How awesome restaurants are coping during challenging times

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It was 2013. My pregnant wife picked up a drink from a little kiosk in Phoenix mall, Chennai and was walking around looking for a place to sit. A fancy kiosk belonging to a coffee shop, one that has shut shop in Chennai, had a board that said, in no uncertain terms, that the seating was only for the patrons of the coffee shop and that no outside food was allowed. Quite understandable that you want to ensure that the huge rent you pay is put to good use and not given to anyone who wasn't contributing to your revenue.





And on the other side was Jonah's, a Chennai based entrepreneur's food venture that now has about 5 branches in the city. The food display had a delicious looking eclair. As my wife was looking at the counter, a waiter offered her a chair and told us that we could sit inside. She pointed to her tea from the kiosk. "Of course that is OK mam. Please sit," he said.

Now this wasn't the owner of the restaurant and I don't think he was the manager either, but an employee, who offered the high-rent space to a woman who he not only wasn't sure was going to buy anything, but she also held a big drink from a competitor. Needless to say, we had dinner there!

6 years later, 2 days ago, at the Jonah's outlet at Express Avenue mall, this time with 2 kids, we ordered a pasta for the kids to share. The pasta came with one piece of garlic bread. The kids starting to fight over the garlic bread were in for a surprise when the waiter brought two more. It was only when the bill arrived that we realised the extra garlic bread wasn't charged.

Again, this wasn't the owner of the restaurant sitting there on the counter! Both times, there was empathy, something that has almost been completely sucked out of the hospitality industry. Almost because, between these two incidents, I've been to a range of restaurants and hotels, both fancy and not so fancy ones and empathy is hard to come by. Even at the the top hotel chains, the lack of consistency is glaring. The Taj Lake palace's service is miles ahead of the Taj Falaknuma Palace, both places costing upwards of a mini fortune for a night.

I am taking the example of Jonah's because it has been around before the Swiggy/Zomato days of deep discounting and the home delivery tsunami and continues to operate during these times and seem to have adapted to the change. And it appears that they have decided not to mislead you with offers. Last week, my friend used the Zomato Gold's one plus privilege at another restaurant and the portion of the 'free dish' was almost just that. It had barely a spoonful, but my Eazy Diner reservation at Jonah's didn't come with a reduced portion. It was honest. While it was a Saturday, the place was packed to capacity. That wasn't all, despite using a 30% SWIGGYIT coupon, my Jonah's home delivery order came with a free lime mint cooler yesterday.

What about restaurants that have been around pre Swiggy/Zomato days, but are not part of that digital trend? Our friends from Thailand were in Chennai and they wanted me to take them to a non 5 star South Indian restaurant. So no Southern Spice or Avartana or Dakshin. We narrowed down to two of my favourites, the Kovai Alankar and Amma Restaurant and ended up at Amma Restaurant. Being lunch, a meal that I love to skip or go very easy on, I asked for just a portion of kola urundai, while the other 3 ordered meals and a bunch of other dishes. The waiter brought four portions of soup.

"Part of the meals," he said in Tamil. I told him I didn't order meals. He smiled. "Kudinga annae," he said, that translates to "That's fine brother, drink." While they served  rice to my friends, he dropped a small spoonful on my Kola Urundai plate. The warmth in the place was palpable. The place was packed.  No amount of home delivery seems to have eaten into this place's revenue.

At the other end of the city, at Forum Vijaya Mall is another unassuming little restaurant called Salt. Again, one with very little marketing, no offers, have joined the Swiggy/Zomato/Eazy Diner bandwagon, but continues to focus on service. The waiter suggested we try the their new elaneer dessert and when we commented that we love their elaneer paysam more, the promptly brought a small bowl of it. On the house!

What about new age restaurants? The ones that have set shop after the paradigm shift that is taking place right now. Let's take Kappa Chakka Kandhari. With almost no digital marketing, it has taken the chef Reji Mathew, for whom this is the 100th restaurant, 3 years to set it up and the effort shows. Located in prime real estate, the tables are not cramped, service is friendly, there is no parotta in a kerala restaurant and the produce is literally transported from Kerala everyday. KCK seems to have built a community around food. Chef Reji is now opening up his private kitchen at the premises to home chefs who want to show case their food.

Why is that commendable? Because on an average weekday lunch, the year-old restaurant had waiting times of about 20 minutes almost till the closing hours of the restaurant. The wait times have come down after they opened up another floor, but instead of getting daily revenue by giving the space to the restaurant, Chef Reji is showcasing forgotten, missing and other forms of food driven mostly by home chefs. So you could get Italian, Bengali, I was party to a fabulous Marwadi food thali where I was exposed to food from India that I had never heard of straight from the homes of the custodians of the cuisines. If you have a cuisine that you want to showcase, you can reach out to him too and if things work out, I could have your mom's meal in a restaurant setting.

Learn from the winners, they say. Yes, these are challenging times. More Indians are eating out, more restaurants are opening but even more are closing. Cloud kitchens are trying to become the Amazon of the food industry. Yes, there seems to be a huge change waiting to happen, but things may go either way. Yes, there are diners who would think it is their birth right and restaurants have to offer how many ever pieces of garlic bread that they think is fit. Yes, people are threatening to post false reviews and defame them. Restaurants cannot take the good publicity of social media and wish away the bad that comes with it. Restaurants like these are showing the way, in their own way. 

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Grub Waz: How awesome restaurants are coping during challenging times
How awesome restaurants are coping during challenging times
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Grub Waz
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