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NEW DELHI : Casual and fine-dining restaurants in India are witnessing increased footfalls as the pandemic wanes, mobility improves and customers gain greater confidence to step out.

Executives at several restaurant chains said the number of dine-in guests has climbed every month since September, reducing their dependence on deliveries and takeaways that helped them stay afloat during the worst of the coronavirus lockdown.

“Dine-in is definitely improving," said Anurag Katriar, president, National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI). “It hasn’t reached pre-covid numbers but is definitely on a very positive note now. I think people have understood the new normal and have accepted that they have to go through temperature checks, use QR codes, etc. Dine-in business for casual restaurants is upwards of 70% of pre-covid levels," Katriar said, adding weekends are especially busy.

Wow! Momo, which has more than 350 stores, said its business has returned to 80% of pre-covid levels, with the share of delivery and takeaways touching pre-covid levels.

“Months of December and January were very good for us. We got back to 85% of pre-covid numbers. And we also got back to profits for the first time in this financial year in December. The delivery business had really gone up for us—from 25% pre-covid, it rose to 62% post-lockdown. That number has now come down to 42%," said Sagar Daryani, founder of Wow! Momo. Dine-in is at 66% of pre-covid levels for the chain, he added.

Several restaurants said recovery was better in high-street stores than in malls. “Stores located in malls and those near corporate parks and offices continue to see sluggish business," said Daryani. Last year, Wow! Momo shut 43 outlets though it continued opening stores in new locations; 52 new stores have been added in 2020.

“Dine-in has come up in a big way — one thing that continues to hold us back is the limit on seating capacity. People are coming back in large numbers across cities and across restaurants," said Jaideep Mukherjee, business head at Smoke House Deli. Recovery in dine-in has been rising since September, led by cities such as Bengaluru, Delhi and Mumbai he said.

“At one point, we were doing more delivery than dine-in; then it was more like 50:50; today, delivery is about 15-17%, in some restaurants, may be 20%, but dine-in has grown to a large extent. The business is seeing more footfalls and better conversions," he said. Overall, Smoke House Deli’s business has returned to 65-70% of its pre-covid numbers.

Dine-in business for Lite Bite Foods’ quick service formats such as Street Foods by Punjab Grill is at 80% of pre-covid levels, while for its casual dining formats like Zambar and Tres, it is at 50%, said Rohit Aggarwal, director, Lite Bite Foods Pvt. Ltd.

Restaurants had a rough 2020 because of severe curbs aimed at curbing coronavirus transmission. After a lengthy duration when they had to depend solely on home deliveries, the Union government allowed restaurants to reopen on 8 June with restrictions, but many states struggling with rising number of covid cases granted permissions only later. Even then, fear of infections prompted many customers to stay away. According to an NRAI estimate last year, roughly 30% of bars and eateries closed permanently post the lockdown.

For restaurants, a part of the challenge also lies in the restrictions that continue: they can only operate at half capacity.

Last month, the government removed capacity restrictions at cinema halls, a move that restaurants remain hopeful would extend to their business. The NRAI has made several representations to the government, asking for the removal of the caps on seating.

However, any estimate of a full-fledged recovery could still be some time away. Daryani said it could take another six-to-eight months for a return to normalcy, after the reopening of offices, cinemas and airports.

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