CHENNAI: After a wait of 77-odd days, restaurants and their patrons sampled a slice of pre-lockdown life, but with a twist that is now expected to be the new normal — for a long time to come. With India entering Unlock 1.0 on June 8, and a green nod from the government, standalone-hotels and restaurants in the city are gingerly lifting their shutters, even while grappling with the rising number of COVID-19 cases. But in this coronavirus-induced era that is constantly shifting our sense of normalcy, the dining experience will perhaps have to be revived with a new regimen.
So then isn’t it apt that we ask some pertinent questions? The New Indian Express conducted a Twitter poll to find out the ‘new’ priorities of patrons for a safe dining experience. Disposable menus, frequent sanitisation and PPE kits for staff, as well as cordoned-off sections for large groups, top the list. This is exclusive of the government SOP for restaurants that specifies no air-conditioning, seating at 50 per cent capacity, and mandatory washing of hands every 30 minutes for food-bearers.
The most secure option, of course, continues to be — to simply stay at home. Possibly why 61.1% of respondents said that they would rather wait for a cure for COVID-19 before leaving their homes to eat out. This seems to be a strong sentiment reflected by several citizens and with good reason as the number of cases continues to climb. “The truth is there is no way I will dine in at a restaurant during this period. Probably when there is a significant reduction of cases, or when a vaccine comes out!” shares Rohini Rau, a doctor at Kauvery Hospital and a popular face in the theatre circuit.
A drive-in option, if available, was very much preferred with 73.2% of voters saying that they would step out if this alternative was available. They prefer to dine within the safe confines of their vehicle, while 68.3% said that even if they chose to go to a restaurant they would considerably decrease the time spent there. Although, the no air-conditioning mandate of the Tamil Nadu government’s SOP for restaurants might likely become one of the other factors for wanting to make a quick departure — given the unbearable afternoon heat.
Other guidelines include a one-metre distance to be maintained between dining tables; staff to wear aprons, masks and headwraps; vegetables, dal and rice to be cleaned with 50 PPM chlorine; and thermal screening for all customers at the entrance.
Mandates apart, protective gear like masks and gloves play a big part in making customers feel at ease. “Going back to our favourite places to eat is based on trust. While there is a lot that you do see, there is a lot that you don’t see, when it comes to hygiene. So definitely the basics like masks for the service and kitchen staff, regular sanitisation of all areas, adequate spacing and availability of hand sanitisers, are important factors to consider while dining out,” says TV anchor and columnist Paloma Rao.
But how many would consider going the extra mile and investing a portion of their bill toward PPE and sanitisation at a restaurant? Surprisingly, notwithstanding the extra expense, 30.9% respondents gave a thumbs-up. “I would definitely dine at restaurants where strict safety protocols are followed and it’s only fair to pay extra for the same. Other precautionary measures such as capacity limits, disposable and environment-friendly utensils, and contactless payments can also be incorporated to make it a safer environment,” says make-up artist Akriti Sachdev. But, 53.4% voters resounded a loud ‘no’ to paying for safety gear, and 15.7% stayed on the fence in the ‘maybe’ category.
The new mandate also comes with a host of challenges for the environment. Several environment activists have expressed their concern about the massive amounts of wastage as a consequence of dine-in hygiene protocols — given that many of these PPE kits are designed to be single-use or disposable. “If we are moving back to normal, then the normal levels of waste generation will come back. We will continue to mismanage it the way we were mismanaging earlier,” says environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman. Citing wastage as a reason,
fashion designer Vivek Karunakaran says, “I think it would just be more responsible to opt for a take-away, unless it is absolutely necessary.” Cuisine preferences also play a part in what customers will be willing to step out for. Regional fare turned out to be the most popular choice, garnering 42.5% of votes, with a slimmer 32.3% of respondents choosing fine dining, and 25.2% opting for fast food. Other visible hygiene cues that the poll reveals, which will make customers feel safer and more comfortable at a restaurant, are biodegradable menu cards (77.1%), temperature checks and hand wash upon entry (59.2%), and a separate section for larger groups (76.7%). Staff wearing PPE, as expected, received 64.9% votes.
For reasons that range from manpower shortage to lack of funds and to whether it will cost more to open than to stay closed — several restaurateurs did not open their doors on June 8. “As of now, we are going to open in a phased manner,” says Sandesh Reddy, chef and owner of Sandy’s Chocolate Laboratory, Old Madras Baking Company, HuTong, as well as handling operations for bakery chain French Loaf and Wang’s Kitchen.
“We are going to open Sandy’s (Chocolate Laboratory) first and use that as a learning for the rest of the restaurants,” he shares. While chef Vijaykumar Manikandan (of Chefs M&N Pvt Ltd) who consults with brands like Cafe Meraki, Parambriym, Aloe - Belstead and The Hideout Bistro, anticipates “only 30 per cent of people dining out for at least a few months ahead.” The year 2020 will go down in history for many reasons, one of them being the redefining experience of eating out. In Unlock 1.0, as restaurant-owners attempt to make up for the lost time and serve a plate of ‘business as usual’, change it seems is imminent.
How soon after the Lockdown is lifted, are you willing to start eating out?
A) Within a week: 15%
B) After a month: 23.9%
C) After a cure for COVID-19 is found: 61.1%
Do you wish for restaurant staff to be wearing PPE?
A) Yes: 64.9%
B) No: 24.4%
C) Don’t care: 0.7%
Will you consider spending lesser time (as compared to pre-lockdown days) while dining out?
A) Yes: 68.3%
B) No: 20.2%
C) Doesn‘t matter: 11.5%
Are you willing to pay extra for PPE and sanitisation of the restaurant along with your food bill?
A) Yes: 30.9% B) No: 53.4%
C) Maybe: 15.7%
Would you prefer bio-degradable disposable menu cards and serviettes?
A) Yes: 77.1% B) No: 12.7%
C) Doesn‘t matter: 10.2%
What worries you the most about the restaurant‘s kitchen?
A) Source of produce: 1.7%
B) Hygiene & health of staff: 35.5%
C) Sanitisation: 9.9%
D) All of the above: 52.9%
Will it make you feel safer if there is a temperature check and handwash protocol before entering a restaurant?
A) Yes: 59.2% B) No: 35.3%
C) Don‘t care: 5.5%
Would you want the restaurant to have a separate section for larger groups?
A) Yes: 76.7% B) No: 16.7%
C) Doesn‘t matter: 6.7%
Would you prefer if a drive-in option was given to you so that you can have your meal in your car?
A) Yes: 73.2%
B) No: 17.2%
C) Doesn‘t matter: 9.6%