In 1996, when American fast food chain McDonald’s made its foray into India with an outlet in Delhi, it was eagerly welcomed by Indians, most of whom had limited exposure to international cuisines till then.
Over the years, several global chains started operations in India, building not just awareness about international flavours but also prompting Indians to discover fine dining.
With the growth of the restaurant industry coinciding with the growth of the great Indian middle class, the Indian restaurant industry was pegged at Rs 45,000 crore at the turn of the century, growing at 15-20 per cent annually.
The COVID-19 outbreak, however, has brought that momentum to a screeching halt. While several restaurants closed even before the nationwide lockdown was announced from March 25, the ones that are open do not allow sit-down diners. The sector is now calculating how to survive.
Dining out platform Dineout has filed a petition #ReliefForRestaurants on change.org to Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. It reads: “The F&B industry employs more than 7.3 million people. If this shutdown continues, 20 to 25 per cent of the employee base could lose their jobs.” They have sought an introduction of employee unemployment pay cover, deferment of rent and utility payments, and a moratorium for the upcoming statutory dues.
The National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI), which according to its website “represents 5,00,000+ restaurants, an industry valued Rs 4 lakh crore”, has approached the government for a bailout package. Anurag Katriar, NRAI President, says, “The biggest worry right now is more human than commercial. We have sought concessions from tax authorities, statutory bodies and financial institutions so that our limited cash flows are deployed towards the well-being of our employees.” NRAI is encouraging restaurant staff to seek work with online grocery stores, such as Big Basket and Grofers, who are struggling to keep up with the increase in orders.
Zorawar Kalra, Managing Director, Massive Restaurants, that runs 25 restaurants in nine cities, including Farzi Cafe, Masala Library and Pa Pa Ya, says, “The restaurant industry, which is a non-essential service, is going to suffer a major setback due to the COVID-19 outbreak.” He warns that even after things start opening, it will take long for premium restaurants to get back clientele as foreign travellers form a major chunk of their diners. In the meantime, he is channelising his resources for charity. “Currently, we are cooking in Gurgaon and Mumbai for the underprivileged,” he adds.
Anahita Dhondy, Chef-Partner at SodaBottleOpenerWala, has started sharing live cooking videos on her social media accounts. She is also using this time to restructure operations and plan menu items that can be easily delivered. “Our restaurants are not even located at isolated places so that we can open up and use the kitchens for deliveries. We can only wait,” says Dhondy.
Amit Bagga, Co-founder and CEO of Daryaganj, a year-old brand with four outlets in Delhi, says, “Our newest restaurant in Gurgaon opened just a week before the lockdown. For any fine diner, new or old, overhead costs are massive. While our operations teams are working from home, trying to streamline operations and replan the menu, we are paying full salaries to our restaurant staff who can’t be engaged at the moment.”
Several restaurants, meanwhile, are also considering switching to deliveries. While Kalra is still toying with the idea, Padmanabhan, a South Indian restaurant in Delhi, has created a limited delivery menu, and delivers free of cost in a five-km radius. “We call our chefs on rotation to cater to 30-35 orders a day, and send our own boys for contactless delivery,” says Vidur Kanodia, Partner at Padmanabhan. He plans to continue with home delivery after the lockdown ends. “The industry will take a long time to bounce back. In the interim, we will continue with whatever keeps us going,” he adds.
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