It’s almost been two months to the lockdown. However sad I might be feeling, on a personal level, it’s been about learning to live with it. This is something no one predicted, in our business or otherwise. It’s the first time, in our lifetimes, that we’re in a situation as dire, and it could happen again. There’s damage, to people, to lives, to businesses. We’re all thinking about how to control the damage, and about the future.

My employees are very supportive, most of them realise that the company has no revenue on today’s day. It could be the same situation for another month or two. We haven’t been able to pay complete salaries, because we have 1,100 employees. But, we’re making sure that right now, every employee has enough money to survive through these tough times. I can only manage that survival for one or two months. Beyond that, I don’t know if I’ll be able to be as supportive.

I’ve been communicating with most of my employees. Honestly, what’s more important than paying full salaries right now is being able to employ back all of them when we reopen. It’s going to be a horror show if we’re told to open with restrictions. If we open with restrictions, we’ll require the support of our vendors for a longer credit period, we won’t be able to pay those kinds of rents, and we might have to operate at 50 per cent of our capacity. That, of course, depends on if we’ll be able to even fill it. Even if we open in July or August, we’ll have to brace ourselves for a tough time.

People don’t come to restaurants for food, they come for experiences. How the food is presented, how is it marketed, what is the kind of entertainment provided. Restaurants are an experience center more than an eating place. People come to de-stress. I did a small survey a couple of years ago about why people come to restaurants, and one of the tick boxes said “de-stress”. Approximately 30 per cent of my patrons ticked that box. Restaurants are as good as spas to decompress, people come to have a drink, socialise, and have a change of scene. It’s become a part of our lifestyles.

Right now, we’re missing travel, we’re missing restaurants. While I know these are two industries that are badly hit right now, these are the two industries that are going to pick up really well once things normalise, because after all, we’re all going to want to do things we miss. People are going to want to invest in lesser buying, more experiencing.

Having said that, one of the main factors that people will look at, is hygiene. Earlier, people used to order a lot from cloud kitchens, or places that they’ve never seen before. Now, they’re going to want to be sure of the hygiene levels that kitchens have. For the same, we are planning to give a camera feed of the restaurant, especially of the kitchen, and anyone can access the link and see how we’re maintaining hygiene. People will go to brands they trust, ones they know will be taking care of hygiene, and not cutting corners. As everyone is scared about the virus, even we will have to place our trust in our restaurants, so it will be a challenge to earn the trust of patrons as well.

I know a lot of conversation is surrounding contactless dining right now, but let me tell you, contactless dining is a myth. Contactless dining is only going to be possible if a robot is cooking your food, bringing it to your table, and cleaning your table as well. When you go to a restaurant, it’s a human job to cook food. We’re also in talks with aggregators about the same, but It’s actually less contact dining, not contactless, because when people are coming to a restaurant, they are using the washroom, giving their keys to a valet…so the contact can be limited, but not entirely eliminated. I saw some pictures of a restaurant in Thailand making four cubicles out of a table. That is not possible. What contactless dining can ensure is that there won’t be people coming to your table to take the order, or your bill. Seating doesn’t change, and even if someone tries to change seating, it won’t work, because hunger is not what drives people to restaurants, it’s the vibe.

Initially, when things reopen, we might see a sudden surge, because people have been cooped up for so long. But I feel like till the vaccination comes around and we come to a stage of no new cases, people will reduce the frequency of going out. When they do go out, they would go to outdoor, larger restaurants. If we’re told to operate at 50 per cent capacity, only alternate tables will be occupied. So, outdoor and larger places will work more than the smaller ones, and those are the ones even patrons will opt for.

As a restaurateur, I think we’ll have to really advocate for all the measures that we take, for our patrons to come back. The most crowded place inside a restaurant is the kitchen. If we’re practising social distancing in the restaurant, it will have to be followed in the kitchen also. Accordingly, I’ll have to go with a smaller menu. For some time, that’s the way it’s going to have to work. In terms of pricing, it’s difficult to predict, because prices of ingredients haven’t shot up yet. If the prices of raw materials shoot up, it’ll be difficult to maintain old pricing as well.

Giving permissions to have an open kitchen on rooftops will actually help gain trust as well, because right now, we need permissions to even use our own rooftops. We have many outdated policie, like permissions for outdoor dining, the excise license fee, taking months to get a license for a new restaurant etc. These are things not pertaining to COVID too, that need to change, so that the industry that supports almost seven million people in this country, can continue to sustain itself.

At the end of the day, a near future is predictable, one that’s uncertain. But I feel, whatever becomes our dining pattern in the near future, will change to how things used to be, maybe a year later. Things, I hope, go back to the way they were, eventually.

 

Priyank Sukhija is one of India’s most popular restaurateurs who has introduced concepts like experiential dining, and continues to expand the important of experiencing fine dining through his restaurants