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Food

VR Dining, Gift-Delivering Meals, Social Bubbles: The Future of Eating Out in India

What will going out to eat post-pandemic look like in a country that loves to get together in large numbers to feast? We asked industry insiders.
27 May 2020, 11:30am

This article originally appeared on VICE India.

If you’re living in one of the quarantine zones anywhere in the world, visuals from some countries opening up will immediately make you froth—partly in desire of regaining life like you knew it, and partly in despair because nobody knows when things are going to get better. And one of the most drool-inducing images of normalcy (or whatever is left of it) involves seeing other people get coffee or go out to eat—something you, too, once would do with reckless abandonment.

But right now, things are nothing short of dystopic, and the reopening of restaurants across the world has come with major changes—from new protocols such as cardboard or glass dividers and disinfection tunnels, to outdoor glass booths and socially distanced seating arrangements. And it’s not just the interiors that restaurants are tweaking in order to make people come back. Some have even taken a complete detour from their original food menus—like in the case of Michelin-starred Danish restaurant Noma ditching their sophisticated menu made of foraged ingredients and gastronomy for, well, cheese burgers.

So what do we look forward to in India? VICE turned to some of the country’s best restaurateurs, chefs and food industry insiders to predict what we could potentially be looking at when we can finally go out instead of looking in our pantry for yet another answer to, “What’s for dinner?”.

India Lacks Social Distancing Discipline, and That Might Hamper the Restaurants

Earlier this month, India eased up its lockdown for a bit and reopened its liquor shops, leading to endless queues and chaos. These bouts of anarchy, especially under the world’s strictest and harshest lockdown, have caused worry for many, especially food industry insiders who were one of the first communities to face the brunt of the pandemic by shutting down much before the lockdown was even imposed. And so, social distancing has become not just the norm but is forming the very foundation of how this industry will be functioning for a very long time.

“What’s happening across the world (the reopening of restaurants) gives us hope,” says Mumbai-based restaurateur Gauri Devidayal, who runs prominent restaurants such as The Table and Magazine Street Kitchen in Mumbai. “But in India, things are a little complicated. We don’t have the discipline to help us reopen systematically, in a way that would be good for our society. And it’s not just that. Things like not being able to sit outside, especially in cities like Mumbai (owing to our weather), and restricted delivery services, make it very difficult to help us reopen without hassle.”

‘Social Bubbles’ Might Be a Reality

At the moment, industries that thrive on public gatherings are looking at two possibilities that could help them reopen: One that takes into account a world with the vaccine, and one without. With the first one, social distancing is still going to play a major role and will manifest in strict measures seen elsewhere in the world, such as installing screens and sanitation units, among others.

A world without the vaccine, however, could play out differently. “It would have a significant impact on users' sentiment towards dining out,” says Chaitanya Mathur, who runs Delhi-based restaurants Dear Donna and Bohca, both once known for their thriving nightlife. “Places like nightclubs will have the toughest time because they’re always about people coming together and in closed groups. Apart from regular checks and social distancing measures, we’ll have to install contactless options in serving and payments.”

This is where the idea of social bubbles (a measure in which people can choose four people to hang out with, and stick to those in order to curb the spread of the virus) has been floating around, and some experts see that as one of the safe options. “If people have to start going out to eat, then they may start off in smaller groups.” says Mathur.

Selling Food Experiences Will Move Digitally For Good

Since dining out has become a distant dream, some folks are taking a cue from the lost “experience” of going out, and delivering them to people’s homes. Take Mumbai-based The Bombay Canteen, for instance, which is reimagining the idea of dining out, and bringing it to people’s doorsteps—from making week-long special menus just for deliveries to online sessions with chefs, to delivering ingredients for their Zoom cooking classes.

“In the near future, I see people still reluctant to go out but they would want to enjoy cooking at home,” says Sameer Seth, who runs hospitality company Hunger Inc, which includes The Bombay Canteen. The restaurant has also started seeing a trend of customers gifting their customised meals for “celebrations” such as Zoom weddings and birthdays—a clear sign of adaptation under the pandemic where gift-delivering meals have replaced actually going out. This selling of experience helps make something as banal as ordering in a somewhat exciting moment.

