How coronavirus could affect restaurants and the culture of eating out in India

By Anoothi Vishal

Life will hardly remain the same when we get to the other side of the Covid-19 pandemic. Economists and social scientists are predicting lasting changes in the way we live, work and eat.

Some of these were already in the making but are expected to be fast-tracked as people change their habits to contend with the epidemic. It is likely that “some of these habits will stick”, says Susan Athey, a professor of economics of technology at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, in The Washington Post. What changes will we see in India?

How will the pandemic affect restaurants and the culture of eating out that had been steadily evolving in the last decade and a half, but was impacted by the economic slowdown for several months now? One of the sectors worst affected by Covid-19 will be food services, estimated at Rs 4,23,865 crore in India and employing more than 700,000 people, according to the National Restaurant Association of India. As brick-and-mortar businesses shut down, restaurants are struggling, but small efforts are afoot to salvage whatever they can.

A restaurant in Gurgaon, for instance, is offering tickets against a future five-course meal paired with cocktails, in line with efforts internationally to keep businesses afloat. Others have taken to limited deliveries for people. However, with the growing fear of exposing the staff to infection, many are shutting these down, too. The human tragedy all this entails is almost unbearable. Will there be light at the end of the tunnel? What kind of eating-out experiences will diners go back to, and what trends will flourish as others die out? Here’s a look at some ways in which dining as a business is likely to change in the post-Covid-19 world:

End of Social Dining: One of the nicest trends that was emerging in India was social dining, where shared tables in restaurants and bars attempted to create bonds between strangers over food and drink. After quarantine and quarantinis (if you are privileged and lucky), this experiment is likely to be nipped in the bud.

The world, politically and economically, may lean towards more barriers or mutual cooperation, but when it comes to food in India, deep-seated cultural prejudices about dining with “others” are likely to become exacerbated.

Rise of Premium Deliveries: While brick-and-mortar restaurant business was hurting even before the epidemic hit, delivery services were on an upswing. The millennial and Gen Z consumers were showing preferences not just for value-formoney meals but also enhanced “experiences” even in delivered food. The most recent phenomenon was the emergence of chef-led delivery brands in Mumbai and Delhi, where top chefs and restaurateurs promised to provide higher quality food cooked in cloud kitchens and delivered to the comfort of homes. This trend is likely to pick up when the novel coronavirus retreats. This entails lower costs and more business per square foot, and chefs and restaurateurs will be looking to capitalise on it.

Foreign Charms Wear Off: Pop – ups by various “Michelin-starred” chefs (restaurants get stars, not chefs), as they were being lauded in India, could lose the sheen. Glamour events funded by liquor companies and others will be hit not just by the economic downturn but the possible reluctance of consumers to go in a crowd to any event.

As JOMO trumps FOMO, this is a fallout many who value quality over buzz may not be too upset about. More substance, less style and less money spent on booking seats to an event where the chef is more glamorous than the dessert should be a good thing.

Cooking at Home: Every disaster carries with it the seeds of opportunity. There may be renewed interest in slow food, as something to be savoured and created in personalised ways. People are already showing huge interest in sharing recipes, cooking tips and pictures of homecooked meals on social media. This can be harnessed to create businesses.

Cleaner, Not Cheaper Food: The notoriously price-sensitive consumers may finally become more mindful of quality ingredients grown in safe and sustainable ways, cooked by well-trained staff and served in hygienic conditions. This means the cost of food in a restaurant may go up, and restaurants may find it harder to compete on price alone. Many restaurants may in fact shut as people tighten their belts, reduce discretionary spend and cut down on the frequency of eating out. However, when they do eat out, they may eat at quality restaurants rather than at cheap Chinese outlets.

Restaurants may be forced to shut shop or clean up. In fact, this may be the shake-up waiting to happen in the Indian restaurant business. A silver lining in these dark days.

The writer looks at food and culinary traditions

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