What will make customers open up to restaurants in the post Covid Pandemic era? Finely Chopped Covid-19 Lockdown Journal entry 25

Sticky rice, mango sticky rice, crisp paratha, prawn Thai red curry from Seefah, Bandra


When the kitchen is your castle


I saw a rather intriguing video on chef Seefah Ketchaiyo's Facebook page a few days back. That of a bucket being lowered down from a building, through a rope tied to it, and then being collected by a young man in the parking yard. "The way we send food to delivery boys #socialdistancing," said the caption.

What an amazing idea, I thought. Rapunzel meets Robata. Figuratively speaking of course!

She also posted about resuming operations through deliveries from Seefah, the restaurant in Bandra that she runs along with her husband Karan Bane. "Considering the situation, we would be taking the necessary precaution and maintain the highest level of hygiene. Even in the kitchen it would be only chef Seefah and chef Karan who do the packaging," said the her post.

I did not act on this immediately but I filed away this information somewhere at the back of my mind as I am rather fond of the food at Seefah's.

We are trying to cook as much as possible at home these days to stay safe during the Covid-19 Pandemic. I love cooking. K is pitching in too and how. She has delivered some knockout dishes. We are enjoying it. As I am sure are many others, though churning home cooked meals day after day is not easy. Some might not even have access to a kitchen. Or kitchen provisions. Some, such as the young urban migrants who are a big part of cities like Mumbai, might not know how to cook and live alone. Or live alone and might not be able to cook, or find it difficult to cook, because of age of health reasons (both our moms for example). Or, like the new working from home professionals, are gamely trying to cook, but are overwhelmed by the amount of work which has come crashing down the heads. Plus cooking needs to be followed up by cleaning up. That is another dimension of pain. Handling an Indian kitchen requires a lot more effort than a 'bung in the oven' western one' and yes, we are out of practise as we are used to house help.

I am referring to what is broadly called the 'middle class' here. Not the super rich who have what they call 'in house staff.' Or the unfortunate millions who do not have a roof above their heads. Thinking of whom, puts all our problems into perspective. Yet, with the lockdown extending, I can see the enthusiasm of many (including us) wane and wish for an alternative to the home kitchen in terms of food.

I did a Twitter poll in mid April on what could make people order in at such times. I was constricted by the fact that one could use only 4 options and a Twitter sample is not representative of course. The findings are directional at the most. Yet, the winning option of 'when tired of cooking' did strike a chord.



Calling in the cavalry

Shahi paneer and rumali roti from Khane Khas


It is not that we have not ordered in at all during the period. We have done so only when it was our last option. We ordered from Khane Khas, Bandra, first when we saw their post on Facebook saying that that they had opened with the promise of putting the safety of their customers and employees first. In our quest to try more vegetarian food at a time where non-veg is not that easily available, we have discovered a new favourite there. The shahi paneer. The paneer is incredibly soft. We store whatever is left of this glorious curry and repurpose it the next day with boiled eggs or chicken. Khane Khane has been our de facto home kitchen for almost two decades, we got know the owners with time and trust them.

We did order in from Seefah a couple of days back. The fantastic Thai red curry that she makes. With prawns, albeit frozen prawns, as we do not have much access to seafood now. I chose the option of crisp roti (roti canai/ Malabar paratha) as we have a lot of rice at home. She sent rice in any case and a most amazing mango sticky rice.

Chicken barbecue pizza, POC veg pizza and a brownie from the The Cheesy Crust.
Unpacked by me as per chef Ranveer Brar's IGTV guide on the subject 

I ordered pizzas on Saturday from 'The Cheesy Crust.' A delivery outfit started by our friend Dolly Bose earlier this year on the 4th of February and which they had to shut down for the lockdown on the 17th of March. They have just reopened for residential area orders and were delivering at Bandra after clubbing orders that day. Thanks to the absence of traffic, the food reached us hot and the pies were so supple. The brownie was lovely according to K who finished it. Abhishek, their business partner, delivered it himself wearing gloves and a mask, payment was through an app so it was all contactless.




