This time last month, Chennai-based restaurateur Chindi Varadarajulu was busy planning menus for her newly-launched Chinese restaurant, Zhoyu. Downstairs, her older restaurant Pumpkin Tales, was buzzing with laughter and conversation, as diners gathered over avocado toast, hunks of chocolate cake and steamy cappuccinos.
Then, like every other restaurant in town, both started emptying out as the shadow of COVID-19 loomed. By the weekend of March 21-22, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the all-India Janata curfew, they had switched off the ovens.
Now, they are open again. But in a very different avatar, cloaked in the scent of hand sanitiser instead of the comforting aroma of baking bread. A hefty table across the front bars customers from entering. Only delivery and takeaways. And the staff are in masks and gloves, meticulously wiping down every table with a bleach solution at regular intervals.
A lot has changed in a very short time.
Navigating the challenges of India’s 21-day lockdown, as delivery services including Swiggy, Zomato and Dunzo resume — albeit with limited timings — restaurants across the country are struggling to reopen. Not everyone can: there’s an overwhelming shadow of fear, manpower is in short supply and ingredients are difficult to procure. Yet, rents and salaries have to be paid. And, judging by the response, customers are eager to start ordering food again.
On a call from Mumbai, Gauri Devidayal, who runs The Table and Magazine Street kitchen, says, “I have been speaking to people who run restaurants, delivery kitchens and catering units, and they all feel many of them are going to have to close. Rent is 50 to 60% of your cost, and it is crippling.” She adds, “One of the biggest challenges in Mumbai and Delhi is the fact that most kitchens use migrant workers, who have all gone home.”
Her team has tried to get back on its feet as quickly as possible by restarting the bakery a few days ago. “We had an overwhelming response. “On the first day we went live, despite no advertising, we did the same value of sales in four hours that we did over the whole of February,” says Gauri. “The only reason we were able to relaunch was we got a small team to move into Magazine Street Kitchen. We converted our dining room into a living space to minimise them going back and forth.”
Their delivery-only brand, Iktara, re-starts next, offering Indian comfort food. “The focus is great quality at delivery prices, cooked in a hygienic kitchen,” she says, adding that moving forward, hygiene is going to be of paramount importance as customers need to trust restaurateurs and chefs more than ever before.
This is why Ashvin Rajagopalan of Chennai’s Ashvita Bistro’s main focus now is restaurant hygiene, and keeping his team safe. Now that they are up and running for deliveries again, albeit with a flexible menu since not all ingredients are available, the café accepts only contactless payments.
In Chennai’s T Nagar area, Paati Veedu is also slowly powering up. G Mohandas, one of the owners, says they are trying to deliver orders to their older customers especially, who find it challenging to shop for groceries and cook during the lockdown.
To accomplish this, they are focussing on larger plates of dishes that can stay fresh for a couple of days in the fridge, like tamarind rice, sambar rice, rasam and idli s.
“Right now, people want anything that is available,” he says. “They are not being picky. Everybody has understood you can’t have a whole lot. But we are trying to keep the menu interesting. Since we are a vegetarian restaurant, even with six types of vegetables available, we can dish out quite a lot.”
For restaurant chains with set menus, however, a reliable supply of ingredients is vital, and with supply chains affected by the lockdown, every day poses fresh challenges. Sandesh Reddy, who oversees the French Loaf and Wangs Kitchen chains, in addition to Sandys, Ox And Tomato and Hu Tong, says they are tweaking menus depending on what is available everyday, but adds that there are a lot of logistical issues. “We are doing the best we can,” he says, “But it is tough. And I don’t know how many restaurants are going to survive this.”
On popular demand, they have got five French Loaf outlets up and running, supplying bread. “The bread arrives at 10 am, and we sell out by 1.30 everyday,” he says. In an attempt to supplement the bread, the cafes are also selling eggs, milk, pasta and instant noodles, when available.
What lasts longer
Back at Pumpkin Tales, Chindi is elbow deep in dough. “We have just one baker now, so I’m spending about four hours in the kitchen everyday,” she says, adding that they can barely keep up with the demand ever since they reopened the bakery. “We are selling four times more bread than usual, so we now bake three times a day.”
They are also finding creative ways to cater to customers craving a change from cooking at home. “We also make pizza crusts, that are 50% cooked, and give it with sauce and cheese, so people can make pizzas at home. Also burgers, shakshuka, and pasta sauces.” They now have a lockdown menu, offering practical, larger portions for families: tubs of soup, fried rice that does well in the fridge and whole roast chickens.
Since people are comfort eating now, she is also baking more cake. “We have carrot cake, triple chocolate and brownies. We used to sell cinnamon buns and scones once a week, now we bake them everyday.”
She adds, “We also brought back our Christmas cranberry sourdough — I think people need some kind of a treat now. Some cheer to get us all through this.”