As India’s first COVID response-ready restaurants, Dwarka SOCIAL in Delhi NCR, Elante SOCIAL in Chandigarh and SOCIAL Thane in Maharashtra—restaurateur Riyaaz Amlani’s experimental and well-conceived offerings—set the precedence of what restaurants would need to look like to survive the most critical challenge to their existence they have faced in the recent times.
Both the SOCIAL outposts had been in the works before the global pandemic laid the world economy low. “We were to open them in May. We worked through the lockdown to transform the design. At this point, the only way to get back to living is to adapt to the virus and change the way we play the game. We are not going to see crowded bar nights for now. People are not going to be able to hang around the bar. But they will come in to enjoy the night, the SOCIAL vibe, and the company of their friends and family.”
Dwarka SOCIAL is a blend of two seamless ideologies: design inspired by the buzzing streets and alleyway shops of Vietnam and the intricate lattice arrangement of Dwarka’s various sectors that allow to socially distance without seemingly so.
Sanchit Arora, Studio Head Architect, Renesa Architects, who designed Dwarka SOCIAL, has this to say: “It is a clever way to play not just with words but also formats in a bid to make people feel secure about sanitation and safety. We call it a space conceptualised pre-pandemic, designed during and for the pandemic, and sustainable beyond the pandemic.”
Dwarka SOCIAL is a good prototype of how socially distanced restaurants will look like. On the fifth floor of a mall in Dwarka, you enter through an alley and then it blasts off into a bigger space. Nooks and niches or booths in the alley are designed to resemble a shop you may find in a Vietnamese market, say a medical shop or a watch store. Each of these booths can seat a group of people, separated from the rest.
The second zone has staggered seating dotted with split-level booths or enclosed spaces stacked on top of each other, resembling the signature ‘Pay and Stay’ housing structures of Ho Chi Minh city. The seating in the third zone, a long community table, is separated by a foldable bamboo structure. The entire space is malleable, with flexible doors and blinds that can be opened or closed according to the needs of people seeking more privacy.
Interestingly, Amlani says that the outposts will be profitable despite socially distance spaces. Dwarka SOCIAL is spread 4,300sq.ft. In normal times, it would boast 138 covers. Designed as a response to a pandemic, it now has 126 covers. “The design creates spaces of isolation as per guidelines, but there is enough footfall to make it profitable. Our format of ‘Work from Social’ has attracted traction from people tired of working from home. The menu is leaner and the socially distanced kitchens require lesser staff, a supervisor on the floor and not too many waiters,” he adds.
Pretty much like Dwarka SOCIAL, Thane SOCIAL draws inspiration from the makaan-dukaan concept. SOCIAL’s now-iconic booths have been stacked on top of each other and resemble the traditional ‘a home above and a shop below’, reminiscent of the busy streetscape of Ram Maruti Road. The concept is SOCIAL’s new take on space design in the post-COVID era of social distancing. The vivid decor transports you to the time spent browsing curiously through Jambli Naka Market or chilling by Masunda Lake, where communities were not just birthed but nurtured too.
Innovation in Design and technology will redefine the restaurants of the future
Inventive restauranteurs who leverage design and the right technology will lay the foundation of the industry of the future. Many reservation and restaurant tech platforms such as Dineout and EazyDiner have been pushing restaurants that are part of their network to adopt innovative technology that will not just help them survive, but also thrive.
Dineout is among the largest reservation and restaurant tech platform, with over 10,000 restaurants, cafes and Quick Service Restaurants (QSRs) as part of its extensive network.
Ankit Mehrotra, CEO and Co-founder, Dineout says that they have recovered 60% of their business in the last few months. “Cities such as Delhi, Bangalore and Ahmedabad are moving fastest towards normalcy with a 70% recovery rate projected to be achieved in this festive quarter, followed by Kolkata, Chennai, Jaipur and Hyderabad with a 55% recovery rate. Mumbai and Pune have seen a promising ten-fold increase in diner counts.”
As per Dineout data, 65% of their partner restaurants have already switched to QR code-based digital menus in the last three months.
A while ago, Dineout launched a #Safetoeat campaign, which looked at rebuilding diner confidence by creating awareness about the safety measures taken by their partner restaurants.
Since then, some other restaurants have put out promotional videos to entice diners and those who enjoy their tipple, like Farzi Café, which put out a video with a bartender having fun putting together a cocktail.
New formats, new ideas – Innovations in Restaurant Industry
Many restaurants, large and tiny, casual and fine dine, have, in their own way, transformed the dining experiences.
