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Many of Bengaluru’s old-timers will fondly recall catching up over coffee and dosas at Indian Coffee House, which first opened on MG Road and later shifted to Church Street. But since it reopened after the lockdown in early June, the iconic restaurant, which has remained largely unchanged since the late 1950s, stopped serving sambar, idlis and its popular mutton cutlets.

“There aren’t enough customers; so, we have reduced the number of items on the menu," says G. Purushotham, the 56-year-old cashier. It’s been three months since the cafe opened its doors again, but daily sales have stagnated at around 4,000 a day, a fraction of the 25,000 it generated before the lockdown. Like many businesses across the country, staff salaries have been slashed, and the lease has been renegotiated for the space on Church Street, one of Bengaluru’s costliest real estate spots.

The city’s restaurants and bars are slowly reopening after close to six months, but it’s likely to be a while before footfalls match levels recorded before the pandemic. Dining out is only at 8-10% of pre-covid levels, estimates a report put out in August by online food aggregator Zomato.

Newer restaurants and bars that shifted online may fare better in the short term than Bengaluru’s older institutions, which depend on older, less tech-savvy clientele who prefer to meet friends over coffee.

Interestingly, these traditional eateries share the same model as Bengaluru’s microbreweries—one that banks on the customer’s experience and the sense of community that comes from bonding over meals.

“Newer restaurants have an advantage because they have a blank canvas and can go online or change the way they do business. Older ones have an essence that’s recognized in the market; so their business decisions in a changed climate will have to be based on that," says Siddharth Shekhar Singh, associate dean for digital transformation, e-learning and marketing at the Indian School of Business (ISB). “Their choices when it comes to adapting a business model are a little more constrained; but they do need to be more creative and open to new ideas right now."

On a weekday afternoon, just two customers were having an intense discussion at one of the 10 tables at Indian Coffee House. In pre-covid times, it would be hard to find a spot during the lunch rush. “Before coronavirus hit, we served 200-300 people in just the first shift (8am-2pm). After we reopened, we got about 50 customers a day. In the last two-three days, it’s probably reached 100," Purushotham says.

Less than half a kilometre away, Koshy’s on St Mark’s Road, another landmark in old Bengaluru’s food scene, is still shut. Its owner, Mathew Koshy, is considering a reopening date of 1 October. “We need to borrow more money to restart," says Koshy. He’s had to borrow to pay salaries throughout the closure and to renew the liquor licence, which costs around 10 lakh.

Older institutions like Koshy’s, Indian Coffee House, and even the city’s many darshinis—the standing-only restaurants that serve quick meals—have little room in their revenue models to accommodate online platforms or bear the burden of deep discounting practices.

“The cost of going online is very high for small eateries," says R. Srinivasan, professor, strategy at IIM-B. The other challenge is estimating demand: smaller restaurants rarely have the capacity to plan for the fluctuations in demand that come with online orders.

Resistance to adapting to the needs of millennial and Gen Z customers, who are now used to the convenience of on-demand delivery, could also be a factor in older restaurants’ struggle to go online. “Our restaurant is called Taaza Thindi or fresh food. We do not want it to lose that quality of freshness by doing home delivery," says B. Chengappa, a partner in the once-bustling eatery in Jayanagar.

ISB’s Singh says creative solutions can be found to niggles like these. “These are restaurants where people come to chat, meet friends; they have a relationship with the owner. The business owner can use that relationship to talk to customers, find out how their habits, needs and attitudes have changed, and make small changes to the business to make them feel it’s safe to come back," he says.

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