Sanjeev Kapoor — Photo by L. Aruna Dhir

The restaurant business has been one of the worst-hit by the Pandemic.

The recovery is going to be long drawn and painfully slow. Even if people are more than eager to venture out and dine at their favourite places, the fear factor drastically curbs the footfalls.

Restaurateurs, at least those who are managing to stay in business, are looking at new business models and learning to adapt to new ways of doing things.

Ritu Dalmia, a successful restaurateur with much-awarded and popular restaurants in New Delhi and Milan, started her DIY venture in the early days itself. With high standards of hygiene, care, and precautions Dalmia has whipped out a menu that her patrons can order from. She then sends them neatly packed ingredients, products, and instructions with which the guests can create the very dish they had the craving for.

Businesses are going to get creative and find ways to circumvent the circumstances.

In order to see what the status quo is in the food industry and to seek masterful tips and lessons, I thought of speaking to one of the highly illustrious, experienced, and noted professionals in the field.

Sanjeev Kapoor is a significantly fêted name in Indian cuisine the world over. Easily the most recognized face from India in the culinary cosmos, he has been one of the highest decorated too. Kapoor has been awarded the prestigious Padma Shri by the President of India. He has been featured on the Reader's Digest List of 100 of India's Most Trusted People. Kapoor has been given the National Award of the "Best Chef of India" by the Indian Government.

Sanjeev Kapoor has been the first chef in the world to launch his own food channel - FoodFood. He has appeared twice on American Television with the very popular Rachel Ray and worked alongside Chef Rene Redzepi, the owner of Noma, considered one of the finest restaurants in the world. His food label - Khana Khazana - was launched at the House of Commons in the United Kingdom. Kapoor is on the Board of Singapore Airlines' International Culinary Panel.

Sanjeev Kapoor is ranked 34th on the Forbes list of Top 100 Indian celebrities and his recipe books are the most sought after. He has written 200 titles, almost all of which have been runaway bestsellers.

A culinary czar, Kapoor has created a wide range of food products including a whopping 123 ready-to-eat mixes available in stores across the world. As a restaurateur, Sanjeev Kapoor has granted his franchise to a number of restaurants located in several global culinary destinations.

A huge television personality but never one to rest on his laurels, Kapoor went on to create the brand Wonderchef which was not only commercially successful but has become a significant tool for women empowerment. To develop qualified skills in his chosen field, he has started a college in collaboration with Symbiosis University, the first of its kind, by the name of Symbiosis School of Culinary Arts.

Here follows my conversation with him, loaded with resourceful tips -

L. Aruna Dhir - What has been the effect of COVID 19 on the restaurant and dining industry?

Sanjeev Kapoor - We are facing a situation that none of us could have foreseen! Unprepared for a storm as big as this, understandably everyone is in a state of shock as the economy has been massively hit.

The food service and hospitality industry too are drastically impacted and we all are bracing for major adjustments as we look at the number of the affected, growing each day. There is a major downfall for the industry with vast disruptions in the labour and supply sectors. Not to forget, employment issues too.

It will take some time to get back on the road and resume the businesses at the same pace again. But I'm sure we all can do it, fight the virus and win over it, together! There are green shoots appearing with deliveries picking up and restaurants trying new things including fresh meal kits.

L. Auna Dhir - What are the five or seven top worst ways, COVID has affected the industry?

Sanjeev Kapoor - Well! The predominant ones are -

  1. Loss of revenue
  2. Loss of jobs
  3. Erosion of customer confidence in eating out.
  4. Overall downturn in the economy has resulted in less spending on discretionary expenses including food at/from restaurants.
  5. The industry was struggling to find its feet for the last couple of years but with COVID, investor confidence has completely been shaken. My estimate is that more than 30-40 percent of restaurants will shut down forever and the rest will struggle for at least six months. A few will shine and keep giving hope to others.
  6. The size of the industry has shrunk and the impact will last for at least 18 months.

L. Aruna Dhir - How has COVID impacted your business?

Sanjeev Kapoor - The 'virus' is just another hurdle, in this race of life. Surely, it has brought changes that the world had never imagined, but, in no way has it affected the spirit.

I would say that this a 'detox programme' designed by nature and each one of us will come out of it stronger. Working from home is a good change that's needed once in a while.

However, for chefs, it's important that they look beyond the traditional 'work' that they do in restaurants or hotels and find ways as to how they can do something extraordinary while at home. Every day is a new day and we can all experiment in our own ways. Also, make sure to share it with everyone through digital media platforms. This way we all can help, learn, and evolve each day in spite of the adversities.

Specifically for us, it has been a mixed bag. While out of home dining has taken a big hit, cooking at home has become more common. Everybody has been cooking and baking.

