 7 May, Qube undertook blood tests and basic screening of 20 employees.

“They (Qube) have spoken to each staff about the personal hygiene required at work," says Kably. “It took them a while to understand the gravity of the situation. There was (maybe) slackness earlier. Now, even if they step anywhere in the (building) compound, they wash their hands before they come in."

“We started deliveries only on 22 April—we took a call to pivot at that time," says another Qube client, Karyna Bajaj, executive director of KA Hospitality, which also runs eateries like Hakkasan, Yauatcha, CinCin and Nara. “We wanted to ensure we had enough time to plan everything. We have to continue our businesses, you know. This (virus) is not transmittable through food."

In this world of covid-19, restaurateurs like Kably and Bajaj are choosing to seek outside help in sanitizing their workspaces—and not just relying on guidelines given by the World Health Organization and other statutory bodies. Among other things, these external agencies have helped with detailing the do’s and don’ts and answering common questions like how frequently you should change your mask or what happens if you take off your gloves.

In some cases, owners have found that employees respond better to an “expert" or a consultant, taking warnings and instructions with greater seriousness. Sometimes, healthcare specialists, like Qube, are able to handle dire situations better—say, when someone is running a temperature or, worse, if a chef loses her taste for food, one of the possibly early symptoms of covid-19.

As part of the new hygiene practices, vegetables are kept in a sanitized crate in a quarantine area—if available—for 24 hours. Then they are washed and sanitized with chlorine, dried and stored—to be sanitized again before cooking. Every part of the chain is isolated—receiving, processing, cooking, service and pickup.

The procedures at Marriott hotels, for instance, include sanitizing kitchen surfaces every 6 hours. The Baker’s Dozen, an artisanal bakery, uses a “unique" German technology for packaging that prevents oxygen transfer from the environment into the product.

The Bombay Canteen, a much-feted outlet in Lower Parel, is looking at ways to roster teams so they work “in bubbles" and don’t interact with each other. “I wish we had the resources for thermal imaging but we don’t. ‘Work from home’ does not apply to us because a restaurant is like a factory," says Sameer Seth, one of the partners at The Bombay Canteen and O Pedro, which has not sought any external expertise.

Health specialists like Qube can help, for example, manage employees who test positive and “concierge their experience"—telling them what to do, step by step. They support others with physical health checks, looking for signs of communicable diseases, even administering certain vaccinations. By doing that, they become the first port of call.

“Most do the basic stuff," says Chris George, co-founder and chief executive officer, Qube. “But how to be paranoid and go the extra length? How to make sure you are marking your mask so you are not using someone else’s? How to interact with each other on a smoke break, for example? These things are known but when someone comes from outside and hammers it in…"

Consequently, certification or some sort of rating methodology has become significant. Equinox Labs , a food, water and air testing lab which audits workplaces, is coming up with a Hygiene Quotient (HQ) app for Android that can be used to click images from a checklist—like taking the temperature of food handlers, sanitizing tables, food, etc. Equinox’s team would be able to see these images in real time and restaurant owners could get daily and weekly data—and a hygiene score.

“In future, everyone will be concerned about food safety. Hence the whole industry is in panic mode. People are looking for certifications, a differentiator. Some say I have gamified this model, which could be true," says Equinox CEO Ashwin Bhadri, his laughter audible on the phone. Equinox audits about 14,000 clients a year in the sector, but that number may go up three times now.

Aggregator EazyDiner recently launched its certification, Safe+ Dining, a hygiene protocol for customers and restaurant employees that will also allow diners to give real-time feedback. Kapil Chopra, chairman of the EazyDiner board, says what makes a difference is frequent measurement and reinforcement of a standard. “If you are confident of your kitchen, a ‘livetable’ app can be used to send us a feed. I could make food with gloves but I could also have taken it off for doing the garnish, sprinkled dhania (coriander) without gloves. Maybe I was asymptomatic…" he says, explaining the errors possible out of habit.

Awareness and understanding still remain the biggest challenges. Some of the common questions George has encountered are: What happens if I hang out with someone? Can I share a cigarette? Will the smoke kill the virus? Will it die if I bathe in hot water?

“The underlying factor that works is fear, unfortunately," he says. “Building on that is important for what can go wrong."

Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.

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