The lone Cafe Viibee nestled amidst a rubber plantation, in Kakkanad, Kochi has been silent for months now. With just a few mobile tables and chairs, this cafe had been a buzzing hangout space, frequented by a young crowd of professionals or students in and around the area, but has been closed ever since the COVID-19 pandemic led to a nation-wide lockdown.
Co-owner, actor Byon V K says, “The expectation was that the lockdown would last for a month only, but now after all these months, we have to get back to business somehow. Earlier we did not have home delivery service, as we wanted to position the cafe as a hangout space. However, now we have introduced home delivery services and are currently also collaborating with Swiggy and Zomato for the same.”
Hanging out in favourite cafes, attending themed dinners at restaurants and catching up with people in small eateries had been noticeable and thriving trends for quite some time among foodies in Kochi. The food industry accommodates a sizable workforce ranging from Food & Beverage (F&B) managers at the top to underprivileged migrants working lower down the rungs. As per a study, the percentage of migrants employed in the industry to the total labour force is 10.8%.
In such a scenario how will this industry picture itself in a post-COVID-19 scenario? Will people refrain from dining out because they are financially constrained or because they are skeptical about safety? This may lead to further staff lay-offs, revenue loss and hence, impact the whole industry.
Based on an empirical study of the food business in Kochi (26 restaurants across categories) that I undertook in November-December 2019, I tried to assess the possible effects of the setbacks faced by the industry during the pandemic, and how they may adapt or respond in a post-COVID world.
A vibrant industry
Several media reports, such as this one, have brought out that the restaurant sector is among the fastest growing industries in Kochi, the business capital of Kerala. The mushrooming of restaurants in the city has been largely facilitated by skilled chefs migrating from the states of Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Assam and so on.
The report also stated that there has been a sharp rise in the number of families dining out compared to a few years back in the city. The average income of a household has increased with more women joining the formal workforce.The popularity of eating out is also a result of the plethora of influencers and expert social media groups that are always hunting the best possible food chains in the city.
What’s trending now?
Even with the lockdown, food influencers and restaurateurs have not stopped reaching out to their followers on social media platforms. They update their followers on takeaway options, offers on delivery apps and special delicacies being delivered as packed meals for Easter and Iftar treats.The influencers make sure that they get their special dishes delivered home and come up with reviews and scrumptious pictures, just as they did before the lockdown.
However, it is also true that the restaurants who have stayed away from social media are now totally dependent on their loyal customers ordering their take-aways. Concerns over COVID-19 have made it unlikely for these restaurants to be visited by foodies who diligently plan their restaurant outings after having heard about them from various media or who walk in for the experience of dining in a new joint. There is, thus, an increased possibility of more restaurateurs relying on food delivery in the times to come.
Given the current turmoil, the restaurant industry is likely to now focus on producing safe food and its delivery. Even where restrictions on dining out are lifted, the general anxiety among people needs to be allayed with strategic planning, as demonstrated by the Netherlands restaurant that introduced glass cabins.
The return of migrant workers
There is still a big question mark over whether all the migrant chefs will be able to return to Kochi and get their jobs back even if they can, given the economic hit taken by the sector.
During my research, I found that even under normal circumstances, the trust factor between owners and the migrant chefs was rather weak. Being a migrant worker meant that they were not in command of the kitchens in which they worked and rarely exercised any decision making powers. This could become more pronounced in the post-COVID world, where they could be kept further at bay and are likely to be discriminated against by locals.
The fact that they have travelled from their hometowns situated so very far to reach Kerala, will also make people more wary of them, especially given that they have often been accused of suspect standards of personal hygiene.
Kochi with its cultural and historical heritage and supported by world-class facilities attracts tourists from all over the world. Localised experiences such as a visit to toddy shops or having traditional Kerala cuisine forms an important part of the tourist experience.
With the pandemic hitting all parts of the world, loss of income and the fear of infection may well deter people from international travel for quite some time to come. This would particularly take a toll on tourist hubs such as Fort Kochi which have specifically catered to international clientele in the past.
Eating out will be a very selective, minimalist experience, as people would postpone their meetups or only choose places where they feel safe. But that could in its wake bring about a thriving online food business during this transition. The owner of Levaai ice-creams, a unique cafe in the city specialising in Konkani desserts based says, “Sales have suffered extremely since the pandemic hit us, but we are still receiving orders through Swiggy. We are just open now in order to feed ourselves and the staff.”
The number of people ordering through food delivery apps is likely to rise, even if all of them had not been used to it before. Food bills for online delivery could also see a rise.
The number of people ordering through food delivery apps is likely to rise, even if all of them had not been used to it before.
Even entrepreneurs, who have traditionally had customer interactions as the backbone of their business (such as Jeff Foods in Thoppumpady, popular for their unique Bohri cuisine) must step into the world of online food delivery systems. My research had shown that 60% of low-scale restaurants had a negative opinion of online delivery options, due to the high margin of profit [18-30%] claimed by these companies. However, they will have to hop on to the bandwagon voluntarily.
Hadhim Jeff, the third-generation owner of Jeff Foods says, “It’s tough times for everyone. We are not alone. At least, we are blessed with adequate resources so that we can do our bit to help lessen the burden and pain of others.”
This is also a time for restaurants in all categories to be more creative. Social media can act as an enabler, by helping food businesses reach out to customers old and new, with innovative concepts and offers, thus constantly reminding clientele of their presence.