Will 2021 be the year we eat out again?


After a year of home deliveries, diners have finally begun heading out. What do they have in store?

Late in 2020, reports came in of US-based fast food chain Wendy’s eyeing India’s cloud kitchen market, to launch a string of such operations in collaboration with industry giant Rebel Foods and Sierra Nevada. That cloud kitchens disrupted the country’s lockdown-hit restaurant industry last year is old news — and who better to bear witness than Rebel Foods, with brands like Faasos, Oven Story, Lunch Box and The Good Bowl under its umbrella? Now, with Wendy’s alone reportedly planning to open 250 cloud kitchens across the country, the disruption looks set to continue.

Restaurants, however, are not too worried. If Japtej Singh Ahluwalia of Pricol Gourmet, that operates multiple restaurants in Chennai, Bengaluru, Delhi and Pune is to believed, “There is enough space for both.” He points out how aspiring restaurateurs are, in fact, taking the cloud kitchen route before opening up physical outlets, as “it gives them more scope to experiment for a fraction of the cost. The two formats will definitely have to coexist for the time being. There is plenty of market for all.”

Kappa Chakka Kandhari’s Pidi annd Ramapuram kozhi curry
| Photo Credit:
Vinayak Grover

In these times of social distancing, the rising market for home-delivered food is all well and good. But it cannot be denied that everyone misses at least one of their favourite restaurants, breakfast nooks and watering holes. Walk-ins are already on a slow but steady rise, with drastic rise in footfall month-on-month. Some cities (like Chennai) are seeing a faster improvement than others (like Pune), based on a string of factors like Government restrictions, COVID-19 numbers and consumer confidence. With two vaccines having received the green signal last week, restaurateurs are optimistic about a return to business, even if seating limits and restricted timings do not get reverted any time soon.

But before we dive into those technicalities, there is the happy news of more and more restaurants reopening this year, after the first few waves of gutsy business owners had dared to do so in June last year. So alongside a boom in cloud kitchens, you can also expect to see your trusty old neighbourhood haunts throw open their doors again.

Kappa Chakka Kandhari, for instance, welcomed diners back to its Chennai outlet in late December, and plans to open its Bengaluru branch by the end of this month. “It (footfall) will not reach the 100% mark, but I definitely see things improving,” says Chef Regi Mathew of KCK Foods, adding, “We are sending our guests the menu in advance, once they make their reservations. We have also come up with pre-set menus, to minimise interaction between guests and staff.” Limited interaction is not ideal in the hospitality sector — especially in restaurants where ambience and service are priority — “but it is still the need of the hour,” he points out.

Kappa Chakka Kandhari’s Pidi annd Ramapuram kozhi curry
| Photo Credit:
Vinayak Grover

The focus, as Mathew says, will be “to give confidence to customers and provide them the best service possible. There will be expectations from customers as well, with regards to hygiene as well as service protocols.” That, he says, will continue to keep restaurants on their toes.

But even as restaurants continue to lure in diners to their floors — Al fresco or otherwise — the role of delivery services cannot be ignored. Aggregator apps like Swiggy and Zomato, with their curious combination of discounts and added delivery charges, were a godsend last year to many diners, especially young working professionals, who dared not step out and yet did not have the bandwidth to cook multiple meals amid the increasing pressures of work from home (and study from home).

Newer platforms

Restaurants have frequently been trying to come up with alternatives for these two giants, from individual apps of their own to aggregators of other kinds. For instance, KCK has a delivery vertical of its own, focussing on biryani and bento box-style meal boxes, albeit with Malabari cuisine. On a larger scale is Dotpe’s recent tie-up with Google Pay, enabling diners to use Google Pay directly to search for their favourite restaurants and order one-on-one. The National Restaurant Authority of India’s app, which aimed to connect customers with each individual restaurant via WhatsApp, has been postponed. It will hopefully open this year, giving consumers yet another option to move away from deep-discount aggregators — if so they choose.

Soy Soi’s prawn hargau

But making a dent in the loyal customer bases of Swiggy and Zomato, whose patrons have long been habituated to discounts, is a tall order. Japtej, whose restaurant Roll Baby Roll is trying out the Dotpe option, agrees, but still finds it worth a shot. As he puts it: “If I am going to give a discount, I might as well give it directly to the customer instead of routing it through an app and pay a commission for it on top of that. Everyone is trying out these options for sure, but whether they are successful or not, only time will tell.”

From the consumer’s perspective, it is clear why aggregator apps are more preferable. Says Japtej, “As a consumer, I want variety. They (aggregator apps) have made it convenient to just swipe and get whatever dish you want, at any time of day.” He also points out that alternatives like Dotpe are still at a nascent stage, and it might take months for aspects like payment gateway to get tweaked as per the consumers’ liking.

Having said that, Japtej adds, “If I can get even 10% to 15% of my [Roll Baby Roll’s] customers back from Swiggy or Zomato via Dotpe, I will be happy.” Either way, it means options galore for those ordering in.

In this series, we look ahead at what 2021 has to offer.

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