Our restaurant company has taken a big beating but our digital content company has done really well. More views on YouTube channel, a bigger community on Facebook, Instagram, etc.

Wonderchef revenue was heavily affected during April and May but June and July has been better than the same period last year. I signed a couple of endorsement assignments with big brands including ITC during the lockdown. So all in all it has not been as bad as what it initially seemed to be.

FoodFood channel viewership grew but revenues did get impacted. We did launch our fresh meal kits along with Amazon during this time.

L. Aruna Dhir - What corrective measures have you been taking to counter the effect?

Sanjeev Kapoor -  As they say, there is something to learn from everything. My mantra for life is, the more you learn, the more you share, and the more you grow. My team and I have developed a new concept for restaurant-style food at home from a Transparent Kitchen. We should be launching it soon.

We have also looked at all costs with a fine-tooth comb and done some rationalization on them. Negotiations with various parties on cost reduction have been done.

I have been trying to understand more opportunities in the digital content area. Creating food content on Audible and Alexa is what I have spent considerable time on during this lockdown.

And apart from all this, I have been spending a great amount of time with my family, cooking for my daughters, and bonding with my fans on social media.

L. Aruna Dhir - What have you and businesses such as yours been doing to keep yourselves afloat?

Sanjeev Kapoor - I personally feel, apart from the traditional ways of working, one should constantly ideate. You can cook at home and supply food to the needy, experiment, and explore ideas with minimal ingredients, take online cooking classes through social media - the list is endless.

Of course, it will take a lot of time to get back on track even when the situation is better, but, be an optimist and think of it as a reboot for your ideas. Since most of my businesses have been built around my personal brand and expertise, I have been sharpening my know-how by learning more.

I have been spending a lot of my time on giving back to society. A lot of my time has gone into arranging foods for doctors, medical staff, police staff, poor people, migrant labour, etc. This has been in association with the Taj Group of Hotels. My long-standing association with Akshaya Patra - the world's largest NGO run mid-day meal programme - has also kept me busy during this period.

L. Aruna Dhir - How are you keeping up the morale of your team/employees?

Sanjeev Kapoor - Employees are facing a fear of change and uncertainty which is obvious, given the situation. At this moment, I am trying my best to monitor and devise solutions to help safeguard my employees and the business too.

We are also constantly brainstorming on newer, creative ideas to work on, which will eventually bring the business back on track. We've been working as a team in order to fight the virus. And with the continued teamwork and each other's support, I'm sure we'll be able to overcome the situation and come out better and stronger.

L. Aruna Dhir - How are you ensuring employee safety?

Sanjeev Kapoor - We are working at less than 10% manpower with standard operating procedures (SOPs) as per COVID-19 guidelines on maintaining social distancing, hygiene, and overall safety for everyone. An employee is only asked to come to the office, if extremely necessary.

We've also been keeping a track and checking up on our employee's health regularly. There are SOPs laid down by the company which are to be followed by the employee under all circumstances if at all they're entering the workplace. However, each employee is playing their part too in observing the specifications so as to maintain safety at all times.

L. Aruna Dhir - What is the blueprint you have drawn to get back on the road?

Sanjeev Kapoor - Whenever this unfortunate situation ends, the one thing that we need to do is push ourselves a little harder, think out-of-the-box, and dedicate more time to work than before. This might require working at length without a day off or other ways, just to make sure things get back to their best.

The process is going to be slow. Hence, patience would be the key to deal with it. Post all this, we also need to be more cautious and aware of social distancing, hygiene and wellbeing of each other at work and home.

Work-wise, I plan to go back to the basics of Indian traditions, dig deeper and work more on the dietetics of ancient India.

Everyone in the business environment has to become more positive, compassionate, vigilant, and agile and has to learn to be more sensitive to the consumer as well as employee needs. Some new things on the restaurant front are already in pipeline and are being worked on. So, fingers crossed!

L. Aruna Dhir - What can companies such as yours do to work out sustainable disaster management, both short-term and long-term strategy?

Sanjeev Kapoor - There's always a positive side to anything and everything. We've been in an expansive mode; that continues because we can take this time to think about all the possibilities and get creative from our own space.

With digital media and technology, there's never a full stop. It's an ongoing spree, more like a semi-colon, which can only end if one wants it to.

However, one thing which I'm sure about is that our industry will have to learn to function in a way that we have not seen before. Businesses will be more likely to be prepared for a situation like this in the future.

'Live today but keep planning for tomorrow,' is going to be the new mantra, not just in our personal lives but professional too. These times are putting everyone to the test. So, I feel it's not just the fittest and sharpest who will bounce back, but, each and every individual as well. The hustle is going to be real for everyone alike.

