Little over a few months ago, dining out used to be not just about the food, but also about merry socialising. But in a post-COVID-19 world, the new normal of the restaurant industry appears to be quite different.
As the lockdown eases, and restaurants in Thiruvananthapuram lift shutters to welcome customers again, it looks like diners will be greeted by waiters donning masks and gloves, thermal checks, sanitisers and, of course, fewer tables.
Villa Maya, which reopens its doors to customers on Wednesday, encourages guests to make reservation so as to keep a sanitised table ready for them.
Unnikrishnan NP, who reopened The Yellow Chilli on Tuesday, says: “Instead of cloth napkins, there will be serviettes. Disposable menus have replaced table mats. There will be no cutlery stands or salt-and-pepper shakers on the table. And while the waiters will take the order and deliver the food at the table, guests will have to serve it themselves.”
The restaurant has halved its seating capacity. While families can sit together, others will be seated “keeping the one-metre distance in mind. For instance, a four-seater table will now seat just three. Also, if a member of a group is running a temperature, entry for the whole group will be disallowed,” he says.
Diners at Villa Maya will have to fill in a questionnaire. “It contains questions such as whether they were in contact with any COVID-19 patient, if they are returning from any hotspot zones and so on… They can enter the restaurant only if they fulfil all the prerequisite ticks,” says Sashi Jacob, vice president (Food and Beverages), Villa Maya and Muthoot Skychef.
Guests at the restaurant can scan a QR code on their mobile phone to check out the “for-now trimmed menu”, while those who aren’t that tech-savvy can ask for disposable menus. One can pay the bill online.
Diners such as the Zam Zam chain of restaurants and Poomaram — Ram’s Kitchen near Akkulam off the Kazhakuttam highway consider scaling up service by and by as the hope is that customer footfall will gradually increase. With takeaway services already on in line with government protocol, such joints plan to continue to focus on takeaways, while also setting up dine-in arrangements with a pared-down menu till things start looking up.
“We are a bit short-staffed as of now since some of our outstation staffers are yet to return. The initial plan is to partially open our outlet at YMR Junction first before re-jigging the one at Palayam. However, the thrust for the time being will be on the usually popular dishes at our outlets such as shawarma, shawai, biriyani, mandi, tawa and so on,” says Mohammad Ashraf, manager of Zam Zam.
Sukil Ram, owner of Poomaram that focuses on “naadan” dishes, is tweaking the menu by adding fried rice and other popular sides such as Manchurian chicken and so on. “We don’t expect a big footfall initially and so another idea being mooted is opening several takeaway counters across the city. This way, we can avoid crowding at the central kitchen, retain and re-deploy the serving staff and also try and maintain the brand name,” he points out.
According to B Vijayakumar, secretary, Kerala Hotel and Restaurant Association (KHRA), Thiruvananthapuram, most restaurants might find it difficult to comply with the guidelines set by the government for eateries to open. “Many of the guest labourers who have returned to their respective home towns were working at restaurants. As a result, there is a shortage of manpower at most of the eateries,” he adds.
Food blogger Anjana Gopakumar feels that the decision to open restaurants is a little hasty and premature. She says while it it true that the lockdown was a financial blow to restaurants, the well-laid-out guidelines for functioning during the lockdown exit phase might also turn out to be a Herculean task for many in the business given the paucity of staff, air-conditioned premises, lack of space and so on.
“I feel it might be a good time to be extremely careful and not let down our guard. I spoke to a restaurant owner and he says he will not be opening soon as he would not be able to ensure complete safety. He says he would not be able to live with it if someone were to fall ill after visiting his place,” she says.
Dr Padmavathy R, consultant pulmonologist, SK hospital, Edapazhinji, and Spring Garden Medical Centre, Pattom asserts that it would be best to stay at home and dine there itself. She points out that it is hard to maintain social distancing in most restaurants and one cannot wear masks while eating. “The disease can spread during a meet-up over food due to multiple reasons. Talking loudly or laughing or coughing during such gatherings is common. Moreover, it’s hard for a cook/waiter to maintain social distancing inside kitchens or eating areas,” she explains.
Padmavathy feels that the waiting areas, restrooms and wash areas need to be redesigned keeping in mind social distancing norms. “When people of multiple households gather, say for dinner, and if just one of them is positive for COVID-19, he/she puts at risk the entire staff and guests. Food delivery boys can also get infected and therefore also the distant households to which they serve the takeaway, resulting in a super spreader event.”
And while the economic slump, loss of jobs, pay cuts and fear of the virus may dissuade customers from eating out, most restaurateurs feel that people will gradually start trickling back to restaurants since they have been in the lockdown for so long. “Good food and good conversation will always hold central space in our society. Also, by complying with the regulations set by the government, we are showing our customers that we care for their safety. It will ease their minds,” says Sashi.