I called in for a fabulous 2 hour brine cured roast chicken on Sunday from our young friend and chef. James Miranda when he told me about these family meals that he was making and offering to customers in Bandra. James is an IHM Aurangabad grad. His mom, Dr Margaret Miranda, has been our family physician for years in Bandra and is a fabulous cook herself. Like his father, James is a talented musician and hence his outfit is called Jazzy Jim's Cookhouse. The clinic is shut for reasons of safety. James does everything in the kitchen himself as a precautionary measure. He delivers himself too and one could pay through PayTM and hence no currency was exchanged. The roast chicken was Parisian bistro level and I talk from experience and not because I have known James from the time he was a kid who made chocolate eggs for Easter and which his mum would give us. I am using the leftovers still as the quantity was immense.

2 hour brine cured garlic & herb crusted roast chicken from Jazzy Jim's Cookhouse

Our daily bread

Baker's Dozen multigrain sandwich bread


We order in breads regularly and this is something that I had written on the blog recently on that:

"We needs breads for breakfast and snacks. We order from Baker's Dozen or pick them up from their shop if I am out on work as it is just round the corner. We had met the couple that runs it at the start close to a decade back and know that they are serious and sincere about bread. We go for their multigrain bread. K has become a fan of their dark chocolate cookies and I order those too. Our favourite La Folie breads are back in Bandra and are stocked at Koinonia cafe. Owner chef Sanjana Patel told me that these days she is baking the bread herself at night and is worn out at the end of it. Her husband, Parthesh, takes the breads for delivery in the morning. We often order their Harvest Grain bread these days."

(Since then we have ordered the multigrain sourdough a few times too. I understand that chef Sanjana has just had a partial slip disk and I wish her a speedy recovery. Not just because of the breads!)


La Folie Sourdough mutligrain bread

 "This morning I ordered for a multigrain bread from The Village Shop which is baked by Javed Malick. His wife, Jennifer Malick, bakes the cakes and cookies and I called in for a double chocolate gluten free (they are an organic and health focused place) for Kainaz too. Jenny and Javed, who own the place, are friends of ours by now and are people we trust. I also pick Bimbo bread from the grocer and buy A1 Bakery bread from the anda pav vala. "

The Village Shop

Familiarity breeds confidence


Two other restaurants that we tried food from recently are Smoke House Deli, Bandra, and Oh!Calcutta, Khar.

SHD, Bandra, has come up with DIY kits to recreate dishes from their menu at home. The advantage of this is that one can do the cooking at home and thereby amp up safety levels. Of the dishes we tried, the chicken burger patty looked like a good option that smacked of much welcome convenience. The fusilli Alfredo was our favourite because of the indulgence and comfort it offered. The delivery was contactless. They are not on most delivery apps yet.

The Oh! Calcutta Bangla bhoj


Oh! Calcutta had most kindly sent us a smorgasbord of Bengali treats just after the Bengali new year and it felt like a Poila Boishakh celebration.  Interestingly, they had mentioned the temperatures of the chef, the handler and the delivery person along with the order, to show that none had fever. The feast featured prawn malai curry, basa fish fry, alu fulkopi, kacha lonka murgi, pulao, Gobindo Bhog bhaat, chingri cutlet and chicken cutlet, chatni, mishti doi and kheer kodom and gave such joy. We stretched the generous quantity of food over 3,4 meals and shared some with a fellow Bengali friend who lives down the road who was under the weather then and who feeds us often herself.

Talking of Bengali food, I placed orders for food with Hyatt Regency and later Aaheli/ Peerless Inn in Kolkata for my family there when I saw that they were delivering. Driven by trust in the brands and their promises on ensuring hygiene. 

