The Surreality of Reality
The Changing Face of Social Dining in the Post Covid-19 Era
…And we stayed home. And learned new ways of being. We found joy and delight in the swell of birdsong in cities; in the sightings of sparrows on kitchen windows; and in the happy wandering of deer and nilgai on peaceful streets.
Life will hardly remain the same when COVID-19 is finally behind us. Economic experts and those dealing closely with the pandemic have predicted ever-lasting changes: in the way we live, work and eat, and how Covid-19 may alter the human journey.
When I started work on this article, which began with preparing my questionnaire, I felt a deep anxiety, even guilt: what do you ask someone who, unknown to me, may be seeing his or her world turn upside down? Who may have many questions, but no answers; no clear way forward? In retrospect, I am glad I gave them that ear. There were interviews where I did not even move on to the next question: the interviewee shared his heart and it felt like a catharsis. Then, there were times when only one line would be uttered and people on both sides of the telephone would just derive solace in the silence!
“What is so important to humanity is connection” – it is this very thought that has led to the F&B industry’s evolution across the world. The act of coming together as social clusters of family and friends and sharing meals is what created the restaurant industry. This “breaking bread on communal tables” has spurred the emergence of path-breaking chefs, cuisine-centred restaurants and varied others evolutionary concepts in dining.
How will this virus, which mutates on human connection, affect the culture of eating out that is the very essence of modern, urban living? As brick-and-mortar set ups shut down and social distancing becomes the order of the day, restaurants are struggling. For the entire supply chain − farmers growing organic produce, organisations bringing these farmers together, meat suppliers, bread suppliers, fromagers, micro-breweries, distilleries, distributors, and logistics providers − it’s a question of how to survive these times. They are all bewildered but being brave.
Innovative efforts are coming into play: four- and five-star hotels in the NCR have crafted home-delivery menus and are providing laundry services to homes. A restaurant in Gurgaon is said to be offering tickets against future five-course meals paired with cocktails, to keep itself from sinking. However, the pain the food industry faces is all too visible. Many cloud kitchens are shutting down, citing raw material shortages, logistical issues, depleting demand and the growing fear of exposing staff to a Covid infection. An important point raised by Thomas Fenn, Founder “MahaBelly” and Member, Managing Committee, National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI) is that the “protocols established for the processes during these times are only on the front end of the Restaurant Industry, but not on the back-end”. This is risky for both staff and customer and can destroy the restaurant’s reputation should something unfortunate happen. Another truth – perhaps an even more disturbing one, has been shared by Prateeksh Mehra, owner of artisanal cheese brand The Spotted Cow Fromagerie: some businesses are not releasing payments and wages, applying an “Act of God” argument.
So, how is dining as a business and restaurants as structures likely to change in the post-Covid-19 world?
Shared Tables will not be a popular restaurant feature: Shared tables in restaurants and bars, which attempt to create bonds between strangers over food and drink, may no longer be popular with customers, at least in the months to follow.
Pop-Up restaurants will take a hit: Pop-Ups, an effective way to find out the receptivity to a completely new cuisine, or segment within a cuisine, will suffer as a restaurant concept. Pop – ups by award-winning Indian chefs will likely be put on hold for a while. Moreover, high street events, such as those funded by liquor companies, will take a hit not only because by the economic downturn in India, but also the possible reluctance of people to go in a crowd to any event.
Mom-and- pop restaurants offering regional cuisine centred upon a unique concept will do well: In recent years, home chefs have emerged serving speciality regional cuisines as an intimate and culturally immersive experience; these standalone restaurant concepts are built upon family recipes handed down for generations and the folklore or story unique to their home. Food has the magical ability of making people gather around a “dastarkhan,” savouring it and sharing nuggets from each other’s daily life and maybe readings from the favourite author or poet. These chefs themselves are often people without a culinary degree, but able to offer a uniquely special and memorable dining experience by creating conceptually stimulating provincial cuisines. Munaf Kapadia of The Bohri Kitchen, Ananya Banerjee (for African and Bengali cuisine) and Soumitra Velkar (for Pathare Prabhu cuisine) are excellent examples. Yet another is Farida Kutianawala of The Big Spread, that was born in the winter of 2014 with the intention of serving Bohri iftar thaals, a relatively new concept in Mumbai six years ago. Aggregators like Authenticook are simple online platforms bringing some of these home chefs together.
In this context, The Secret Supper Project (TSSP), launched few years ago is a great case study. Boredom of food and of location gave rise to it. TSSP organises monthly dinners at unusual venues such as curio filled homes, terrace apartments, libraries and art galleries and the guests, almost always, are an interesting mix of strangers from varied walks of life.
There will be more cooking and dining at home: Every disaster carries with it the seeds of opportunity. There may be renewed interest in slow food, as something to be savoured and created in personalised ways. People are already showing huge interest in doing experimental cooking, sharing recipes, and posting cooking tips and pictures of homecooked meals on social media. Maybe this will lead to more home chefs creating their own business. A growing inclination to cooking at home may lead to more leisurely evenings, with families spending quality time over good food and meaningful conversations.
Organic and Local Produce will be sought after: According to Thomas Fenn, artisanal coffee, tea infusions, tisanes, locally made cheeses, and organic produce will see a leap in demand. Small entrepreneurs with links to farmers and producers of millets, grains and flour, seasonal vegetables and spices will flourish.
Demand for India’s indigenous produce will be bolstered by a growing consumer loyalty to ventures that directly enable sustainable development. Entrepreneurs in the food space are doing their bit: Linnet Mushran of Bhuira Jams has brought prosperity to the small, quaint hamlet of Bhuira, Himachal Pradesh, by making handcrafted jams and jellies filled with the goodness of its local fruits, and by employing women who belong to this village. “Seed Warrior” Debal Deb is keeping alive hundreds of varieties of heirloom rice to support food sovereignty. Founder of Basudha, a rice conservation farm in India, he has created a massive seed bank that houses and is preserving rare indigenous rice to protect agricultural biodiversity.
Original Indian Table is another concept worth mentioning. Co-founders Ishira Mehta and Puneet Jhajharia connect urban consumers directly to local farmers to create a better world for them. They support farmers who are reviving traditional heritage crops and sustainable farming like dried apricots from Ladakh and barnyard millet from Uttarakhand.
Rise of the home delivery of specialty dishes: Even before Covid-19, food delivery platforms (the aggregators as well as the new-delivery players), were proving that off-premise growth is accelerating faster than anyone could have predicted. We can expect to see more demand for the home-delivery of novel and interesting things to eat, made by those cooking out of their home and those operating through Cloud Kitchens. Industry veteran Sabbir Ansari has introduced India’s first chef-led cloud kitchen brands that include Biryani Hazir Ho and Bolo Tara RaRa.
Since such a concept has potential for robust growth because of lower costs (short menu, smaller portions, reasonable rates) and more business per square foot, it is likely that chefs and restaurateurs will be looking to capitalise on it.
Resilience and innovation will be the name of the game as we charter the uncertain waters of the next several months. In a sense, we can say Covid-19 as a pandemic is a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it ignoring the warning signs of an environmental and climate catastrophe, defying the rules that nature made for us. Or, we can walk through this lightly, with no partialities, and lots of love, gratitude and hope in our hearts, ready to imagine another world where everyone can thrive. A world where we shall put humanity and compassion towards each other at the centre of our technologically and capital driven world.