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Dishing out the new normal



Little over a year ago when India went into lockdown, the restaurant industry was one of the first sectors to suffer. According to the Federation of Hotel & Restaurant Associations of India (FHRAI), 30 per cent of hotels and restaurants in the country have shut down permanently due to losses. And while the situation has improved in 2021, hospitality brands have had to make big changes in the way they operate.

Menu makeovers

For many standalone restaurants, the best way to adapt soon after the lockdown was to come up with compact menus with food items suitable for delivery. Though people are dining out more often this year, many establishments have retained these revised menus. “For the first three months [post lockdown], we were running on 50 per cent of our regular menu focussing on signature dishes and items that were safe in terms of method of preparation,” says Udayshankar Shenoy, chef-owner of Lazy Suzy in Indiranagar. Given that they imported certain ingredients such as artisanal flours from Switzerland for their breads, Shenoy had to rely on local alternatives due to import restrictions. Today, the café continues operating with a shorter menu but they introduced weekend specials in January.

Subhankar Dhar, chef-owner of Pot ’O’ Noodles faced a similar dilemma last year. “From reworking the menu to discounting and offering freebies, a lot of thought went into how to re-engage our customers once we reopened last year,” Dhar says. One of the big changes Dhar made was to introduce combo offers, which saw online traction.

Similarly, last April, Smoke House Deli introduced feast boxes – a curated meal for one that included a starter, salad, a main course and dessert. “Ideal for a working lunch, our target audience for these are the working professionals from the corporate, IT sector and the huge start-up community,” says Jaydeep Mukherjee, brand head, Smoke House Deli. They sell about 10-12 feast boxes a day across their Bengaluru outlets.

Kerala specialty restaurant Kappa Chakka Kandhari which reopened in March this year, has revamped its menu keeping customer safety in mind. The a la carte menu has given to set menus of nine curated plated meals and a selection of one-pot meals. The idea, as co-owner and chef Regi Mathew explains, was to enable patrons to enjoy individual meals without having to pass dishes around the table. “Customers feel more comfortable as there is no sharing required,” he adds. Once a customer makes a reservation, the menus are sent via WhatsApp to help the customer decide on his/her order.

Luxury hotels pivot

In an unprecedented move, several five-star hotels such as The Oberoi, ITC Hotels, Marriott, Conrad Bengaluru and Leela Palace have opened up their kitchens for home delivery either by partnering with apps such as Swiggy and Zomato or by starting their own delivery service. Amaan Kidwai, general manager at ITC Gardenia in Bengaluru, says, “Takeaway has become big. Luxury hotels were never in that space and it’s a totally new business stream for most hotels.” Tying up with food aggregators, The Flavours by ITC Hotels Menu showcases signature dishes from their coffee shop menu, while Gourmet Couch features options from their specialty restaurants such as Edo. Conrad Bengaluru, too initiated themed takeaway brunches paired with mocktails DIY kits. The Oberoi, Bengaluru, launched home delivery service in April last year. The menus, which are updated regularly, are shared via emails, WhatsApp broadcast and social media drives among their customer database. They also launched an in-suite dining experience last June for guests to book a suite with a balcony for a private dining experience.

The ever popular brunches and buffets were also reintroduced with safeguards in place. At the ITC Gardenia, buffet guards (glass or acrylic panels) have been put on the buffet table to avoid contamination.

Meal kits and cocktail mixers

Realising that more people were cooking at home during the lockdown, a few restaurants launched DIY kits. From Social’s popular cocktail mixers, Smoke House Deli’s marinated deli meats and Little Italy’s DIY pizza and pasta boxes, these kits comprise precooked or raw vegetables, sauces, condiments and raw or semi-cooked pasta or pizza bases. Amrut Mehta, director – Little Italy Group of Restaurants, tells us that they sell 200 pizza kits and 150 pasta kits every week in Bengaluru. “The pandemic made us more conscious of what we eat, who cooks it and taught us to do it ourselves rather than rely on takeaways,” says Mehta. The success of their meal kits prompted them to launch their FMCG venture, Acasa by Little Italy, to sell meal kits and other products online as well as in supermarkets. Smoke House Deli introduced DIY kits such as the Penne Arrabiata Kit, Fusilli in Cheesy Alfredo Kit, Ol’ School Mac n Cheese Kit or Peri Peri Chicken kit in May 2020; demand has dipped as people have started dining out more this year.

Meanwhile, Social, which introduced premade cocktail mixers as early as April last year, has seen great success. According to Mayank Bhatt, brand head of Social, they get 400 to 500 orders per week for their mixers across their Bengaluru outposts. “It is an extremely viable concept since most people prefer making drinks with ease at home, especially for house parties without indulging in too many ingredients,” Bhatt adds.

With popular restaurants in the city now running almost to full capacity over weekends, hospitality brands are optimistic that customers will feel more confident about stepping out in the near future.

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