Among the many sectors of the economy hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and the two-month-long national lockdown, one of the worst-affected was hospitality. Even after the first “Unlock” phase began on June 1, restaurants were slow to recover, with many still choosing to remain shut while others pivoting to a largely delivery-oriented format.
During this period of churn, chef Vikramjit Roy, along with Anurodh Samal, who is general manager operations with White Hat Hospitality (Whiskey Samba, The Wine Company), have founded Hello Panda, a gourmet pan-Asian delivery service, in Gurugram. Roy, who helped launch Pan Asian at ITC Grand Chola, Chennai and Tian at ITC Maurya, New Delhi, tells us over email about the unique challenges of opening a food business during a pandemic.
Opening a new food business right now, at a time when many already established ones are facing an uncertain future, is a brave act. What made you decide that the risk is worth taking?
Much before the lockdown, we were planning to set up our own restaurant – of a bigger size and a completely different concept. The location and other details were almost finalized. But all of that had to be deferred because of COVID-19.
This is when Hello Panda was born. It was born more to help our team members, who were unemployed and without pay for more than three months, the small farmers and breeders, whose products were being thrown away because of the dearth of demand.
Were you nervous at all when the pandemic spread and the lockdown were imposed? What was the most difficult period for you and how did you get through it?
We would be lying if we say that we were not nervous when the lockdown was imposed. Opening during this period was a major challenge as we had neither contractors nor labourers to carry out the civil (engineering) work. Borders being sealed, equipment and ingredients also could not be brought in, even from Delhi. So we had to restrict ourselves to developing everything in and around the restaurant. Our team of chefs and servers took the responsibility of getting the work done, right from breaking walls to plastering, fixing tiles, fixing drainage, etc. For hardcore technical jobs like electrical connections, carpentry, we struggled to find the right people who were also safe. But at the end of it, I think all the struggle we went through was very fruitful. To build a restaurant from scratch by ourselves is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Many restaurants have pivoted to a more delivery-oriented model since the lockdown restrictions started being lifted. What are your thoughts on this?
Shifting to a delivery format may sound easy but, in reality, once the food steps out of that door one have to wait for an hour and a half to understand if the customer is actually satisfied with the order. One small goof-up requires another hour and a half to recover from, unlike in a restaurant where, if anything goes wrong, one can do a service recovery right then and there.
Internationally, a few fine dining restaurants have pivoted to food that is less exclusive. For example, Noma is now serving burgers. How do you see the future of categories like fine dining, casual, etc?
Right now, we feel that there is light at the end of the tunnel for dine-in spaces, but in reality, it is a train coming from the other end. The distinction will always be there it is just that we as masses are shying away from it. In the end, it would not be justifiable to ask people to come to a dine-in at a risk to their lives.
When will you start offering a dine-in experience?
The day the vaccine rolls out, we will make Hello Panda in a dine-in format.
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