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Unlock 1.0: Is it too early for the Indian restaurant industry to celebrate?

There is disappointment in the industry over the distinction being made between restaurants and bars. High-end restaurants in the country happen to be both, serving specialty cuisines as well as liquor. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/MintPremium
There is disappointment in the industry over the distinction being made between restaurants and bars. High-end restaurants in the country happen to be both, serving specialty cuisines as well as liquor. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

With a distinction being made between restaurants and bars, and the 9 pm curfew, high-end establishments that serve liquor are in a quandary about whether to open at all

According to the Union home ministry's latest guidelines on reopening the economy, loosely termed the "Unlock 1.0" plan, hotels and restaurants in the country's non-containment zones will be allowed to open from 8 June. This should have been cause for cheer in the F&B industry but it has led to confusion, even disappointment, as bars remain prohibited in the current reopening plan.

“This is something we have been waiting for and now that it’s happening in a week, we should have been unambiguously happy. But currently there is a lack of clarity over whether restaurants with bar licences will be allowed to open at all, or whether they can open without serving liquor," says A.D. Singh, managing director of the F&B company Olive Group, which runs popular restaurants such as the Olive Bar and Kitchen, SodaBottleOpenerWala and Toast and Tonic across major Indian cities. “Even if it is the former—that we can start food but not liquor service—we have to see whether it’s worth opening up at all. With social distancing norms reducing the number of covers, and a 9pm curfew, which means we have to shut down by 8.15pm, we are reviewing whether we should continue to be in lockdown mode. It may make sense for us to stay closed till the 9pm curfew is lifted and liquor is allowed," says Singh.

There is a sense of disappointment in the industry over the distinction being made between restaurants and bars. As is the case the world over, high-end restaurants in the country happen to be both, serving specialty cuisines as well as liquor.

Rakshay Dhariwal, managing director, Pass Code Hospitality Pvt. Ltd, which owns restaurants like PCO, À Ta Maison and Jamun in Delhi, says: “No bars are to open and no alcohol is to be served. So, what is the point of opening up right now? A large part of our revenue does come from the dinner service, but with this 9pm deadline, how will this be possible? What if someone is working till late and needs a place to eat? We are not Europe, where people have dinner at 6pm," says Dhariwal. He adds: “I don’t think the government has recognized the food and beverage industry as a sector. It became quite evident in the bailout package, which had nothing for the industry. They don’t seem to give the industry (which provides direct employment to nearly 7.3 million people) any importance and it is really disheartening."

Bengaluru-based F&B entrepreneur Sibi Venkataraju, director and co-founder of pH4 Food and Beverages, which runs the Toit brewpub in Bengaluru, Pune and Mumbai and The Permit Room in Bengaluru, says the overall sentiment right now is one of disappointment. “We are gutted. It does not feel like a concession at all," says Venkataraju. His main point of contention, again, is the seemingly artificial distinction between restaurants that serve liquor and those that don’t, which puts the former in a grey area. “We will wait till Monday to get some clarity on whether food services can be opened and will try to get whatever business we can while maintaining social distancing norms and hygiene practices. But the non-inclusion of bars in phase 1 of the unlock plan is disappointing. We feel isolated as an industry—at being included with swimming pools and gyms. It doesn’t make sense. Do they think people will get drunk and start hugging each other?"

In spite of the ambiguity over liquor service, most F&B brands are innovating to stay alive and putting new standard operating procedures in place for opening up on 8 June. Samrat Banerjee, director and head of operations, ROOH, New Delhi, says: “We will operate with 50% seating. On the tables, we don’t intend to put any flower vases, crockery or cutlery. To avoid human contact, cutlery will be packed in individual pouches. We are also getting QR codes for menus, which allows a guest to order on the phone and the ticket is automatically generated in the kitchen. This is one way to reduce human contact at the table." The eating out culture may change to reflect the new realities—Banerjee says night-life may be replaced by all-day dining with comfort food. “It’s not an easy situation as our fixed expenses are still high. But right now we just need to get the machine restarted."

Many high-end restaurants which did not focus on home deliveries and takeaways earlier may start doing so now. There is also an increased focus on breakfast menus.

However, the latest guidelines do need some clarification. “When it comes to Mumbai, we are still waiting for clarity, especially about whether the city as a whole is being considered a containment zone," says Sameer Seth, co-founder, Hunger Inc, which owns restaurants such as The Bombay Canteen and O Pedro. “We have been preparing for opening up with our teams for some time now, discussing safety measures, including the best ways for employees to travel to work and tests that will allow us to take care of the health of both the staff and the guests. Some protocols are already in place for our deliveries, including temperature checks, sanitization of hands and clear instructions on disposal of delivery bags. For any of this to be successful, there needs to be clear communication from everyone in the ecosystem."

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