How Iconic Restaurants have Survived the Pandemic

How Iconic Restaurants have Survived the Pandemic
The news for restaurants across India was bad enough when the industry association released an economic impact report stating the disturbing numbers of restaurants closed permanently since the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic.

By Nusra , Editor

21 Feb 2022 | 26 min read

For an eatery that's nearly a century old, it's remarkable to hear from its third-generation co-owner, Hemamalini Maiya, that it shut up shop only once before the pandemic. "During the emergency, the government fixed the prices, which were not sustainable. So, we used to put up a board that said, 'Losses for the Day',” she recalls. It was a snarky yet indirect protest.

Mavalli Tiffin Rooms (MTR) in Bengaluru has survived several political turbulences, protests, a global war, and now a pandemic. Maiya attributes the brand's longevity to its adherence to tradition. "It's a nostalgic brand. When somebody from Bangalore enters MTR, they have memories associated with it. They don't see much has changed at all. It's the same kitchen, same floor, most of the kitchen staff are pretty old. The formulas and recipes haven't changed. So they see a continuance of things. For the outsiders and new customers, every branch has boards narrating the history of MTR."

MTR has recently opened its door in London, located in the neighborhood of Harrow.

The news for restaurants across India was bad enough when the industry association released an economic impact report stating the disturbing numbers of restaurants closed permanently since the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic. Things have only gotten worse since then. But among those disturbing numbers, thousands were those who survived, managed to sail through the tide, and they were not only the young entrants but the iconic outlets serving for more than five decades for some older than the country.

Never Too Old to Learn

The constant buzz of the crowd and the cramped space at Vidyarthi Bhavan in Gandhi Bazaar Bengaluru mightn't necessarily evoke a sense of awe when one dines there. But this restaurant, older than this country, is still much sought-after. Its present owner, Arun Kumar Adiga, amazingly learned that it's pandemic resistant too. "We are almost back to 90 to 100 percent pre-Covid level," he says. "It was difficult to get adjusted to the new normal after the first lockdown. We made thermal scanning, sanitization, and masks compulsory. Last year, we even installed table partitions to make people feel safer. But after the second lockdown, people seem to have adjusted."

The restaurant gets about 1,000 customers on weekdays and more than 1,500 on weekends. During the last year’s Ganesh Chaturthi, it got even more. And, for one who may know, a meal at Vidyarthi Bhavan isn't easy. It's almost perennially full. One has to wait until the name is called.

The location might be a reason. Gandhi Bazaar, after all, is a bustling neighborhood. But then, not all eateries there have flourished like Vidyarthi Bhavan.

Taking a Digital Detour

For, Old Delhi-based Giani’s serving since 1956, the never learning spirit kept the brand to stay afloat and profoundly announce its expansion plans for the coming years. The ice cream chain will be introducing 70 new stores in 15 to 20 new cities and plans to go ahead with investing in international markets.

“There’s a saying - 'once you stop learning, you stop growing’ and we totally agree. The Covid-19 crisis has likely challenged all of us in different ways whether we talk about our past experience and knowledge about the industry. In the face of uncertainty, restaurateurs have had to relearn some of the key cornerstones of the industry,  such as staffing and revenue management,  both of which underwent major transformations because of the pandemic,” Anandpreet Singh, Creative Director at Gianis felt.

According to him, one must keep looking for ways to survive amidst the plethora of difficulties and doors that will open themselves. It's a matter of having faith and never giving up. And as a result, brainstorming with the team and giving birth to new innovative strategies for the brand to generate revenue helped us to a great extent. Online hospitality platforms also came to the rescue and played a very important role in tough times.

Additionally, Giani’s work on the principle of zero royalty fees was a sign of relief for all the franchise partners. “Furthermore, the marketing support provided by us was good enough to boost their online sales when the offline sales were low,” Singh added.

Indeed, with the industry facing such a chaotic situation, brands must take all the necessary steps. Singh suggests that first and foremost taking this as an opportunity to regain control in the market should be taken into account. Additionally, initiating competitive digital strategies since offline situations are comparatively unpleasant can also be considered.

“Few basic measures such as reducing cost by controlling food wastage and trying to cut down on the useless expenditure are a must. Lastly, focusing on generating sales through online platforms in times of pandemic is a major go-to solution as one cannot afford to trail behind on the digitalization front. Therefore, moving forward marketing strategy should be on point, and a brand should adapt and evolve according to the respective scenario,” he further added.

