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Mumbai: Eating in has elevated food delivery to restaurant-level experience



MUMBAI: That fine dining can arrive at your home in a cardboard box was the kind of idea that would have seemed preposterous even a few months ago. Now, it’s just another part of the new world order.
The Covid-19 outbreak may have forced restaurants to put up their shutters but behind their darkened windows the kitchens have been a hive of activity. Not just local neighbourhood eateries dishing out classic fare such as butter chicken and Schezwan fried rice but haute cuisine such as fresh soft shell crab tacos and Belgian pork steaks are being seasoned to perfection by top-tier restaurants as eating houses, both big and small, adapt to delivery services to survive and thrive.

Eateries that had witnessed a fall in food orders immediately after the lockdown due to the fear of infection, are now reporting a steady rise. “The otherwise 30-35% takeaway business of an average city restaurant prior to lockdown had dipped to 5-10% between April and June but ever since the unlocking, it has bounced back to 20-25%,” says Shivanand Shetty, president, Ahar, an association of over 10,000 restaurants and bars in the city.
If chicken biryani topped the food chart as the most ordered item across the country, garlic breadsticks and chicken fried rice occupied top spot in Mumbai, says food delivery platform Swiggy that has delivered around 3.6 lakh cakes with birthday parties moving to video calls. Online food ordering platform Zomato says Mumbai had recovered 95% of their pre-Covid level value.

“While delivery will never be the same as the volume of business from close to 300 guests dining in at our restaurants every day, we now have 25% of our business back to what we did pre-Covid with around 70 orders per night,” says Sameer Seth, partner, Hunger Inc, which owns restaurants such as The Bombay Canteen, O Pedro and the Bombay Sweet Shop.
A D Singh, founder and managing director of Olive group that owns restaurants such as Olive, SodaBottleOpenerwala and Fatty Bao, echoes Seth. “Compared to the initial days of fear and uncertainty when business had crashed to 20-25% now it’s about 40-50% of what it was pre-Covid,” he says.
Hatted restaurants like Yauatcha and Hakkasan as well as five-star hotels such as Taj and Trident that have long resisted takeout, too, have made the switch to a cloud kitchen with picnic packages and seafood platters boxed and delivered to relive the brunch experience at home.
Meluha the Fern, a five-star hotel in Powai, has designed their own food delivery app. “We’ve redesigned the delivery menu at a reduced rate and orders during the weekend from Powai and around are quite heavy,” says Punish Sharma, vice-president, operations, Fern group of hotels.
“What was previously an additional revenue stream for our restaurants Nara and CinCin has become the only source of income that’s seeing four times the sale than before in terms of delivery,” says Karyna Bajaj, executive director, K A Hospitality, which imported the global brands Yauatcha, Hakkasan and Nara to India before launching CinCin.
Restaurateurs are trying to make not just the meals, but as much as possible of the experience of eating out, available for take away. This evolved delivery and takeaway trend that leans into feel-good meals and a sense of occasion—DIY kits, combo meals, marinated meats, and multi-course gourmet spreads to QR codes that offer a playlist of what they’d usually spin on their jukebox or a witty guide on how to set the table or plate the food —is growing robust in the lockdown.
“When everything had been ruled out, the joy of food was one thing that kept people going. But opening up to delivery and takeaway for us wasn’t about getting the food across quickly and cheaply. We’ve always told stories through food and the past six months have been an experiment in keeping people excited while trying to survive. We change our menu every two weeks and are looking for occasions everyday to celebrate,” says Seth whose team repackaged an entire Independence Day 10-course daawat into a cardboard box.
CinCin’s pizza and lasagna trays, for instance, are oven-ready. “We place a postcard on our delivery boxes with a QR code that takes people to the chef’s playlist,” says Bajaj. Bombay Canteen and O Pedro, too have set up happy hour playlists that pair Dal Burrata with David Bowie and Eggs Kejriwal with Queen.
Chefs are finding fresh ways to retrofit their menu into a delivery format. “What looks and tastes delicious on the table when put in boxes don’t carry well. While we see good success in our Asian food that’s easy to reheat and serve, we had to revise the menu with combos for our Parsi restaurant SodaBottleOpenerwala,” says Singh. Yauatcha has had to omit some of their signature deep fried crispies from the menu. “Our highest seller, the cheung fun (crispy rice roll), isn’t suited for delivery. Instead we had to look at comforting wholesome food that would travel well and redesign our packages that are insulated to last the ride and prevent spillage,” says Bajaj.
Many of these restaurants—SodaBottleOpenerwala, Bombay Canteen, O Pedro, Yauatcha and Hakkasan—have also built their own online networks and fleet of delivery boys to avoid the steep commission on every order delivered by the leading dining apps. “It’s also helping us go beyond a 5km radius and establish a rapport with our guests to understand what they’re looking for at such a time,” says Seth. But for individual cafes without logistical competency, the commission can hurt. “While deliveries have gone up by 25% after the monsoons and delivery aggregators are helpful, the heavy commission hits the business,” says Neville Bose of Kala Ghoda Cafe.
But even as food remains an anchor, alcohol sales comprise an essential chunk of many a restaurateur’s revenue and the difficulty to maintain that part of the business continues to make the running of brick-and-mortar restaurants an expensive affair. “Fifty per cent of our regular business would come from alcohol sales,” says Seth while adding, “Our aim now is to survive but our cost structure was never built for a delivery model and in the long run it will get hard to save the business.”
Despite the gloom, restaurateurs are grateful for the few chinks of light that online ordering has afforded them. “While we’ve had to lay off 80% of our staff, given the rents, the food ordering system has been a saving grace that kept our kitchens open, helped reclaim 35% of our business and avert a complete collapse,” says Sachin Nagarkar, owner of the neighbourhood 5 Spice restaurant chain.
(With inputs from Hemali Chhapia)

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