The Taste with Vir: The unloved restaurant business
When the lockdown first started, the restaurant business knew it was in trouble. At that time, nobody thought the lockdown would last this long. Or that, even after the lockdown was lifted, restaurants would not be allowed to re-open.
But they had two reasons for hope. Both came from the experience of other countries. All over the world, governments have stepped in to help restaurants survive. It was not unreasonable to expect that something similar would happen here. The restaurant association NRAI, a body that has mainly distinguished itself over the last year or so by genuflecting to the Modi government while simultaneously fighting pointless battles with Zomato over discounting (remember the glorious era when restaurants could threaten to ‘log out’?), lobbied the authorities for some assistance.
To their shock and surprise, the government told them, in effect, to drop dead.
The second hope for the restaurant sector --- again, based on global experience --- was take-away/delivery. Abroad, restaurants have learned how to re-invent their food so that it can be delivered to people’s homes. Even Michelin three star restaurants are now offering delivery, a situation that is unprecedented.
Revenues from sending meals out do not, in any way, match up to the money that the global restaurant sector earned when it was fully operational. But between takeaway and government assistance, the sector was able to at least pay some salaries.
In the UK and the US the restaurant sector is loved by the public so there is a determined effort, backed by popular pressure, to keep it going.
In India, on the other hand, there is no widespread public sympathy for restaurants. I have tried hard, on social media, to speak up for restaurants but my efforts have usually been met with indifference or outright hostility.
I don’t know why this should be so. Perhaps it is because restaurants have done too little to endear themselves to the public at large. Instead they have fought useless battles over the right to collect a service charge that they don’t necessarily pass on to their employees. Or perhaps it is because they have devoted too much time to bragging about how they will refuse to give discounts to customers. (You have to be really foolish to believe that such a campaign will make your customers love you.)
For whatever reason, India’s restaurant sector does not command the kind of public affection that restaurants in other countries do. So there is no public backing for their demand for government assistance. And delivery has been a hard sell.
From all accounts, take-away/delivery revenues are down between 70 to 80 per cent. Partly this is because 60 to 70 per cent of the supply has been disrupted by restaurant closures. But the situation is bad enough for both Zomato and Swiggy to have to lay off employees.
There is a fundamental problem with the idea of delivery in these times. Indians do not believe, at a gut level, that it is safe. Yes, delivery from a five star hotel may be regarded as safe --- but how many of us can afford five star prices?
At the level of the standalone restaurants, the sector has failed to win the trust of Indians. (Just as it has failed to win their loyalty or affection.) Simply put, Indians don’t trust the sector to be careful about hygiene.
I’ve gone mad trying to explain, in article after article and tweet after tweet, that delivery food is usually quite safe. Certainly science is on the side of the restaurants.
Contrary to what many (most, even) people think, Covid is not spread by food. It is a respiratory disease which spreads when the virus enters the respiratory tract. There is no such thing as a Covid-infected rogan josh or Chicken Manchurian .
Even if a guy who is Covid-positive makes your food, the virus can enter the food only from his respiratory tract. This is possible: assume he sneezes into the dekchi while cooking. But even then, if you reheat the food, the virus will die. There is no way you can be infected by food that you have reheated or twirled in the micro-wave.
Everywhere else in the world, people get this. In India, we refuse to accept it.
When you explain this to people and they can’t find a logical argument against it, they come up with other objections.
What about the guy who delivers it to your door? Suppose he is Covid-positive?
Well, even then, he will probably be wearing a mask and gloves so it would be very hard for him to infect you unless you ripped his mask off and kissed him passionately on the mouth. Either way, he can’t infect the food.
And he is as much of a risk to you as the guy who comes to deliver your Amazon packages, your groceries etc. So why single out the food delivery guy?
The other great objection relates to packaging. There are studies (through this in itself has now been disputed) that say that the virus can survive for several hours on smooth surfaces. (Is it still infectious in this form and for how long?That’s another controversy.)
Assume that you believe that the packaging is infectious, well then, just throw it away and wash your hands with soap and water. That’s what people everywhere else in the world do. The soap will destroy any virus you may have picked up from the package.
Because there are few compelling arguments against the science, people have now started demanding impossible standards of the restaurant industry; standards that they would not expect of say, Amazon or a grocery service.
Can the restaurant guarantee that everyone involved at all stages of the process from cooking the food to delivering it is Covid negative?
The short answer is no.
Nobody can guarantee that. Something like 70 per cent of people who are Covid positive are asymptomatic. They don’t have fever. They don’t display any respiratory systems. And in many cases, nobody even notices that they ever had Covid because the body fights the disease off. Restaurants recognize this and insist that everyone wears masks, gloves etc. so that asymptomatic carriers do not pass on the infection.
There is no sure way of identifying all asymptomatic carriers, even in shops, hospital lobbies or planes because they will pass any thermal screening test. All you can do is work on the assumption that everyone is a potential carrier, which is how restaurant cooking and take-away services function.
Inevitably, there will be a few asymptomatic carriers among delivery boys and people who work in kitchens. It is extremely unlikely that they will pass the infection to the food. And if you reheat the food before serving, then even that danger is eliminated.
But such is our irrational fear of Covid that most Indians refuse to accept this. We hear the word Covid and imagine the worst.
How we will cope with life in the weeks ahead --- the government has said that we will have to live with Covid – worries me, given how foolish and knee-jerk our panic reactions are.
It is because of this ignorance that the delivery sector is in trouble. One pizza delivery boy in Delhi caused panic a few weeks ago when he tested positive. The super-clean and super-sanitized kitchens of O Pedro and Yautcha in Mumbai suffered when an employee at each place was found positive.
The worrying thing is that criminals are now exploiting the panic. I have been getting WhatsApp forwards asking me to avoid my local Defence Colony market on the grounds that it is a hotbed of infection.
As far as I know, there have been two confirmed cases in the market that should concern us. The owner of a shop tested positive. And at Sagar Ratna, a senior chef tested positive. The shop owner was transparent about his condition. I asked Sagar Ratna about their case and they said that it was a older chef who had not been on the cooking range.
That has not stopped the rumour mill from spewing out WhatsApp forwards with dire warnings about Defence Colony market.
Over the weekend Sagar Ratna filled a police complaint about WhatsApp forwards. These forwards claimed that 40 delivery boys from Sagar Ratna had tested positive. According to the Sagar Ratna complaint, the restaurant had been blackmailed by somebody who threatened to send out these WhatsApp messages unless they were paid off.
Sagar didn’t pay (it doesn’t even have 40 delivery boys!) and the campaign began, causing immense damage to business.
Already there are whispers among restaurateurs that similar threats have been made to others in the sector: pay up or we portray your restaurant as Covid-infected on social media.
This is a desperately scary situation because I am not sure the police have the time or resources to track down every WhatsApp blackmailer. And such is the public paranoia that we are not only ready to believe such WhatsApp lies but are only too willing to forward them to our friends.
When the Covid nightmare ends and when the restaurant industry (probably a much reduced industry) gets its act together again, these are the battles it should fight instead of the ones it has wasted its time on over the last two years.
And it should ask itself why it has so little public support unlike its counterparts in other countries.
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