- Innovation 1 – Curbside Dining
Chef Rahul Akerkar took a leaf out of the books of restaurants in Europe and the US to open up a beautiful al fresco, curbside dining space. Guests swing by to enjoy some Qualia classics and a special menu at the private sidewalk, now named Qualia Qurb—a magical, open-air dining area.
- Innovation 2 – Robots as servers
Robots have been drawing in fascinated diners in not-very-imaginatively named chain of restaurants, Robot at the Porur neighbourhood of Chennai, Bangalore and Jaipur with their rather seamless service.
Another innovation worth noting is that every table has a digital tablet. Customers choose a dish from the menu and place the order. Once the food is ready, the kitchen assigns a robot to deliver it to the table. Venkatesh Rajendran, the founder of Robot, says, these Android robots have been designed to greet the visitors at the entrance and guide them to their tables. “They are equipped with built-in facial recognition technology.”
- Innovation 3 – Private dining pods
We wrote about the innovative outdoor dining pods of The Barn Restaurant in the village of Terrington St John, near Wisbech at Cambridgeshire, a couple of months ago. In India, the Dragonfly restaurant at Aerocity Worldmark has built its version of private dining pods. Crafted out of hard acrylic walls, it can accommodate a group of 10 to 12 people.
- Innovation 4 – Drive-in and drive-through Restaurants : Hundo’s Pizza in Mumbai, a brand born out of the pandemic, Ping’s Orient in Kolkata, Just FoodInn in Ahmedabad DLF Cyber Hub’s several restaurants aren’t just offering diners a special drive-in menu, which you can enjoy from the comfort of your car, but also a drive-through, where you can stop, order and move on.
- Innovation 5 – Food Conveyor Belt
Cloves restaurant in Ahmedabad claims to offer India’s first Techno-Dining Experience. The ordered dishes are delivered in covered bowls through a food conveyor belt, right from the kitchen to the customer’s table, without any human-contact in between. Diners can pick up their bowl with their table numbers mentioned on it.
- Innovation 6 – UV sterilised cutlery and Plexiglass barriers: Mocha and Smokehouse Deli cafes across India are ensuring that their diners have access to UV sterilised cutlery wrapped in paper before. The restaurants have also installed Plexiglass barriers between tables.
As Amlani, whose Impresario Handmade Restaurants runs Smokehouse Deli, says, “Technology and design will enablers to connect us back with our customers.”
The role of the restaurant reservation, aggregators, and tech platforms
Stepping into the tech arena are food aggregators such as Zomato and Dineout, a company that offers restaurant reservation and builds tech platforms. Dineout was among the first to present a white paper on guidelines for restaurants post-COVID, which was released by Additional Director General of the Ministry of Tourism, Rupinder Brar.
Mehrotra says their tech platform helps replace non-essential human interaction with seamless technology. “There is a multitude of touchpoints that a restaurant can modify and facilitate with the introduction of technology. These can be simple actions like booking a table, pre-ordering meals, takeaway, digital ordering, digital payment, etc.”
Among Dineout’s recommendations to make dining contactless are digital menus, steam sterilisers on tables to sanitise cutlery, digital wallet payments, pre-booking tables by customers who receive the menu on their phone and can pre-order before they arrive, and a live stream of behind-the-scenes from the kitchen to the diner’s phone through a link.
“The cost of installing this technology is about Rs 50,000 annually,” says Mehrotra. “There is no investment in hardware and a restaurateur spends only on the gateway cost and a digital camera to live-stream from the kitchen.”
Mehrotra sees the tech intervention going beyond safe dining. It will help restaurateurs’ aggregate crucial information about their clients and their preferences. “Unlike hotels, restaurants have never used technology to store details about their customers: how many times has a customer dined at the restaurant; is he or she a regular customer; what do they order; what are their favourite dishes. The information can be used to offer targeted menus and dishes. It will help to not just increase operation efficiency but also enhance revenues. Restaurants will be able to optimize every single customer.”
Restauranteurs set up in-house tech platforms
Restaurateurs such as Amlani, A D Singh and Zorawar Kalora are promoting direct ordering and one-on-one relationships through their tech platforms. “We can control the end-to-end experience of even home deliveries using tech platforms. There will be no involvement of third parties and no unnecessary app downloads,” says Amlani.
A D Singh’s Olive Group of Restaurants has tied up with a POS provider to help set up an integrated system for contactless dining, which includes digitising menus, order taking, billing and payments.
“I think the term contactless dining is somewhat misleading,” says Rachel Goenka, Founder & CEO, The Chocolate Spoon Company. “There are touchpoints in the workplace, in the grocery store, etc. Hospitality is based not just on great food, but also great service. Servers interact with guests, make recommendations, chefs prepare food, bartenders mix drinks… You cannot remove the human element completely from a dining out experience.”
