How Omicron disrupted a booming restaurant industry

Hope was on the menu.

Just a month ago, dinner was recovering well. Consumers had come out of their Covid bubbles ready to party. After an era of couch dining, it was time to dress (and hide) and get out on the town, toast with friends, listen to music and live life in the pure moment. .

The hospitality industry, among the hardest hit during the Covid-19 pandemic, has finally seen the light at the end of the dark tunnel. But as restaurants, bars and hoteliers prepared to welcome customers during the all-important holiday season, the arrival of the new highly transferable Omicron variant made on-site catering a new challenge.

The drop in consumer confidence is palpable amid increasing restrictions on travel, drinks and meals. With cities like Mumbai and Delhi imposing new tough restrictions like nighttime curfews and limiting restaurant meals to 50% to counter a third wave, a degree of pre-vaccine fear has returned.

Restaurants of all stripes, from affluent multi-city chains to small artisan cafes, are feeling the heat. Chief Manish Mehrotra (Indian Accent and Comorin) said problems started in early December when the government postponed reopening international air travel. “This directly led to the cancellation of some parties at Indian Accent, which has a large global clientele.”

Bars and nightclubs are also on edge. Although he hopes Omicron turns out to be less deadly than Delta, Yangdup Lama, co-owner of Sidecar in Delhi, said damage has already been done. “Our New Years Eve bar events might not be as successful as we had hoped,” he lamented.

The emergence of the variant has exacerbated existing supply chain problems. “Sometimes it’s hard to get products like butter and cream because all the suppliers play it safe. Staffing is also proving to be a major issue, ”lamented Ralph Prazeres of Goa-based Patisserie Padaria Prazeres, famous for their delicious egg custard tarts known as Natas paste.

Growing fears around the Omicron have left many like Prazeres worried about the future. “The government should support small businesses by reducing electricity tariffs and household waste charges,” he said, hoping for a reprieve.

With a bailout unlikely, it is likely that the industry will continue to grapple with personnel issues, limited resources and availability of ingredients over the next few months. The road to recovery is long.

But all is not gloomy and catastrophic. Optimism still reigns in the hospitality world, in part because of Omicron’s low virulence. Plus, people are better prepared this time around. With a Covid playbook in place, the industry is in a much better position than it was a year ago.

Through all of its peaks and troughs, 2021 has been an extraordinary year of learning about Covid-19. “There was a time when people were skeptical about even ordering food from restaurants. The next phase was for them to feel safe enough to have dinner again. Today, people have accepted a new kind of reality of enjoying dining experiences, but with standards set by restaurants. We believe this is how we will continue to evolve, ”said Sameer Seth, partner of Hunger Inc Hospitality (The Bombay Canteen, O Pedro and Bombay Sweet Shop).

Hotel operators have invested generously in improving hygiene and sanitation over the past year to ensure safer restaurants and nightclubs. ITC Grand Central, for example, has equipped its public spaces, including restaurants and banquets, with PHI (photohydroionization) technology, which permanently deactivates the SARS-Cov-2 virus, the hotel’s general manager said. , Bhagwan Balani.

Restaurateurs are also masters of the art of steering a tight ship. “Due to the financial stress caused by the pandemic and the lockdowns that followed, we tightened our costs with the help of our teams, owners and vendors. This is essential to help us bounce back in the coming year, ”said AD Singh, Founder and CEO of Olive Bar and Kitchen.

Zorawar Kalra, founder and CEO of Massive Foods (Masala Library, Farzi Café) echoed this point of view. “We’re not going to sign crazy rents anymore. No more white elephants. We will only be present in iconic places and we will not develop just for the sake of developing. “

The outlook for 2022 remains bullish. While conceding that the New Year will continue to be a year of transition, hotel bosses are hoping for a year of uninterrupted operations once the fear of Omicron subsides.

Singh doesn’t just expect to resume the old business growth path, he actually expects sales to overtake the past for 2022. “Next year we will be opening Olive Cafe and Bar in Chandigarh, Ludhiana and Amritsar, and a new Olive brand extension to RNC. “

Riyaaz Amlani, CEO of Impresario (Social, Smokehouse Deli) expects an even stronger rebound. With a dozen new social outlets in the works for next year, Amlani said he was banking on the huge pent-up demand generated by Covid. “People have saved money and want to go out. There is nothing like a good drought, a good war or a good tragedy to revive consumption.

Even Bengaluru-based Abhijit Saha, founder of Ace Hospitality and Consulting, which has had to close two of its restaurants due to uncertainties caused by the pandemic, remained optimistic about its latest launches, The Pet People Café and Glass. “Eating out is a social and gastronomic experience that we all love. I am cautiously hoping that the recovery that started after Wave 2 will pick up speed and people will return to restaurants and bars for the real McCoy. “

The New Year will accelerate existing transformations spurred by the pandemic. Kalra believed that the restaurant design overhaul would see many restaurants having social distancing from the ground up in mind. “The distances between the tables will be continuously increased. In addition, outdoor and outdoor restaurants will become more popular, ”he said.

Karyna Bajaj, Executive Director of KA Hospitality (Hakkasan, Nara Thai and CinCin) stressed the importance of deepening connections with customers. “In a post-Covid world, engaging with one-on-one guests through innovative experiences will gain precedence.” Seth also emphasized a two-way conversation with diners through workshops, interactive sessions with chefs or a special devotees club.

Many companies will continue to push the idea of ​​a hybrid work environment by overlapping restaurant meals with home delivery. One example is the south-based chain, Kappa Chakka Kandhari, which only offered dinner before the pandemic.

“Not only have we adapted our restaurant to home delivery, but we also launched DumBir, a delivery vertical only specializing in regional Indian biryanis and bento,” said Augustine Kurien, Kappa Chakka Kandhari co-partner, who has outlets in Chennai and Bangalore.

The chain has also introduced organized festival offerings (such as Onasadhya Box Meal for Onam and Christmas Takeout Box) to interact with customers who are uncomfortable leaving their homes due to the contagion, but still crave a certain type of meal on special occasions.

Mumbai-based chef Vicky Ratnani, who switched to cloud kitchens during the pandemic, was confident the delivery would see a significant improvement in quality. “The idea that you can only have a lower-than-average, inexpensive meal in a dark kitchen is a farce,” said the veteran, who introduced Speak Burgers, a range of chef-prepared burgers that are artfully packaged with a handwritten note. .

In keeping with the times, the menus will be oriented more and more towards sustainability. Mehrotra highlighted the growing interest in vegetarian and vegan food in the wake of Covid. “Previously, we would have had one or two people in a fortnight to request a vegan menu. Now we have at least two a day. We therefore prepare vegan tasting menus and offer more meatless dishes. “

But even if menus and business models are changed, no one has a crystal ball. Faced with a super mutant taking off like a rocket, it’s hard to say how things are going to play out in the short and long term.

Amid talks about another lockdown, Seth admitted there could be tough days ahead. “We can only say the consequences that Omicron can have on a daily basis. Who can say if this will be the last virus? To thrive, we must constantly adapt and evolve, and not be stuck in our ways. “

Amlani articulated the survival mantra during the Omicovid era: contract and live with minimal survival when the going gets tough. Develop and grow when the going is good.

“You have to think like a virus. “

Sona Bahadur is a Mumbai-based food writer.

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Cecil N. Messick