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This article is more than 1 year old.

Missing dishes, smaller menus: How COVID-19 changed Chennai’s restaurant business

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A closer look at Chennai’s F&B market reveals that low occupancy and falling revenues have forced noticeable changes to the business. From missing dishes and empty tandoor ovens to locally sourced ingredients and smaller menus, eating outwears a whole new face this year.

Missing dishes, smaller menus: How COVID-19 changed Chennai’s restaurant business
Less than 10 months since COVID-19 first made its presence felt, the Indian economy has fully reopened, barring schools and colleges. The last of the ‘unlock’ directives, for instance, saw theatres and amusement parks were up and running in time for Diwali. However, a closer look at Chennai’s F&B market reveals that low occupancy and falling revenues have forced noticeable changes to the business. From missing dishes and empty tandoor ovens to locally sourced ingredients and smaller menus, eating outwears a whole new face this year.
Service at Hamsa, an upscale standalone vegetarian restaurant in Chennai is running at 50 percent of pre-COVID levels, and patrons are being welcomed 
with a visibly smaller food menu. The restaurant has done away with some of its classics, either because sourcing raw material has become too expensive, or because serving them is no longer a great idea.
Off the menu are ten main courses, including the restaurant’s specialties, Guchi Mattar and the Hamsa Leaf-Enclosed Rice. For Hamsa’s managing director, Nithin Kalkiraju, the decision to do away with some of these dishes — especially the leaf-enclosed rice — has not been an easy one to make.
“It (leaf-enclosed rice) involves extensive prep work, which obviously results in more and more human touch while preparing the dish and while serving the dish on the table,” says Kalkiraju, “It’s not like you can keep the dish and walk away. A waiter has to come near you, open it up and serve it. So, we’ve tried to do away with dishes that emphasize on human interaction.”
Hamsa isn’t alone. Across most restaurants, the more mundane phulkas, vadas and gravy have replaced the more exotic dishes and equipment — like the tandoor. Elaborately plated or high-priced specials are no longer available, either. The Tamil Nadu Hotels’ Association has pegged occupancy rates at Chennai’s stand-alone restaurants at just 40-50 percent of pre-COVID levels. Smaller cash flows at these establishments have, in turn, hurt sourcing demand.
Chennai-based cheese speciality restaurant, Fromage used to import its cheese before the pandemic. It now sources from the Kodaikanal Cheese Factory, which in turn has led to a noticeable difference in the flavour profile.
For the longest time since reopening, Fromage did not bring back some of the fanciness that accompanied its fine dining — like the Parmesan Wheel and the cheese fountain. However, with the hope that diners will return and in order to restore its big differentiators, the restaurant has worked towards letting some of these gastronomic contraptions make a comeback.
“Before COVID-19, a 50-seater restaurant like ours would see an average tally (revenue) of around Rs 20 lakh (per month),” says Girish Subash, Co-founder, Fromage, “We’re doing around Rs 4 to 5 lakh, today. Even If we reach our target of Rs 10 lakh, we will survive. As long as we survive and don’t burn our pockets every day that we’re running, we can sustain.”
So, the next time you walk into your favourite diner in Chennai, don’t be surprised when you don’t get to see your favourite meat or cut of steak.
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