Diners returned to bars and restaurants in a big way late last year, but a second wave of the virus could tarnish promising recoveries made in the F&B sector.

The interiors of a restaurant with tables and menus
news Restaurants Friday, April 02, 2021 - 18:35

If you have gone to a bar or restaurant in Bengaluru’s Indiranagar or on Church Street in the last few months, things have looked fairly... normal. As COVID-19 cases waned late last year, more and more patrons stepped out of their homes and into the city’s thousands of dining spots. Of course, there were temperature checks at the door, servers wearing masks and QR codes in place of physical menus. But if you avoided looking at the date on your phone long enough, it was tempting to forget we were still living in a global pandemic.

In September last year, the Karnataka government lifted certain lockdown restrictions on pubs, microbreweries and bars, allowing 50% capacity as well as the sale of alcohol. For the previous six months, many restaurants had either closed entirely or pivoted to delivery and takeaway operations to offset heavy losses incurred by lockdowns, curfews and bans on in-dining and alcohol service. The pandemic hit the food & beverage industry hard, leading to permanent closure of eateries and mass unemployment of restaurant workers, many of whom had migrated from other states to work in the city.

But it wasn’t long after bars were allowed to reopen that patrons began to return, and Bengaluru saw its nightlife spring back into existence. The total cases for the month in the city dropped from over a lakh in October to 32,101, 18,551 and 10,311 in November, December and January respectively. Though some bars still suffered as legions of techies and office-goers continued to work from home, for others the recovery was significant and even exceeded pre-COVID levels, according to those in the restaurant industry.

Since last month, however, COVID-19 cases have once again begun to spike, as the total cases jumped from 6,813 in February to 31,886 last month. Staff members at two Bengaluru bars tested positive for the virus, leading to temporary closure. Now, with fears over a continued rise in cases and a possible lockdown, TNM spoke to industry stakeholders and experts on restaurant recovery in the latter months of 2020 and why vaccinations may be the best route to avoid a potentially disastrous U-turn.

Late 2020 recovery

When restaurants and bars went from partially reopen to fully operational with limited seating last year, Siddhant Vinod, the founder and managing director of Brewsky and Knowhere, was sceptical about the industry bouncing back. It had been months since many people had dined out in the city and no one knew whether they would be confident enough to do so.

“What happened in the first couple of months was much more than we expected,” Siddhant said. By December, the numbers reached 70% of pre-COVID revenue for the month, and in some cases, were even going over those expectations, according to Siddhant, who works with many restaurants in the city.

“Initially, there was a rush because people were eager to step out,” said Amit Roy, a founding partner at Shilton Hospitality, which runs Watson’s. Amit also noted that since restaurants were taking safety and hygiene guidelines seriously, it helped bolster confidence in the industry.

However, the recovery for restaurants was far from uniform. COVID-19 is less likely to spread in open-air establishments, so patrons tended to favour al fresco dining. Additionally, while eateries in residential or certain commercial areas fared well, others in IT dependent localities that rely on after-work office crowds have yet to see any kind of meaningful recovery from last year’s low.

The lifting of the lockdown also meant that a lot of food businesses had to quickly change the focus of their operations. Through the summer, most restaurants dived headlong into delivery and takeaway options for diners. But after they were allowed to open to the public, “what shifted was the ratio of delivery and in-dining,” said Kabir Suri, a partner and director of Azure Hospitality, which owns Mamagoto, Foxtrot, Sly Granny, and other restaurants across the country.

And as businesses saw promising returns in a devastating year, others opened their doors for the first time, said Dineout General Manager, Luxury Dining, Aslam Gafoor. Bengaluru saw a number of new restaurants open since October, including “the world’s largest microbrewery” Iron Hill in Marathahalli, Gawky Goose on Old Airport Road, the Geist Brewing Factory in Uttarahalli Hobli and Japanese restaurant Ikigai on MG Road. “When you hear those good stories, you realise that this industry is full of resilience. It also understands that humans are social animals. You can’t lock them in forever,” he said. 

A second wave 

Kabir noticed an influx of customers, particularly to outdoor spaces, through December and January. But while March was anticipated to be a strong month as well, even putting the industry on track to pre-COVID numbers, the rise in cases has accompanied a decline in business. “The industry is under due stress already,” he said.

Amit also noticed a slump in numbers across the board, and noted that some businesses are still only at 40 to 50% of pre-COVID numbers. “Now with the second wave, things are a bit shaky,” he said. 

Though Chief Minister Yediyurappa stated this week that there will be no lockdown in the state, restaurant owners are still concerned that an increase in cases will bring them right back to April of 2020. “We requested the government not to declare another lockdown or curfew restrictions because hoteliers have had losses in the past year. We have promised the state government that we will take care of employees and customers,” said PC Rao, president, Bangalore Hotel Association, who noted that there are over 24,000 hotels in the city and 2,000 hotel owners in the association. “We understand that this is a health emergency but another lockdown will severely affect the hotel business.”

Instead, as vaccination drives continue nationwide, restaurateurs have made representations to the government to treat their workers as part of the frontline for inoculation. “The popular bars in Bengaluru have taken precautions — I’m not speaking for everybody because there will always be some outlying cases — but largely, the protocols have been enforced. The next step would be to introduce vaccination for this industry,” said Dheeraj Kumar of Pablo’s. 

Siddhant maintained that the government had not stepped in to assist the food & beverage industry over the course of 2020, but offering vaccines to restaurant workers would be an effective way to help the money-making industry thrive. Awareness and education of customers is also key to keeping cases low. “Revenue to the exchequer, the F&B industry, employment and multiple other facets are taken care of by just doing that one thing,” he said, referring to vaccinations. “If we were to take care of our employees and get them vaccinated, the confidence builds and the number of cases come down.”

If the state were to head into another lockdown, there is a sense that these businesses aren’t heading into uncharted territories, as they were a year ago. While Kabir said they remain prepared and optimistic, there’s little precedent for how the industry will come back from another blow. “If there is a second lockdown, it will be very hard to survive for many,” he said.

“We’ve crossed that bridge,” Siddhant said. “But obviously none of us want to go back.”

With inputs from Prajwal Bhat

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