It’s another fortnight and the last I checked, the virus had not yet decided to pack its bags and go home. It’s like the discovery of a 10th planet (or ninth, depending on where one stands on Pluto) or a hitherto unnoticed limb or dimension, which has altered things permanently for all of us going ahead. At the time of writing this, as our country readies to reopen, or what I prefer to call, the real catastrophic showdown, here are some ideas that I have been developing on how to revive the hotel, restaurant and F&B business.
Consider them a forewarning about how the whole eating out experience might feel different the next time you finally decide to brave it and step out. Wearing masks and using sanitiser will be a must at all public places, including beaches, and temperature checks will replace the traditional teeka and aarti-thaali ceremony as a welcome ritual in hotels and resorts. Contactless will be the new mark of respect.
Reservations might become a must for all restaurants and barring a takeaway order, upscale places could refuse walk-ins outright. Forms may need to be filled with complete details either before or upon arrival at the eateries.
Along with reserving a place, diners may also be expected to place their order and pay beforehand. Now, this seems tough—how many naans will that loathsome oaf of our relative eat, one can never tell—but a basic minimum order as down payment to confirm the reservation may be needed. This will also reduce the wait time at the restaurant thereby allowing them to turnaround tables quicker, something that they will badly need to do to cover up for the lost revenue by being allowed only 50% seating capacity.
Menus might go all app-based, so that we can order either online beforehand or else browse it on our own devices once we are at the outlet. To print disposable menus might seem smart, but it is highly wasteful and expensive.
Single-use plastic, sad to say, will become indispensable in many ways—from water bottles at the table to packaging for cutlery and napkins to sanitising wipe packaging. It might be a good idea to carry your own wherever possible to reduce this dependence, else it will undo all the good that we have done mother nature these past few months.
Alcohol prices will have to come down, but more pertinently, the excise departments will have to figure out a way to allow customers to Bring Your Own Booze (BYOB) with a sensible corkage fee attached. There are two reasons for this: (A) me drinking from my own bottles will mean less cross-contamination chances, and (B) given the high cost of maintaining inventory, many outlets will cut down on choices to lower stocks and this limited choice could further reduce sales. This can become one deathly spiral because the lesser they keep, the lower the sales can be till such point that it is no more viable for them to afford that expensive liquor service licence.
BYOB can tide over the problem of having to stock a massive range and yet rings in the revenues, all with a lower chance of contamination. Bars may find this idea objectionable, so this idea could be limited to wines and straight-serve spirits, whereas beers and cocktails would have to be bought from the outlet.
Large groups and parties are a distant reality now. But one thing the administration can do is to allow outlets to extend their premises without charging them for it. Allowing them to set up tables on the sidewalk or the park across the road might be one way to remain socially distanced and yet accommodate more covers. The trouble is that unlike Europe, our weather isn’t very conducive to al fresco dining most of the year, but I’d rather risk it by having a table in a park than in cramped confines with an air conditioner circulating the same air 10 times an hour!
Airlines and travel will see major changes, as foreign travel stands near decimated for the near future. Local destinations will gain value and people will prefer taking a longer drive to a place rather than go by train or flight. Also, the takeover of the world through webinars has made the corporate bigwigs realise that a lot of work can be efficiently achieved without having to be in the same geographical location. So this will mean that work from home will extend to cover work from holidays as well, and companies may move to hire smaller office spaces to further reduce costs.
Speaking of smaller spaces, many a restaurant will cease to exist as a formal premise in the coming year and only operate out of cloud kitchens as delivery outlets. This will be most possible for established brands that had a solid repute for their food before the lockdown came into place. Once things improve, they might move back to standard dining salons. Some eateries have also launched sauces, preserves and spreads as an extension of their brand of cuisine and I see that arm of business growing separately even after the worst of the pandemic has passed.
As I said, these are just paradigms. I am in no hurry to step out and am still praying for a vaccine. Because all things given, my urge and duty to not pass on the virus to the elderly and susceptible around me is significantly higher than my urge to sit in a crowded place and overpay for a pizza!
The writer is a sommelier