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The Indian restaurant businesses are up in arms about night curfews, randomised lockdowns and seating restrictions in the wake of the Omicron wave. In a letter to the Prime Minister on Thursday, the National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI), appealed for a more scientific policy for restaurants and longer operational hours. 

In an interview, Kabir Suri, president of the association, who runs Azure Hospitality, said nearly 30% of all restaurants in India have shut down in the last 20 months and if adequate support isn’t provided, the crisis for the restaurant industry could worsen.

Edited excerpts:

Q: What are you seeking from the Centre?

We have written a letter to the PMO appealing to the various state governments to permit longer operating hours for the industry since it will reduce overcrowding, and also prevent further job losses for millions of workers. We have requested the government to issue directions to all states to permit delivery of food from restaurants as part of essential services, as has already been clarified by MHA vide its SOP for maintaining the supply of essential goods dated 26 March 2020, while still following covid protocols.

Each state is acting and reacting in its own way basis what it feels is correct. Our principal ask is that what was used to tackle covid during the delta wave cannot be the same methodology being used for the currents strain.

Obviously, hospitalisation is a very key factor and the ratio and rates as a percentage to the actual covid count are very, very low as compared to what it was in the delta.

Also, if we use other countries and states as a standard in respect to how they have dealt with this, none has used curfew, or a lockdown as a way. They have focused on vaccinations; booster vaccines, masking and social distancing. We understand that this is a large country and the population is humongous, but the rules that are applied for safety should be determined on scientific data. This state-wise ad hoc decision making is obviously going to cause disruption to business, revenue loss and job losses. We've been dealing with this for the last 18 months and 30% of restaurants across India have already shut down.

Q: What has been the total loss to the industry during the pandemic?

The losses had built up in covid one, and then again, April and May of the second wave in FY 21-22. I can't define the loss but it's in thousands of crores as an industry, including both restaurants and hotels.

Q: Did revenge consumption have a positive impact?

When we look at the last quarter, it was very strong with October, November and December where people wanted to go out. People's social behaviours are not going to change in regard to going out once the waves subside.

Q: Has the pandemic altered the way the dine-in industry works?

In-dining restaurants have now been forced during covid to also adapt to delivery, if they were not doing so in the past.

A restaurant, which is basically within four walls that offers an experience, will not be able to cover its costs only through delivery. But a cloud kitchen can cover its costs through delivery because it was built for that, with smaller operational space, manpower etc. So obviously, those doing a hybrid model, where they have the ability to deliver, but their core focus still remains a restaurant, will get disrupted.

Technically, the delivery business is not going to replace eating out. It's going to replace the number of meals you make in your own home. That's all it is.

Q: What are your expectations from the last quarter of FY 21-22?

January is going to be a washout. But if the unlocking starts in February, I'm assuming by April, things will get better. Restaurants will have to keep adapting, modifying and be as nimble as possible. Some may downsize, while others may expand because of capital availability. But consumption won't stop.

Q: In what way are you working with the food delivery platforms?

We are asking them to create a hybrid model. It means for instance, like when they (Zomato & Swiggy) announced on New Year's Eve this year that they did two million transactions each, technically, they could have done two and a half million. Why do I see that? Because two million were done based on their infrastructure. Now, unfortunately during peak times their infrastructure is not always available and their riders are not available when the demand increases. If your riders can't support the demand, then it is the restaurant that suffers because they are stuck on their platform. Restaurants can also support their infrastructure by delivering along with them using their own delivery mechanisms, even if the order has come through the aggregator. It is a very simple ask. Why should the customer suffer? This happens on all festival days.

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