NRAI charts out the restaurant industry’s bold new path to the future

Experts discussed the need to redesign systems in place and adopt innovative initiatives to help the restaurants industry evolve and grow to thrive in the new normal.

Life goes on. A simple philosophy that has been reflected time and again, not just in the words of the wise but across the course of human civilization. The COVID-19 pandemic is now well over a year old and although it continues to pose challenges to our way of life, for the most part, human society has adapted to it. With several vaccines already in circulation and more on their way, all eyes are firmly fixed on the future.

It was this eagerness to return to normal, to get the wheels of industry and the machinations of business going again, that was the focus of a live virtual discussion organized by the National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI). Some of the biggest names in the restaurant industry were present and put forth their vision of the future. The discussion was chaired by Anurag Katriar, president of NRAI, while the panel had speakers such as Rahul Akerkar, founder of Indigo; Riyaaz Amlani, CEO of Impresario Handmade Restaurants; Gauri Devidayal, co-founder of The Table and Food Matters India; Sameer Puri, owner of Ranch Cuisine Concepts, Arvind Singhal, chairman and MD of Technopak Advisors, a management consulting firm; and Sagar Daryani, CEO and co-founder of Wow! Momo.

With almost all of life being upended by the events of the past year, the burning question was, what is the way forward? Would it be in engineering menus, managing resources more efficiently or redefining the entire experience of dining? The experts all had interesting takes.  

Maximum utilisation of ingredients, to make menus smaller, more efficient and frequently updated was a much-touted means. Considerable importance was also given to the efficiency of the work force. Almost everybody agreed that lean teams that are better utilised and incentivised are crucial, not just for surviving difficult periods but also for growth. The matter of workforce utilisation though brought into focus a rather important matter – the service expectations in India.

Almost all the experts agreed that although it can’t be adopted as a blanket measure, some degree of recalibration of consumer expectations is necessary. As pointed out by Arvind Singhal, the Indian consumer has evolved to accept a redesigned customer experience that relies less on humans and more on technology in several industries such as airlines and retail.

Naturally, operating costs is another area which needs to be focused on, to reduce expenses. One of the primary ways to tackle this is to negotiate better rental agreements. Sagar Daryani elaborated on the importance of striking long-term deals that benefit all parties involved. Another way to keep costs in check is through optimum ingredient utilisation. Rahul Akerkar stressed upon sourcing local and seasonal ingredients, as it will not only ensure cost effectiveness but also, help local communities and economies thrive.

Restrictions in terms of capacity, both of guests and staff, is another crippling blow to the industry, especially to the catering business that operates seasonally. Sameer Puri’s suggestion in this regard is to redesign menus to be smaller and cater to fewer people. A model that relies on being visible through the off-season will ensure business continuity even through tough times.

With the speakers all opining on the broad spectrum of issues that need to be dealt with, it was time for words of advice for budding restaurateurs.

One suggestion that resonated across the board was a collaborative approach wherein restaurateurs need to come together for various purposes – from putting up a united front to negotiate better rental rates to lobbying the government to formulate policies that would aid the sector. After all, consolidation of resources and efficient utilisation is key to successful business growth.

The other crucial bit of advice was the need to develop own assets for delivery. Most of the experts agreed on the fact that the food delivery business will only grow going forward, but it needs to be made commercially viable. Leveraging owned manpower, investing in digital marketing and ensuring a seamless virtual storefront would play a critical role in assuring better returns.

Of course, through all this, the core competence, as agreed upon unanimously, is product quality, development and innovation. It is the quality of food and experience that will ultimately draw in and keep customers coming back.

A thoroughly informative discussion, it made one thing clear. The pandemic only brought into sharp focus some of the fault lines that have existed across the industry for decades. Most of the sector has taken a step back to relook at business models and now, they are better equipped to tackle the challenges. As the world moves on towards resuming business as usual, the restaurant industry too, like many others, will use the learnings from this latest crisis to grow stronger and forge a more secure path ahead.

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