For this piece I scoured the internet to find an appropriate simile or metaphor to try and capture what the restaurant industry, from owners to servers, have experienced over the Capital’s most recent descent into a hellscape. Dear reader, I found nothing. Apropos to everything, it has been a bad time for everyone. But there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel, and not just because the pandemic has been waning the past few weeks.
Apart from crippling emotional losses and life-changing physical and mental tolls, industries as a whole have suffered, and perhaps no body else more than the F&B sector. All of the horror stories of the first wave — of culinary closures, sackings of entire staffs, mass exodus to native towns and villages, and more — came back to haunt the industry during the second wave, but like any other sequel haven’t been as impactful as the original.
“There is a lot of revenge consumption going on right now. Just as an example, it took restaurants almost three months to recover about 75 per cent of their pre-Covid business after the first lockdown. This time around, Delhi restaurants have clocked that average within two weeks of the lockdown being (partially) lifted,” shares Ankit Mehrotra, adding, “When the first lockdown happened, everyone was caught unawares. Nobody knew what was happening, and we saw a significant percentage of restaurants (roughly 30-40 per cent) shuttering. This time around, in Delhi, it’s been significantly less.”
That’s not to say there haven’t been hiccups. Many dishes for dine-in have been unavailable over the last few weeks at various restaurants, especially the more esoteric/exotic kind. “As restaurants get back into business, there are a host of expenses, right from maintenance to disinfection to so much more. Import rates have shot up, and while things are getting back to normal, there has been a bit of a pause in ‘fancy’ ingredients, because the restaurants that had stockpiles of them have run out, and buying new expensive ingredients, which are rarely ordered, isn’t exactly financially viable to a lot of the businesses that have managed to survive till today,” shares Chef Bakshish Dean, who has operated his own restaurants as well as helped usher in global chains into the once nascent Indian market.
And boy, do restaurants have expenses. “If you look at restaurants abroad, their rent (the cost that businesses incur for renting a space) rounds off at 10 per cent of the total expense for owners. In India, it is anywhere between 15-22 per cent, which is considerable in an industry with already razor-thin profit margins,” notes restaurateur Vishal Anand, who had the singular misfortune of opening SAGA, a truly exclusive dining space, mere days before the lockdown.
It is rent, assert Anand, and other owners, which can drive a lot of businesses out of, well, business. The best example is Khan Market, one of the world’s most expensive retail locations, which has always seen a high rate of attrition because of that factor. But over the course of the pandemic, restaurants like Smoke House Deli (one outlet), Sexy Soda, Imly, Loft by Clocktower, Ek Bar, Khaaja Chowk, have had to shut down, not counting innumerable others.
“If you see the patterns of restaurant closures in Delhi, there are a few self-evident things. Certain high-end pockets see closures due to the rentals, while other markets that are saturated with the same kind of restaurants will see an attrition rate. Today’s market is going to make restaurants force themselves to stand out, to offer an experience which they don’t get in other places,” notes Anand, adding, “If the last several months have shown us anything it is that you can order in from anywhere. So the food is guaranteed even if you stay at home. But you’ll step out for an experience.”
Restrictions don’t help either. Chef Radhika Khandelwal points out that the still-ongoing 10:00pm curfew is hugely damaging, especially for small, chef-owner driven businesses like her Fig & Maple. “People still work and they step out of home after 8:00pm. To have to tell a guest who arrives at 9:30pm that their first order will be the last for the evening is disheartening as a chef and bad for business as an owner,” she shares.
But then it’s Delhi. “The trend now is to come in at 9:00pm, have a few drinks, and order food to go so that they can continue the party back at home. It’s really heartening to see that people are still venturing out,” mentions Khandelwal, adding that she is also looking forward to the lifting of restrictions by the Delhi Disaster Management Authority, so that things go back to half-swing. As she reminds me, “Restaurants are still operating at 50 per cent capacity, so things are not going to be at pre-Covid levels any time soon.”
But it’s not all gloom and doom. “This is a terrible time for everyone across the board in the restaurant industry. But it has also made us buck up. Restaurants that have survived realise that they cannot cut corners when it comes to hygiene or ingredient sourcing. There’s a lot more accountability in terms of food preparation, service, and financial obligations,” mentions Dean. So yes, amid all the darkness there is hope; and the promise of better things still to come.
As Mehrotra concludes, “Travel to most places is still not allowed, bustling markets (like Lajpat Nagar having to shut down for two days because of the crowds) are not exactly a safe haven, and movie theatres are shut. All that remains to experience life as it was before the pandemic are restaurants. And they have all the impetus in the world to keep you safe. No restaurant has been identified as a hotspot even now and there’s a reason for that.” And it’s not (just) the hot soup.