Innovations, consolidations in the pandemic’s wake make India’s F&B industry more resilient

Veteran chefs and restaurateurs believe that while the F&B industry has gone through a rough patch, customers are still willing to return for the dine-in experience.

Yash Bhanage, co-founder and chief operating officer of Hunger Inc, says that the past two years have fundamentally changed the way he and his colleagues look at their food business. He says, “Instead of being a restaurant or a hospitality business, we look at ourselves more as a D2C food product company now.”

Bhanage’s company is at the helm of popular Mumbai-based restaurants and F&B ventures such as O Pedro, The Bombay Canteen, and The Bombay Sweet Shop. Relatively younger than a number of other players in this industry, the restaurant chain has pivoted to technology-driven platforms for deliveries, looked at ways to cut down operational costs, and innovated in terms of product shelf lives and other aspects.

However, not everyone in the industry has adopted a sea of change even as the food and beverage industry were hit hard over the past two years. Veteran chefs and restaurateurs believe that while the food industry has gone through a rough patch, customers are still willing to return for the dine-in experience.

Nothing still rivals dine-outs

Chef Regi Mathew, culinary director of famous Chennai restaurant Kappa Chakka Kandhari, says, “We never worked in a delivery model because our food has always been an experience. Nevertheless, during the pandemic, a number of our guests were looking for trusted brands offering food — so we offered a limited menu of comfort food. That’s how we will likely continue in the future as well.”

Mathew says that such a move is not due to dwindling demand for deliveries, as eateries open their doors again. Rather, he isn’t entirely happy with what he can offer in a delivery model. “Customers are happy to order from a place they recognise but as a chef, I haven’t been able to give them everything that I wanted — especially our delicate dishes,” he adds.

Gauri Devidayal, co-founder and director of Food Matters India – the holding firm behind restaurants such as The Table and Mag St. Bread Co. — concurs with Mathew. Interestingly, though, Devidayal also says that while she will mostly be sticking to the dine-in model for her outlets, the post-pandemic world has caused some elements of her business to adapt.

“We’re overhauling our websites, and social media has taken a bigger role — now that we have four delivery channels instead of just two restaurants,” she adds.

Bringing restaurants home

Delivery channels have become more ubiquitous for restaurateurs. Veteran restaurateur AD Singh, the founder and managing director of the Olive Bar & Kitchen group, says that while he used the pandemic as an opportunity to further refine the dine-in experience that his outlets offer, the delivery business for an experiential eatery such as Olive has seen significant growth and traction.

“Our delivery business has grown by about 40 per cent over the past two years. When the initial lockdown opened, our teams went back to focusing on the dine-in experience, but now, we’ve decided to not shift away from growing the delivery section — even while reopening the restaurants. The numbers in the delivery side of things are important for our future,” Singh says.

He also adds that consolidating different avenues of his business has been key to organising cost structures and streamlining operations. For instance, the Olive group today has cloud kitchen brands that operate out of some of their restaurant kitchens themselves.

Out of the box

Megha Kohli, Head Chef, Gurugram’s Cafe Mez

Through all of this, what has come out is a rather innovative delivery model. Megha Kohli, Head Chef at Gurugram’s Cafe Mez, says, “A lot of people prefer to dine at home than venture outside and today, almost all restaurants have a takeaway and delivery menu, which was not the case earlier. From DIY menus to cocktail kits, to sending a curated playlist along with the food, restaurants have pivoted to ensure that the guests get a good dining experience with the feel of the restaurant at home.”

Such a model is exactly what Hunger Inc’s Bhanage applied to his business during the pandemic. Deliveries made through The Bombay Canteen and its other brands offered QR codes on their delivery packaging, which users could scan to get a Spotify playlist – meant to be enjoyed along with the food. Hunger Inc also partnered with Stranger & Sons to develop a packaged, distilled gin cocktail called Peru. The idea, Bhanage says, was to offer a pre-packaged, bar-quality cocktail that customers could enjoy the way they would at a bar — without needing to worry about putting the ingredients together.

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Winter Menu at The Bombay Canteen

With the pandemic receding, Bhanage says that such moves have led to his team innovating on how their future offerings could be more robust. As he contends, “The shelf life of what we offer at The Bombay Sweet Shop is about three days. Within that, we’ve now introduced chikkis and barks — things that retain our brand identity but have much longer shelf lives. That’s how we’re thinking from our product development perspective, whereas two years ago, we’d always be thinking about only fresh food. We’re thinking about our product mix, and how it gives you more reach to households.”

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Not caught out this time

Through such steps, the Indian food and beverage industry is heading steady towards a future — with refined cost structures and bigger reliance on deliveries but still ruled by the penchant for the dine-out experience that chefs take pride in. Nevertheless, the pandemic has taught the industry about the need for contingencies, and to be better prepared for emergencies and eventualities.

Bhanage says that at Hunger Inc, his team is already prepared with limited-course menus to run — in case the pandemic presents us with yet another wave and subsequent shutdowns. “We’ve already thought of a brand that we might want to try in preparation for another wave and lockdown. We’re actually ready with recipes, packaging concepts and logo designs, just in case.”

Such steps are eventually leaving the food industry stronger, and more resilient. As Olive’s Singh says, “We have really tightened our costs, so that even with lesser sales, we can end the year positively. Consolidation and reducing costs are key steps that we, as an industry, have taken to leave ourselves as a leaner, more profitable organisation. This can help us build a good reserve if such an eventuality (as the pandemic) arises in the future as well.”

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