If Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) is here to stay – for the coming few months or till a vaccine is introduced – what should we do about our cravings for a hearty meal at a restaurant?

Introducing cloud kitchens – a model that’s turning out to be the most successful and practical these days, and who knows whether this may be the only model in the coming days? Right now, this is an alternative that has quietly replaced “eating out” experiences at swish restaurants with online delivery of the customers’ favourite food.

What are cloud kitchens?

Cloud kitchens are commercial facilities to produce food specifically for delivery. These are sometimes also known as virtual kitchens, ghost kitchens or shared kitchens with delivery-only options (and no dine-in facilities).

But haven’t cloud kitchen been there pre-COVID-19? That’s absolutely right. There’s nothing new in the concept in the sense that some restaurants on your food delivery apps have already been running cloud kitchens even before the pandemic hit. But what’s changing right now is that more and more restaurants are shifting to the cloud kitchen model as dining out in restaurants is a choice many customers are likely to avoid in the coming days.

 

Ekdalia Rd is focusing more on their home delivery these days

 

How does it work?

As a model, cloud kitchens have always been there across the world – including in Kolkata. In Kolkata, the Kasba Industrial Estate houses several commercial cloud kitchen facilities. Food entrepreneurs are now increasingly banking on their kitchen spaces and giving up their rented restaurant spaces as a huge cost on paying rent, electricity bills, employees’ salaries and so on, is going waste as the number of people going out to eat has fallen sharply despite the lifting of lockdown restrictions on restaurants.

Many entrepreneurs said that they were shelling out Rs 1-2 lakh on rent, employees, monthly electricity bills for a restaurant space, the maximum amount being spent on rent. With cloud kitchens, it is only a commercial licensed food production unit one has to spend on, apart from subscribing to the food delivery apps or using one’s own delivery system to reach the ordered food to the customers’ doorstep.

Founders of The Brewing Leaf, Anirudh Gupta and Dhruv Grover started their virtual kitchen even before the pandemic hit. “We were looking at moving away from ‘consumers coming to us’ to ‘we move to the consumers’. A cloud kitchen makes us focus only on the quality of food and hygiene rather than on a fancy set-up,” said Grover.

The Brewing Leaf started its cloud kitchen before the pandemic had hit

 

Impact of COVID-19 on restaurants

Many food entrepreneurs have not opened their restaurants despite the lifting of the lockdown restrictions. Those who have opened, experience a significant fall in the number of customers. For many, it’s a matter of a few months before they take a final decision on whether to continue running the restaurant or shift to the cloud kitchen model, sticking to only home delivery.

The impact of COVID-19 has made many entrepreneurs take up options outside the physical space of their restaurants. Owner of restaurant Ekdalia Rd, Surajit Rout, considers the virtual kitchen and home delivery-only model as “the survival model for next six to eight months to overcome the pandemic situation”. Rout pointed out that “With the Covid-19 scare at the back of one’s mind, it’s evident that we will need to adjust ourselves in a set-up where most of the food ordered will be will be delivery rather than dine-in. In the next few months, the dine-in option will be limited. What happens after that, we’ll have to wait and watch”.

Doma Wang – owner of The Blue Poppy Thakali and Shim Shim – has been delivering food from her home and restaurant since most people are not ready to go and eat at a restaurant right now. “Every week, for two to three days, in my social-media handle I have been announcing certain dishes for the next day so people can pre-order and collect it either from my home or they can use online apps to get the food delivered to their homes. This is also to ensure safety and hygiene of the food being delivered,” said Wang. “Everything cooked with love is special,” she said, adding that her dedicated customers still look forward to food cooked by her.

Barnali Sensarma Ghosh, owner of the Tintin-themed restaurant, Tintin and the Brussels Club on Hindustan Park in Gariahat said that she is now using her own car to send deliveries across the city. “I am taking orders from all over Kolkata, Howrah and even in South 24 Parganas,” Barnali said. “Food delivery apps deliver food within a specific area. I wanted to go beyond that,” she said. Barnali, like many other food entrepreneurs, is paying a huge amount of rent for the restaurant, and she says she has to take a call within a month or two, whether she will move to the cloud kitchen model altogether. “People are preferring home delivery these days, and this is going well for us. The restaurant business has been badly hit as it is not an essential service. If home delivery works well, many, including me, might want to shift to a new model by giving up the physical space of the restaurant but still continue in the business,” Barnali said.

Tintin and the Brussels Club has been delivering their food all over Kolkata, parts of Howrah and South 24 Parganas

 

Are delivery menus bringing in more variety?

With delivery-only option being the most preferred option now, food entrepreneurs are bringing in more variety in the menu. Earlier, the number of dishes for dine-in and delivery menu would vary, with the most popular dishes excluded from delivery menu mostly to attract the customer to the restaurant. However, now even delivery menus are being altered to make the customer order more online.

Grover pointed out that “since we specialise in tea – from masala chai, adrak wali chai (ginger-infused) to shahi chai, chaat chai and for food authentic Bengali, Continental, Chinese – we are delivering everything with good packaging.” According to Surajit Rout, “we have started delivering multi-cuisine food and there are plans to offer heritage cuisine (old, forgotten cuisine) for small parties of 20-25 people.”

Many new possibilities are sure to unfold in the coming days.

[Cover image: Picture 1: Doma Wang, owner of The Blue Poppy Thakali and Shim Shim and Picture 2: delivery of food by Tintin and the Brussels Club]

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