People grooving to music late into the night in bars or couples enjoying a romantic outing under shimmering chandeliers or college-goers sneaking a meal in between their classes are not quite the images we get to see anymore — courtesy the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

 The lockdown had almost completely halted the business activities of the food and hospitality sector. However, as people prepare for a “new normal,” restaurants are focusing on new methods to get customers as well as maintain safety measures.

With private dining areas, digital menus, glass barriers and six-feet distance between tables, restaurants are coming up with innovative ways to re-open, while adhering to the mandatory safety guidelines.

The lay-offs have been the heaviest in the leisure and hospitality sector, said a report by Bureau of Labor statistics.

“In April 2020, the employment in the leisure and hospitality sector plummeted 7.7 million, or 47 percent,” said the report. “Almost three-quarters of the decrease occurred in food services’ and drinking places.”

The pandemic has forced the business owners to make extreme interior design changes to be functional again. Given that business continues to be bad, investing in new interiors is a do-or-die situation for most owners.

Sarah Sham, principal designer at Essajees Atelier, a Mumbai-based interior design firm said desperation has forced the restaurant owners to shell out money to modify their interiors at a time when the business is already bad.

“It was a choice for them between retaining current interiors and having no business or modifying and getting some business.”

Sham has worked on interior redesigns for 266 – The Wine Room and Bar and Happy Thai in Mumbai.

In the US, New York and California, eateries are rethinking outdoor dining options. The restaurants in New York are looking for outdoor spaces to expand their business.

Sham believes India will also toe the line of outdoor dining. “It is going to be the next step.”

Akshay Anand, the owner of Ophelia in Delhi, said the guests were skeptical of dining out.

“We have reduced the number of seats by 50 percent, according to the standard operating procedures (SOPs) of the Department of Delhi Disaster Management Authority,” said Anand. “We have come up with outdoor air-conditioned glass cabanas for private dining.”

Anand said the number of patrons visiting their favorite dining joints had dropped drastically.

“Additionally, we have doubled the number of curtains between the cabanas to create an extra barricade. We have two private dining spaces indoors, which can cater to groups of eight to 10 guests.”

Ophelia opened up after the lockdown with a completely different look. It did cost the owners, but they wanted to give their guests a fresh dining experience after living through months of stress.

After being forced to stay indoors for months, people are eager to step out despite the pandemic hitting new records almost every day. The number of people, who said they would eat out within a month of lifting the lockdown, was 67 percent, according to a survey conducted by QikServe in June this year. Fifty eight percent were willing to go to a pub or a restaurant on the very first day after the lockdown lifted.

People are looking at the safety and precautionary measures being undertaken by different restaurants and pubs to make an informed choice. So, eateries have started listing their safety measures on apps such as Zomato as well as their own websites to attract guests.

“We are ensuring a safe distance between tables, and promoting digital-ordering options to reduce the contact between the customers and staff,” said Pranav Joshi, co-owner and founder, The Slay in Pune. This is in addition to the regular sanitizing of the premises.”

Joshi said the restaurant owners and customers need to follow all the precautions. The lockdown has been lifted, but the pandemic is far from over.

“In an industry like ours, true contact-less options cannot exist practically,” said Joshi. “There will always be a person sourcing the raw vegetables/meats, or preparing the meal, or bringing it to you. But what can, or rather has to be done, is to ensure certain protocols are followed for maximum safety.”

Dragonfly
A safe distance is kept between pods at Dragonfly in Delhi. (Courtesy of Dragonfly)

Priyank Sukhija, managing director & chief executive officer, First Fiddle F&B in Delhi, has come up with private pods to ensure the safety of guests and his employees.

“Each pod has a capacity to host up to 12 guests, enclosed with see-through acrylic walls on all four sides,” Sukhija said. “This lets the patrons be a part of the high-energy vibe, while ensuring maximum safety.”

Dining out is not just about the food but the experience of leisure and hospitality. The restaurants are trying to provide a fulfilling experience, with beautiful décor and excellent service, while keeping the guests and employees safe.

“We did month-long research to see what could fit in with the social-distancing norms, yet look spectacular,” Sukhija said. “Hence, the pods were the answer”

The governments in most Indian states, including the most COVID-19-affected states have announced the reopening of restaurants, pubs, and theaters starting from October under the Unlock 5 guidelines. At a time when most businesses are struggling to keep up financially, this comes as a welcome decision.

“We have to focus on exercising caution and must learn to live in this “new normal,” at least till the vaccine is discovered,” says Pranav Joshi.

(Edited by Uttaran Das Gupta and Gaurab Dasgupta.)



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