L. Aruna Dhir - What are you doing to ensure the safety of your guests as your business opens up and make it as risk-free as possible?

Sanjeev Kapoor - Most of our restaurants are run by our franchisees. We have shared all the Dos and Don'ts with respect to the safety of our guests with our outlets. Since our outlets are spread all across the globe we are constantly in touch with the team there to ensure guest safety.

Each country, each state has its own safety guidelines and protocols, we are constantly communicating with the teams to ensure compliance with them. Physical audits wherever possible are being done otherwise virtual audits are being conducted.

L. Aruna Dhir - What points must the restaurants keep in mind for guest safety in the new normal?

Sanjeev Kapoor - I think the following are very important -

  • Bring in complete transparency with respect to total hygiene including personal hygiene.
  • Follow country-specific and state-specific guidelines.
  • Maintain a record register of guests with necessary details.
  • Strict protocol for cleanliness and hygiene in the outlets, kitchens, deliveries, takeaways, as well as restaurants in general, as and when dine-in begins.
  • Maintaining social distances in seating arrangements at the restaurant.
  • Training of the employees to work in adherence with the COVID-19 guidelines.
  • Frequent sanitization of restaurants.
  • Regular temperature checks for employees working in restaurants.

We have created a detailed SOP docket related to the guest safety which we share with the team and train them.

L. Aruna Dhir - What best practices will you be formulating for your own business and recommending to others in the post-COVID as well as the current phase?

Sanjeev Kapoor - I would like to tell everyone to be agile, be open to adjust and adapt as per new conditions. Attitude will play an important role in identifying newer opportunities and taking them head-on.

Efficiency will be critical in all aspects of the business. There would be hardly any room for inefficiency. Manpower will have to be worked upon and retrained for multitasking

Cash flow management would be critical. Hence, one has to constantly keep an eye on the ball.

The Business has to be remodeled with most of the costs ideally kept variable and fixed cost components held at a minimum.

The next 6 to 9 months would be very tough. Post that, small recoveries would start. Real recovery may happen much later.

L. Aruna Dhir - Looking into your crystal ball, what do you foresee to be the state of the industry in the coming half year and the next year? (Financial perspective)

Sanjeev Kapoor - The state of the industry in the coming half year does not seem very hopeful. But that does not mean it will stay like this forever. The good news is that the only way now is up.

The next six months for the restaurant industry would generally see a cut of almost fifty percent on the revenue side. Next year should be more kind and should see at least twenty percent growth over the preceding six months. That means even in the next 18 months most businesses would not be able to come back to the same levels as pre-corona.

L. Aruna Dhir - Going forward, what will be the NEW NORMAL for the Travel and hotel industry? (Structural / Operational perspective)

Sanjeev Kapoor - Considering the ongoing scenario and the severity of conditions, travellers and guests would be prioritizing safety parameters a lot more than before. The travel and hotel industry needs to work with more synergy. Competitors and foes may have to turn friends to survive.

For India, domestic travel should pick up. Resort properties and destinations stand a good chance.

Since the industry would have to go through cost rationalization, there may be some compromise on the quality mostly on the service side. At the same time, guests would expect more for less.

It would take time for everyone to get used to the 'new normal' but it is important that the industry gives its best shot with patience and co-operation to ease it for the customers as well as regain the businesses.

L. runa Dhir - What according to you, are the top seven or ten things companies must do to secure their bottom-line and just about aim for profit protection?

Sanjeev Kapoor - Well! It will have to be in the space as indicated below -

  1. More focus on more revenue.
  2. Be agile and identify new opportunities.
  3. Act quickly.
  4. Adopt technology to maximize earnings and save costs.
  5. Keep employee morale high and engage more with them to train them continuously.
  6. Multi skilling and multi-tasking of the manpower.
  7. Bring in a real sense of ownership in them.
  8. Work on variable cost models as far as possible.

L. Aruna Dhir - How is the present pandemic preparing us for future, unforeseen disasters - both as people in the hospitality business and as humanity? What are your important takeaways?

Sanjeev Kapoor - Everything happens for a reason and I think the Coronavirus is going to teach us to be more grateful and content with what we have.

Like a coin has two sides, there's a good and bad side to anything and everything in life too! It all depends on the way you look at it. I'm sure we all can get past all this and come out tougher than before.

Going with the atma nirbharta (self-reliance) and #vocalforlocal, this is the perfect time to turn an entrepreneur and endorse products that are indigenous.

India needs more food service and hospitality professionals to turn business owners. They can start small and learn to survive within the means. Once they learn the ropes of the business, they can look at growth. The same can apply elsewhere too.

Also, stay home, stay safe, keep cooking, and eating good food. Keep helping the needy. I'm sure better days are near. This too shall definitely pass!

L. Aruna Dhir