The food from SHD and Oh!Calcutta was sent home as a sample to show what they were doing. The first time that either has done so for us. The truth though is that both are options that we would consider at a time like this when one has to be so cautious. We have been customers of both from ever since they opened for business. I know the owners professionally. Riyaaz Amlani and Anjan Chatterjee respectively, and the values that they bring to the table. Both of these factors made the food acceptable to let in.

What will make customers open up to restaurants in the post Covid era?

30th April 2016, Le 15 Colaba. Here's to the next course Pooja.

Which brings me to the question that is understandably worrying those in the restaurant business a lot. How can they come back in the game in the post Covid-19 world?

As Pooja Dhingra's poignant article in the Conde Naste Traveller on why she has shut down her Colaba Le 15 Cafe explains, the in dining restaurant model is not going to work for quite sometime. Delivery seems to be the obvious answer at this point and this turns the restaurant model as we know it on its head.

The delivery trend had started in recent years in any case with many of us preferring to order in using delivery apps. Restaurant owners were understandably unhappy as this led to reduced margins, waste of overhead costs, limited order tickets as people would decided what they want and order accordingly unlike in a restaurant where one is flexible, no alcohol (where money comes in) and no connection with the end customer. Ironically, this experience might make the transition to a delivery model required now a bit easier for restaurants.

If one assumes that delivery will be an option, what is it that would make customers order in from restaurants again?

I looked back at all the places that we had ordered from during the lockdown to and the answer to the question became clear. It was 'trust' that had driven our choice above all else.

Trust came from the fact we have been regular customers of the restaurants in question for years. In most cases, we know the owners/ or of them, by now.

If you say that this is because I am a food writer, then I would say yes, but not entirely true. The faces behind the food for us at these neighbourhood joints included the owners and the waiting staff, cooks, chefs, cashiers etc who had been there for years. These are relationships built over time. Some from before I became a food writer (eg Khane Khas, Oh! Calcutta).

The current situation reminds me of the year 2008 and the financial crisis that had surrounded the entire world. A study that we did at the Nielsen Company, and which we presented at the Esomar (market research) World Congress at Montreaux, clearly showed that it was only through a single minded focus on building trust that private financial institutions (government was more trusted) were able to win back a share of the consumer's wallet at time when consumer confidence was shattered. They had to bring significant changes to the way they operated. Walk the talk, as one says.

I strongly believe that this would be case for the restaurant industry in the coming months.



What can help restaurants win back trust?


 Let us look at an other Twitter poll that I conducted.


The findings reminded me a lot of what one see to be drivers in consumer market research brand equity studies. Consumers find confidence in scale and legacy to start with when it comes to trust.

This is followed by WOM. Word of mouth from people one knows. Possibly more than mass media advertising or social media messaging. Especially when there is a crisis of confidence.

Friendly neighbourhood joints such as Lucky are likely to gain from the trust
built over the years

That is where the role of the faces behind the food - those who own and run restaurants, the chefs - will become critical.  They need to raise their hands and say that they will personally look into safety. Some recent examples that I have seen of this in Mumbai include: Sanjana and Parthesh Patel of La Folie, Seefah and Karan of Seefah, Saransh Goila of GBC, Suprio and Dolly of the Cheese Crust, Hardeep Chadha and Atul Sahni of Khane Khas, Thomas Zachariah and Hussein of The Bombay Canteen/ O' Pedro, Prateek Sadhu of Masque, Mohsen Husseini of Lucky Restaurants, Gauri Devidayal for Mag Street Kitchen and with Amnindar Sandhu for Iktara, Jennifer and Javed Malik of the Village Shop, chef Jaydeep Mukherjee of Smoke House Deli - they are all putting their names behind what is coming out of their businesses and blood, sweat and tears too. The manifestation of each might be different. There are many more I am sure. Doma Wang in Kolkata for example who has just opened too.

For newer, smaller brands and businesses, the work will be tougher. They have to focus on transparency to assure customers about the steps that they are taking to maintain hygiene. Open themselves up to scrutiny if required. Make the personal connect by reaching out to those in their catchment area. Look for foolproof delivery options. La Folie and the Village Shop are great examples of how brands/ cafes won over hearts in a very short time.

