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After months of eating home-cooked food, Darshita Srinivasan recently ordered her favourite pork ribs from an upscale eatery in Bengaluru, picking the option of a meal kit.

It wasn’t that great an experience. The partially cooked frozen ribs arrived with no instructions, but the DIY dish failed to produce the sizzle of something cooked by the restaurant chef. Srinivasan asked for a refund and got it instantly.

High-end restaurants are struggling after the long closure of the lockdown. The taste and texture of their dishes are hard to replicate for deliveries, and you can’t pack the experience of fine-dining in a container.

Fine-dining depends in large part on the ambience, attentive and knowledgeable staff, and flamboyance in plating and service. But with the pandemic forcing months of closures, restaurateurs are torn between shutting down and selling meal kits or packaging their food without plating and other elements of showmanship. Some gourmet restaurants have made the hard decision of joining the on-demand game to stay in business; others have bowed out.

“High-end food won’t remain high-end when it’s delivered," says Maurya Kuttappa, owner of Forage, a nutri-gourmet restaurant that was shuttered in April as it was unable to pay the rent without customers. Deliveries via platforms like Zomato and Swiggy accounted for 4% of its orders before the lockdown, but the restaurant’s real draw lay in the experience of its intimate environment—there’s a terrace garden—said Kuttappa, who runs three restaurants in Spain.

A combination of factors has forced several fine-dining restaurants across the country out of business since the covid-19 outbreak. It’s hard to sustain a gourmet food business, paying top-dollar for prime real estate, specialized chefs and staff, without customers at the door. Home delivery isn’t always an option as many of the items on their menus don’t travel well.

Some restaurants are pivoting and looking to build their own delivery infrastructure as people start to entertain at home. Sameer Seth, partner at Hunger Inc. Hospitality that runs The Bombay Canteen, O Pedro and Bombay Sweet Shop in Mumbai said having one’s own delivery platform is critical. “Not only does it allow us to own the relationship with the guests, but it also allows us to have greater control over the experience and thereby learn to tweak and improve it," he said.

Habits and attitudes, not just to dining out but to a host of discretionary spending, are changing, and brands are learning to adapt, said Siddharth Shekhar Singh, associate dean for digital transformation, e-learning and marketing at the Indian School of Business.

“It’s basic market research but not the expensive kind. Restaurants can just call customers, chat with them, find out what they can do to make customers feel safe about returning. The best insights are from people who love your service and want to support you," he said.

Going online is a way to cut costs and add volumes, but its success also depends on the business model. “If your offering depends on the experience of people who want to chat and make friends, you can’t ask them to order. You have to innovate accordingly. It’s an opportunity to be creative."

Abhijit Saha, founding director and chef of Avant Garde Hospitality, ran Fava, a Mediterranean restaurant, and Caperberry that served modern European cuisine in UB City, Bengaluru. Both tried reopening in June but closed down a month later when a week-long lockdown was announced in Bengaluru. Saha’s planning a kitchen with a more “deliverable" menu. “But I don’t know if being listed on a delivery platform is enough as it is very competitive ."

Manu Chandra, chef and partner, Olive Group of Restaurants, said, “For fine-dine to adapt, a fundamental re-look at the product offering and pricing is required. Whether or not it works depends on the cost heads they may have previously incurred, real estate and manpower, which are the highest."

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