There is more to a safe dining experience than contactless dining. Kapil Chopra, chairman on the board of aggregator EazyDiner and founder of The Postcard Hotels & Resorts points out the obvious, “The restaurant experience comprises of several parts. While hot food may be safe, a lot of vegetables are used in condiments and salads and it’s important to see how they are processed. We know that in the US, one of the largest sources of COVID was in the meatpacking district of New York. A safe dining experience is also dependent on how the chefs are cooking. Are the vegetables being cut and cooked in different areas, using a different pair of gloves? Are they sanitizing the chopping boards for raw vegetables differently? Are they washing their hands every 30 minutes?”
EazyDiner, says Chopra, believes that contactless dining is going to be an important part of the dining experience but whatever options we are seeing on contactless dining are only isolating two and the least important parts of your dining experience. “Everyone is focussing on getting the menu on the phone and ordering on the phone and making payment on the phone, but this is only 10% of your entire dining experience.”
These are the questions that the restaurant industry is still grappling with, though with far more confidence today than they could four months ago. Chopra believes that contactless delivery will need to be more evolved and restaurants will come up with their own fleets to control the experience and ensure better monitoring.
The EazyDiner App
EazyDiner has launched a Safe+ Dining program for diners and restaurant employees. Under the program, the restaurants are put through comprehensive hygiene and safety protocol monitoring before being on-boarded on Safe+. The EazyDiner app allows diners to give real-time feedback on hygiene standards of the Safe+ restaurant.
Chopra says, “Safe+ Dining would be offered to those restaurants that adhere to the strict guidelines ensuring health and safety of both diners and restaurant employees. We are launching an additional feature of delivery and takeaway with select restaurants at a commission of only 5%—the lowest in the industry. Besides ensuring higher revenues for restaurants, Safe+ will aid in the discovery of restaurants for diners and alliance partners. Additionally, restaurants will benefit from access to data about customers who are ordering from the restaurants and offer better service.”
EazyDiner will provide restaurants with LiveTable, a top of the line software, to enable effective management of operations for delivery and takeaway at no charge.
As yet, tech concepts have leaned heavily on robotic technology though Virtual (cloud) kitchens. It is certain, though, that restaurants will increasingly depend on exciting new technology such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), smart data, blockchain and precision farming. 2020 has brought new challenges related to automation as well as shifting millennial preferences.
Design and tech interventions globally
Shea Design, an American interior design studio, has given deep thought to what needs to be done to put diners at ease. Tanya Spaulding, a principal at Shea, isn’t advising clients to put up plexiglass dividers or necessarily add UV rays to the HVAC systems.
Instead, restaurants are advised to strip away as much as possible. That means removing art, throw pillows, tapestries, and candles on tabletops, and tucking away bartenders’ garnishes. “Clean the vents. Have an engineer to come in, change filters, retrofit more modern filtration systems thoroughly.”
David Henkes, Senior Principal at research firm Technomic, says diners will soon get used to a very different experience. “Sanitation measures will probably be more visible and dining spaces unconventional — but customers, he says, are willing to go along.”
At the three-Michelin-starred Inn at Little Washington, chef/owner Patrick O’Connell uses mannequins wearing vintage costumes to fill seats left empty by Virginia’s rules mandating that restaurants operate at half capacity. “The Inn at Little Washington has always celebrated the ‘living theatre’ of a restaurant. I hope the setup will amuse diners while complying with the regulations.”
In London, several fine dine restaurants are replacing their dimly lit, cozy spaces with “bright, spacious and even sterile” spaces. Not the most romantic, but they believe one that saves lives.
Among Londoner’s favourite tech-led restaurant is Inamo. It has images projected onto the interactive tabletop, through which customers can check out the local neighbourhood, watch the chef cook and order their food with a few swipes.
At Clarity in Vienna, chef and owner Jon Krinn has turned his restaurant’s large parking lot into extra seating, offering patrons a parking-space “slip” where they can pull in and eat $80 multicourse meals at tables and chairs. The concept he says is “pod dining meets tailgating meets tasting menu. Restaurants will be like little mini staycations. We’re whisking you away because you can’t take a vacation on a Tuesday night,” Krinn says.
And in, a rustic-chic pop-up Board for En is offering a “Table for One.” It serves just one solo diner each night in a picturesque field. There are no servers; instead, the couple operating the eatery place the food in a basket that arrives via a rope-and-pulley system. “Let’s face it, a table for one might be our only option for a while,” the restaurant’s website says. “So why not choose a table with style?”