Adoptability is what champions do well. Take the case of Sunil Gavaskar, a classic test player, who started his one day cricket career by scoring an excruciatingly slow 36 NO in 174 balls in his first one day international and then ended his career by scoring one of the fastest one day centuries at that time.

I am sure that restaurant owners too will figure out the way ahead when it comes to the product offered.  Look at shorter menus consisting of food that travels well, food which is less susceptible to accidents (slow cooked dishes for example or the DIY kits), packaging material which is hygienic, integrated delivery models etc.

There would also be a rising demand for hyperlocal distribution and restaurants might find more merit in spreading themselves across the city through cloud kitchens etc rather than aiming to be in high streets only.

It is going to be all about value for money and safety in the immediate future. Bordering on frugality, given that these are tough times economically. The customer is like you. Facing their own challenges.

Sensitivity, compassion and respect on both sides of the equation will be key.

Update: Adding this very comprehensive comment from my friend Sohini who is a food lover and is a patron of restaurants and home chefs across all ends of the spectrum. People like her are true well wishers for the industry


Patience and perseverance and the virtues of slow cooking


Used some of the leftover chicken from James' to make a pasta. The coming days are going to be all about extracting value.

At an overall level though, I feel that this return to the innkeeper model, where one knows the person behind your food, is going to be the broad anchor that helps restaurants come back in the game. The re-humanising of food you could say. This is even if one has to bank on a delivery model. That is distribution, there is a lot more to a brand than that.

There would still be those who might feel that it is not safe to order in and that is a personal choice. Restaurant owners should not get disheartened. One step at a time as they say.

If you are a restaurant owner, then please keep in mind that situation is changing with each passing day. As are mindsets. There are good days. There are bad days. In the long run though, all the sacrifices one has made, voluntarily and otherwise, will bear fruit and opportunities will arise.

Please take each ball at a time, to use cricketing jargon again. I know it is easy for me to say this as an armchair strategist but at times one needs someone from outside to tell you that things will work out. They always do.

If it helps, let me assure you that we are all waiting for you to come back and wish you the very best!

This is a Finely Chopped Consulting report. 
Please get in touch with me at kalyan@finelychopped.net for consumer and market based consulting solutions of you are in the F&B space. I would be happy to work with you.

Ranveer Brar's tips to handle outside food


Do watch this


Chef Ranveer Brar has posted a lovely video on IGTV, which I urge you to watch, on how to handle food when you order in during Covid. I follow his rules these days when I order in. This is what I do:
  • I put the delivery containers and our home vessels on two different sections/ kitchen surfaces once I get the food up from the building gate where it is delivered
  • I transfer the hot food immediately, after washing my hands in soap for 20 sec or using a sanitiser, into the home vessels
  • I ensure that the containers did not touch the home vessels and put the former in the trash bag immediately
  • I then clean the surface,  where the outside containers were kept, with a sanitiser. I apply sanitiser on the sanitiser bottle and then sanitise my hands
  • I heat the food next. Curries in the microwave, pizzas and breads in the OTG. Then was my hands in soap again for 20 sec before eating. One tries to order cooked food, sent hot and reheats the same immediately as heat creates a hostile environment for the virus
  • I would advise you to follow your own discretion and check with a doctor first before following this

Comments

It's an interesting and lucid article. Worth the time spent in reading. Trust would be the key, completely agree.
One more angle on this. One people are moving to popular brands from premium brands across categories as they are conscious that good times might not last or have already faced / facing pay cuts or business not doing well. So propensity & ability to spend would be going down. Most of the restaurants that you mention are Premium :)
Kalyan Karmakar said…
@SandeepBudhiraja It's a long post so tanks for reading to start with. So happy that you liked it. Yes, value is an important point and I have mentioned that. Within the premium segment too people would need to look at this. Trust would rule in every segment and the two are interdependent. Thanks for highlighting the point.