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QR codes, cubicles will redefine eating-out landscape in Mumbai



MUMBAI: As the state contemplates the idea of allowing restaurants, bars and hotels to unbolt from the first week of July, it’s hard to foresee what the new face of India’s dine-out culture will look like against the backdrop of a pandemic, but it will presumably be wearing a mask – with an emblazoned smiley – and come bearing thermal guns and sanitisers instead of drinks and appetisers.

The centre’s decision to allow hospitality establishments to open brings relief to 15,000 restaurants and bars and nearly 2,000 star hotels and clubs in the Mumbai region that directly employ over seven lakh people and another 30 lakh involved indirectly through the value chain of supplies, maintenance, transport, and tourism.

Reopening in the midst of Covid cases still raging is tricky, but chefs and restaurateurs are navigating the web of rules and regulations to step up their game. And whenever they do open up, “creative and innovative” ways to maintain social distancing norms will redefine the eating-out landscape. For starters, QR codes will replace menu cards, pre-plated meals will substitute personalised service, self-serve environments of buffets will hit pause as much as valet parking and instead, sparse seating and dining cubicles will become a part of the emerging culture of pandemic hospitality.

“Once someone enters a restaurant, they will have to sanitize their gloves and keep their mask on unless eating. Two people will be allowed on a bench of three. Sterilized crockery will be served after an order is placed using a QR code on the table instead of menu cards,” says Kamlesh Barot, former president of FHRAI, the apex federation of all hotel and restaurant associations in the country, and owner of Revival restaurant, off Marine Drive. “The entire SOP (standard operating procedure) not only for the kitchen department, but right from security and service to engineering and housekeeping utilities, had to be re-written after referring to authentic, research-based practices. SOP vide training has to be undergone before starting home delivery.”

Apart from fewer tables and aggressive cleaning measures, Out Of The Blue that runs a restaurant and deli in Bandra is thinking of installing small cubicles and may also introduce single-use paper menus as well as disposable plastic placemats and crockery. “We’re not planning to open before August or September as most people may be asymptomatic and might put the staff and other patrons at risk,” said restaurant director Rahul Bajaj.

However, a skeletal staff after a large chunk of migrants – who form the bulk of Mumbai’s hospitality industry workforce – exited the city and customers’ fears of public spaces are a concern.

“We need the government’s help to reduce the fear among migrant labourers and bring them back to work with the same enthusiasm,” says Shivanand Shetty, president of Ahar, an association of over 15,000 restaurants and bars and owner of Hariyali restaurant and bar. “Although Covid-19 does not spread through food, the pandemic has had a disastrous effect on us with people refraining from outside food. Since our industry is highly labour and capital intensive, the closure has struck a severe blow to owners and employees. The condition of reopening with limited capacity has further dampened the spirit and potential of this sector,” reveals Pradip Shetty, vice-president of Hotels and Restaurants Association Western India (HRAWI) which has over 2,000 star hotels as its members. Pradip is also the owner of Maharaja restaurants.

Riyaaz Amlani, CEO and MD of Impresario Entertainment & Hospitality, which has over 56 brands, including Smoke House Deli, Salt Water Cafe and Social under its umbrella, says, “Deeper partnerships between restaurant owners and suppliers, re-imagining profit sharing with landlords and the intervention of the government to help re-examine the value chain will help sustain the ecosystem which could otherwise head toward mass closure.”

And even as things pivot to delivery, packaging which is layered and disposable will be key to ensuring delivery systems work, while fine dining restaurants may have to devise dishes that travel well for a takeout menu. “Items in fine dining restaurants are mostly meant to be eaten plated. Those chefs will have to work on food that is easily transportable and can last for about 40 minutes without refrigeration in order to function outside their premises,” says Gauri Devidayal, co-founder of five restaurant brands in Mumbai.
Debunking fears and myths around the safety of food being delivered, Barot says, “The virus is not transferable through food. Also, high temperature cooking kills all viruses.” As a safety measure, he says, “Do away with the bags and outer packaging, empty the food into your own vessels and wash hands after that.”

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