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Eateries pivot to ‘contactless delivery’ but worry about survival



Yasir Merchant looks over his empty milkshake bar and wonders if his business of frozen desserts that captured people’s taste buds in the city and multiplied into four outlets in four years, will survive in a post-coronavirus world.
Merchant is not alone in his fears. Hardeep Chadha, has no tables to seat or water glasses to fill at his open air North Indian restaurant in Bandra. Instead his kitchen looks more like a surgical ward these days with the smell of disinfectants hanging in the air and staff with face shields as they hand out food packets with much trepidation. For Chadha who climbed the ranks in high-end kitchens before launching Khane Khas in 1989, it’s not the kind of service that the hospitality industry, which reared him, or his three-decade-old restaurant prides itself on.

But for hundreds of restaurants across the city, mandated to close their dining rooms to slow the spread of coronavirus, contactless delivery may be their only way to stay open and afloat.
Whether they’ve been in business for a matter of days, years, or for decades, Mumbai’s restaurateurs say they’ve been walloped by the pandemic and that the stakes are dire. But even as food districts turn into ghost towns and most eateries stay temporarily shuttered, a growing contingent of restaurants are cobbling together their staff, inventory, truncated menus, and popping up on food aggregator apps to capture whatever little demand there is by pivoting to delivery in order to pull through these uncertain times.
If ‘contactless delivery’ — where an order is simply left at the doorstep or designated drop-off point — is the new culinary buzzword, the pace at which hygiene protocols and operations focused on delivery are being adopted — be it thermal guns to check temperatures of kitchen staff and riders before worrying about the temperature of their cold storage; use of protective gear more than aprons; maintaining distance within the kitchen; and thorough scrub down of chairs, tables, door knobs and countertops — indicates how precarious survival has become for them.
Diners and pubs like Smokehouse Deli and Social resumed operations last week (with makeshift arrangement for the staff to live comfortably within the premises) and so did Theobroma, the patisserie — all of them offering a limited lockdown menu spanning items that are bestsellers, essentials, can stay fresh for longer and feel good fare that offer fleeting respite from worry. “Abridged menus mean fewer ingredients, lesser issues with storage and waste; and lower cooking complexity, helping restaurants better manage the rigours of a delivery kitchen at a time when the food supply chain poses fresh challenges led by soaring prices, every day,” explains Riyaaz Amlani, CEO and MD of Impresario Entertainment & Hospitality who has over 56 brands under his name including Smoke House Deli, Salt Water Cafe and Social.
Naved TR, 25 reflects the resilience of small and new eateries struggling to stay connected to their patrons during this pandemic induced void. He upped the shutters of his six-month-old Mughlai joint three days following the lockdown, stocked up raw ingredients both difficult and expensive to procure and prepped his kitchen staff to continuously sanitise themselves and the kitchen, even if it meant catering to five orders in a day as opposed to the usual 50. In an industry with tight profit margins, Naved decided it was time to take chances — but is uncertain about what the future holds. “I’m okay for a month or two, after that I don’t know,” he says. “It is quite stressful. I was expecting to break even this month. Instead, I will need at least two months to regain this stability if things settle soon but if it takes longer, I may have to shut shop, permanently.”
While takeouts and delivery is keeping the culinary business floating, selling meals for people to eat at home is not nearly enough for restaurants to make the money they need to survive. “This will only serve as a stop-gap arrangement and not a model that will pivot, given the real estate and infrastructure costs involved,” deadpans Amlani, worried about operating in a state of emergency with delivery as an only option to survive and the massive aid needed to prevent the industry from crumbling. “Restaurants are the biggest employers in the services sector and if it collapses, there will be major job crises,” he adds.
To avert the impending sense of doom, Amlani, former president of the National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI) stresses on the need for a “deeper partnership between restaurant owners, suppliers and landlords as well as intervention of the government to help re-examine the value chain and sustain the ecosystem.”
Kainaz Messman-Harchandrai of Theobroma, has set up a ‘crisis committee’ that speaks daily to assess the situation and plan for the following day, agrees. “Even after the lockdown lifts, it will take a while for the spirit and sentiment to return. The industry needs the support and flexibility of all stakeholders, including employees, guests, government, landlords, suppliers, and business partners to get back on its feet. if businesses are to survive, all stakeholders in the value chain should be prepared to partake their share of it,” says Messman who like Naved and Merchant have initiated talks with their landlords for a lifeline in terms of temporary rebate.
Scrambling to come up with solutions as things unfold, NRAI urged mall owners and landlords last month to waive off minimum guaranteed rents for a period of six months, so that restaurant businesses can sustain. Although landowners are yet to yield, a few like Nicky Bedi who owns the six storied building that houses Smoke House Deli and Nikhil Gowani, co-owner of Kamala Mills, are sensing the need for a more liberal pandemic strategy from their end. “We’re letting operations continue on our premises for the time being without thinking of monetary gains. Times like these are unanticipated and we have to figure out ways to be sensible, understanding and coexist in order to move forward,” says Bedi.
Meanwhile, ‘comments’ and ‘shares’ on social media are still valuable and given that the drink-and-dine scene is one of the most celebrated aspects of Mumbai life, food blogger Kalyan Karmakar, has initiated what he calls ‘Foodocracy India’ inviting people to write or share a video about their favourite eateries — small and medium neighbourhood joints to family run legacies. “I was thinking about how much we all owe to our favourite eateries. How much happiness they’ve given us and sustained us through tough times. This is our way of cheering for them and showing that we are waiting to go back to them,” says Karmakar, hoping that this “shoutout” will keep their much-loved eating houses buoyant till the dust settles.

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