Whirlpools cause tremendous disruption on the surface. Water churns menacingly, creating a pull that drags anything caught in its current below the surface, and then basically leaves it there, disoriented. If the person caught up in a whirlpool does not panic and has phenomenal lung capacity, the chances are he/she will rise to the surface, battered and petrified, but alive. And, some distance from where they went under.
This is where a large chunk of my industry — the restaurant industry — finds itself now. Stories about how restaurants may be breeding grounds for the virus, or how air-conditioners propagate the disease, abet a trust deficit that has already formed in the minds of the average customer.
The toll on the restaurant business has, by now, been well documented, especially in countries like the US, where data suggests that the hospitality sector accounts for nearly a third of the unemployment numbers. At last count, reportedly about 7.5 million people have claimed unemployment benefits — a huge number, millions, from the leisure and hospitality sector alone. These numbers are so stark and devastating that little needs to be said about the calamitous consequences they will have on the industry at large.
Contrary to popular belief, the restaurant business operates on razor-thin margins: Fixed costs are high, rentals are first-world whilst prices charged are third-world, and bills get paid because of a rolling debt model. A complete shutdown for even a week is disastrous, and 60 days is the equivalent of a meteor strike.
Many businesses in this sector will be unable to weather this storm, with estimates about the number of places that will have to close down in the next six to eight months ranging from 20-35 per cent. This will be a body blow for a very large, young working population, most often migrants, who travelled for work because their home states just didn’t have the opportunities. With social distancing norms in place, and the distinct possibility that restaurant occupancy will be dictated by municipal authorities, carrying the levels of staff one did pre-COVID will now be untenable.
What will also fundamentally alter is the restaurant experience, at least for some time. These are places built to be social hubs, where constant interaction and service played as much of a role as the ambience and food. With these factors largely removed from the equation, conversations with servers speaking to you from behind a protective face screen, handing out disposable menus with plastic-wrapped cutlery, to a table of only four people, dining out will become functional, not experiential as it was designed to be.
Restaurants now have no choice but to innovate to bridge the wide gap that this reduction in footfalls will create. Many new trends are emerging globally: Meal kits, cocktail mixes, online cooking classes and vouchers for the future — anything to prevent the business from sinking deeper. Delivery seems to be the war cry for everyone, but let’s be honest: A business that works on cost models designed to thrive only when its seating capacity is leveraged to the maximum cannot survive on delivery alone.
“Contactless” dining, the new catchphrase used indiscriminately by tech companies that relied heavily on our business, is something that will take hold for a long time. Dining can never be contactless, but the moniker is being used to sell a new era of tech-enabled eating out option, with little human interaction.
Real estate will be rationalised because boom-time windfalls will not exist — there just won’t be any takers. State governments, which relied heavily on revenues that these businesses generated, will need to rethink their previous bullying and, frankly, bizarre policy decisions for the hospitality sector.
There’s an optimist in me, however, who, after nearly two months of getting used to daily birdsong and clean air, believes that this too shall pass. That, whilst the overall impact and financial hit to our ecosystem will have long-lasting effects — one which many will not be able to survive — the social animals that human beings are, their return to busy bars and bustling eateries will only be natural.
Inevitably, there will be a cure, a vaccine, something that reminds us that while we are a lot more fragile than we’d imagined, nothing can prevent us from being around one another, eventually. The last 60 days have also been a reminder of the importance of the hearth, the respect for ingredients, the tribulations of taking to the stove daily, the joys of sitting around a table, and ultimately, the reverence people who do this every day need to be given. We will return to an altered landscape of restaurants, but with a lot more love and affection towards them.
This article first appeared in the print edition on May 26, 2020 under the title ‘A table for none ’.
The writer is chef partner with the Olive Group
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