After All Brand Loyalty Matters

Moving towards Mumbai near Dadar is Pritam Restaurant and Bar, a landmark institution since 1942. Be it the partition, government changes, riots, calamities, stock market crashes, the restaurant has been through it all. Nothing has been more long-lasting, or more impactful than the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“The ‘21-day lockdown’ kept getting extended over and over again. That’s how #PritamKiDelivery was born. We’ve been an institution known for our legendary hospitality and iconic food for 79 years, and the promising allure of our 80th year is what propelled us at Pritam to push and strive to ensure survival,” Jaibir Singh Kohli of Pritam Restaurant and Bar, Dadar stated.

A brand that’s been around for seven decades, building goodwill since its inception, is what kept them afloat at a time when almost 40 percent of the country’s F&B outlets were shutting down. As a 4th generation entrepreneur, there was a lot of learning involved, especially the way a business needs to be run in times like this.

“Everyone’s crisis management skills have definitely been enhanced during this period, the ability to be proactive rather than reactive about the cases, and being able to innovate and maintain standards of safety and security without losing the personal touch of hospitality. As an industry that thrives on human touch, the interaction was the biggest restriction. Overcoming that hurdle by being socially distant, but still being able to provide the same sense of warmth and comfort in the services you offer is something that only comes with time and practice. Our staff has been with us for years, and could recognize guests even through their masks, making Pritam still feel like home, even though the home had changed entirely,” Kohli narrated.

Shutting Down Cannot Be An Escape

Back in Bengaluru, Faraz Ahmed, the present owner of The Only Place, prefers to count his blessings. His 56-year-old establishment managed to survive a pandemic that engulfed many businesses.

The restaurant on Museum Road, famous for its steaks, shut just for a while before opening for takeaways. The demand for deliveries was a revelation for Ahmed. "Steaks are best had at the restaurants; if you pack them home, it won’t be as good. So, we have never really focused much on deliveries. But we got plenty of orders during the pandemic," he shared. He also sent his non-kitchen staff for deliveries, so they got paid instead of third-party delivery apps.

 While tracking the orders, Ahmed was also surprised at the extent of his customer base. "We assumed our customers were from Koramangala and Indiranagar. But we got orders from all parts of Bangalore, stretching from Yelahanka to even Jayanagar and JP Nagar, which I thought were hardcore vegetarian areas."

Like other legacy restaurants in the city, The Only Place is reluctant to change. "When you have a heritage place like Koshy's, MTR, or The Only Place, people don't come for the new things; they come for that thing that's always been there," says Ahmed, "People occasionally ask me, 'Why don't you open a new place?' I tell them, 'It's called The Only Place. The name itself stops me from doing so.'"

What the industry will look like at the end of the pandemic is anybody’s guess. Some experts have estimated that some 30 percent of restaurants will close for good; others say closer to 50 percent. Staying ahead of the curve is important, but riding the wave along with its ups and downs, embracing challenges, and finding a way to thrive, even in adversity is a skill every successful restaurateur has picked up, and that’s why legacy institutions have managed to stay afloat.

And many, almost all, don’t regret the decision to stay open. The stakeholders believe that had they closed, it would have a negative impact on the overall community’s ability to do business. And perhaps more important, the next generation's motivation to take up the business with a boom would go down. The oldies showed that one just doesn’t give up because it gets hard.

For an eatery that's nearly a century old, it's remarkable to hear from its third-generation co-owner, Hemamalini Maiya, that it shut up shop only once before the pandemic. "During the emergency, the government fixed the prices, which were not sustainable. So, we used to put up a board that said, 'Losses for the Day',” she recalls. It was a snarky yet indirect protest.

Mavalli Tiffin Rooms (MTR) in Bengaluru has survived several political turbulences, protests, a global war, and now a pandemic. Maiya attributes the brand's longevity to its adherence to tradition. "It's a nostalgic brand. When somebody from Bangalore enters MTR, they have memories associated with it. They don't see much has changed at all. It's the same kitchen, same floor, most of the kitchen staff are pretty old. The formulas and recipes haven't changed. So they see a continuance of things. For the outsiders and new customers, every branch has boards narrating the history of MTR."

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