Kitchens and Dining Both Will Go Virtual

The restaurant industry has come to terms with the fact that it’s going to take a while for people to treat physical spaces the way they once did. One study even found that 87 percent of Indians might not head out even after the lockdown. “To establish that trust, brands have to bring about transparency, where we significantly talk about ingredients, and put out images and videos of our kitchen and staff,” says Mathur.

There’s also the concern that customers will want to actively see the kitchen because they’re hypervigilant about where the food is coming from. Which means that most kitchens are hoping to start, if they haven’t already, open kitchens. “In Bombay Sweet Shop, we’ve already done this,” adds Seth. “You can walk through the kitchen and have tours. Today, obviously, we do all of this on social media. We show the steps being taken to regain trust.” Devidayal adds the concept of “live feeds” of kitchens in this process so that people who trust the brand get to go behind the scenes.

Anusha Murthy, co-founder of Edible Issues (a Bengaluru-based platform that fosters a dialogue around food systems), points to the emergence of virtual dining experiences, much like what Aerobanquets did in New York, in which people from across the world were virtually transported to one dining table for a virtual meal. “I attended one of those recently and it was immersive. The only thing we couldn’t do was share food!” she tells VICE. “Elizabeth (York, co-founder) and I have since been holding a lot of virtual cooking, baking and dining sessions, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this becomes a norm.”

People Will Fluctuate Between Super Healthy and Super Unhealthy Meals

If there’s anything good the pandemic has done (at least for most of us), it’s to have made us a little more careful about what we eat. The true merit of healthy eating, which has been the clarion call of urban farmers, food experts and agriculturalists for a really long time, is finally seeing the light of the day. And this is where restaurants are jumping in now.

“We’ve never really marketed it (eating healthy/clean) because we never felt there’s a need to, but going forward, people will want to see that there are certain hygiene standards in terms of not just cleanliness but also ingredients,” says Mathur. “The virus is like the invisible evil. People are now more worried about their health and immunity.”

At the same time, though, some restaurants are noticing how people are also ordering in relatively unhealthy stuff that they might not be able to make at home. “The fact that people are now stuck at home, and with their families, has dictated a lot of our food patterns,” says chef Manu Chandra, who partners at outlets such as Toast & Tonic (Bengaluru) and Monkey Bar (Delhi, Bengaluru and Mumbai). “There is a combination of healthy food, but also food that cannot be cooked at home given the major disruption in the food supply chain, which has rendered some items (like mutton) expensive.”

Communal Dining is Our Thing. That’s Not Going to Change

Unlike some Asian societies, where eating out alone is not a big deal, in India, that’s quite the opposite. We like to go out, and in large numbers. “India does see a very different dining behaviour. When I was working in New York City, a table of six would mean a large party. In India, that’s normal,” laughs Seth. “But I do think there are certain things so ingrained in us, culturally, which includes figuring out ways to stay in touch with people.”

And so, even though social bubbles will exist for a while, people will be back at it, just like before, even with the inconveniences of the new normal. “Irrespective of the vaccine, people would like to eat with other people. So I look at this as an opportunity to grow as a business and cater to large groups at home,” says Devidayal. “But this will only be short-term. I do believe that in the long term, people will be back in restaurants, no matter what the number is.”

Consumerism Will Outlive the Pandemic and the Recession

Despite the pandemic and social distancing and the hundreds of measures that will eventually become the new normal, the restaurant industry is actually pretty optimistic about the future. And this is even as restaurants currently face the brunt of the ongoing economic recession, even leading to downing of shutters permanently. The National Restaurants Association of India (NRAI) even warns that 1.5 million jobs could be lost as a fallout of the pandemic. But some habits don’t change. And spending money on food is one of them.

“Sure, some things will change, in terms of where the food is coming from and the importance of healthy food, or even going out. But the main drivers of all this behaviour will remain the same: a tasty meal and nice experience, all within the new norms,” says Delhi-based restaurateur AD Singh, touted as the man who changed the way India eats out. “After a while, it will become the new normal. We will just get over the slight disturbances, and then we will begin to enjoy the experiences, no matter what they are.”

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