How the pandemic and lockdown is forcing restaurants to innovate with their deliveries and services


Every Independence Day, The Bombay Canteen (TBC) in Mumbai hosts a pay-as-you-wish dawaat, where the money goes to a good cause. It is so popular that lunch slots run out fast and people queue up for a taste of their curated vegetarian meal. This year, COVID-19 has thrown their plans into disarray, but Hunger Inc [the parent company] took things in their stride. Their dawaat went to people’s homes and every booking helped plant ten trees in the Araku Valley. In addition, people could choose to buy masterclasses with their chefs – the proceeds would go to farmers of the Nandi Foundation. “In these times, we had to find new ways to engage with guests. Digital is the only medium we have so we had to ask ourselves, how can we provide a great experience and help create memories for our guests,” says Sameer Seth, co-founder and CEO.

It’s not just Hunger Inc charting a new path in the business. Across the country, restaurants small and big, and hotel chains are innovating and experimenting with their services. It’s no longer just about providing home deliveries of food, it’s about building engagement, creating a memorable experience, and staying relevant in what’s been a difficult time for the industry. A continuous lockdown, an interrupted food supply chain, restrictions on dining, lack of staff, and customers hesitant to get back to dining out have hit the food industry hard.

In such a scenario, the few restaurants that have opened for business, mostly focussed on delivery, have had to relook their entire system. Deliveries, once a small part of the overall functioning of a place, have now taken centre stage.

Dining ‘out’ today now features DIY kits – pre-packaged meals that can be warmed/baked/heated at home; pre-mixed cake ingredients complete with toppings;  full brunch hampers complete with bottles of wine; and even the organisation of virtual dining experiences across cities where branches of one restaurant send out the same meal to friends and family.

Cook it yourself

“When all of your energies focused towards innovating and creating products for delivery, you want to think it through by stretching the boundaries – you re-think packaging, flavour, crusts and crumbs by getting into the head of the customer,” says Jaydeep Mukherjee, Brand Head, Smoke House Deli. The restaurant chain delivers DIY Deli kits – with ingredients and recipes – for burgers, pasta and baked dishes, and bar snacks in Mumbai, Pune, Bengaluru, New Delhi and Chandigarh.

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DIY Lamb Burger Kit by Aku’s

Many restaurants have started offering DIY kits with easy to make/ assemble options from burgers and pizza to pasta and baked items. These DIY kits containing frozen or partly cooked items that can be cooked or baked at home ensuring a hot meal and a taste of food from their favourite place. It’s also a fun family activity that promises good food with minimal effort and no prep work.

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Basil & Chilli Bloody Mary Premix O Pedro

In April, Social started selling pre-made cocktail mixers across Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Chandigarh & Pune. They introduced special menus, #ByTheKilo menu and recently launched a D.I.Try Menu in Delhi. Ritu Dalmia’s Diva in Delhi have introduced burger kits on their delivery menu, and their pizzas come with packed ingredients and a link to watching the chef prepare it. Delhi’s Akus: The Burger Co. started DIY burger kits – each has vegetarian and non-vegetarian patties, hand-made sesame buns, the special house-made sauce and pickles, and a cheese blend. 1441 Pizzeria in Mumbai, Pune and Bengaluru have a DIY Pizza Kit for five of their signature pizzas: dough, vegetables, sauces, cheese and meat (if required). “People still prefer the convenience of a ready-to-eat delivered pizza rather than a DIY kit. When deliveries were not open in large numbers, the DIY kit was a great option for customers as they had a fun activity to involve many in the family while having a great meal,” says managing director, Krishna Gupta. “This was more for brand awareness and reach rather than sales.”

Trident in BKC, Mumbai has a DIY Gourmet menu offering dosa batters, pasta preparations, pancakes and cookie dough; customers can also choose their protein of choice, and marinade and get that delivered. Their Italian restaurant, Botticino has a pasta Vita menu of DIY pasta classics. They recently started Weekend Brunches. “Everyone needs a bit of levity right now and our offerings like DIY frozen pasta kits, DIY cookie doughs in various fun flavours and our weekend picnic brunches will help distinguish our delivery service,” says executive chef Ajit Raman.

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Pizza By CinCin

CinCin in Mumbai has a DIY pasta, lasagne and frozen pizza options, delivered with a card detailing how to cook them. “Hand-rolled pasta has been an important pillar of our brand, it’s through these DIY kits we’re able to re-iterate and bring back our beloved pasta to our guests. It’s also a way for them to have restaurant-style fresh pasta at the comfort of their home,” says Karyna Bajaj, Founder of CinCin.

Out of the (delivery) box

These innovations aren’t limited to just delivery and DIY kits but focus on an overall experience linked to food.

In Mumbai, Hunger Inc started early. One month into the lockdown and they began deliveries and then virtual classes with their chefs Thomas Zacharias and Hussain Shahzad – here, the ingredients were sent to those who booked them. TBC, O Pedro does catering and cocktail party arrangements for groups of four. In addition, for a price, diners can buy a cocktail inspired by them to be added to TBC or O Pedro menu, and ‘I-Want-My-Kejriwal Card’ to be redeemed for the popular Kejriwal Toast at the former. They’ve also re-launched The Bombay Sweet Shop. “We always try and think of the experience we are providing with our food. Our restaurants go beyond just serving food. We wanted to stay true to their identity by innovating on changing menus, delivery pop up collaborations, and online classes,” says Seth. “Food is a source of enjoyment, so we had to figure out how to get our customers feel that entertainment and joy in their home.”

To answer those questions, they’ve introduced a Hunger Inc hotline, and a website that shares details on heating and eating their food, recipes for their cocktail pre-mixes, and even playlists from their restaurants. TBC also recently did a pop-up collaboration with Bomra’s, Goa. And Shahzad and Zacharias tied up with CinCin for their Pizza Club – a limited delivery menu with five chefs, including Gresham Fernandes of Impresario Hospitality, Prateek Sadhu of Masque, and Prateek Bakhtiani of Ether Chocolate. Each pizza reflected the chef’s food philosophy and included a link to their favourite playlist.

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Bomra’s Delivery Combo

In this digitally focussed environment, standing out from the crowd involves thinking out of the box. Indian Hotels Company (IHCL), which owns the Taj hotels, recently launched the Qmin app in Mumbai (soon to expand to nine cities). The app lets customers order from different Taj restaurants in the city, do a multi-restaurant order, and even schedule delivery times. Soon, it will also allow people to book masterclasses, avail curated menus, customize meals and even host virtual multi-city meetings. Elsewhere New Delhi-based Roseate Hotels and Resorts launched Care By Roseate, which allows guests to book tables online through an app, scan the menu, order from it and see their food being prepared in the kitchen before even reaching the restaurant.

Impresario Handmade Restaurants introduced a tech-enabled platform for ordering food and an in-house fleet for delivery for their restaurants – Social, Salt Water Café, and Smokehouse Deli. “Apart from product-centric innovation one has to now start thinking about how we can reduce the risk of transmission as much as possible. We have to learn and adapt to new technologies keeping the DNA of the brand intact. With the launch of the new food ordering, the service provided is twofold: home delivery and in-restaurant contactless ordering,” says group executive chef Shamsul Wahid.

A better future?

These are still baby steps as the industry struggles to find a way forward into an uncertain future. But there are some benefits. Bajaj says delivery as a vertical has been better than what it used to be. “Our frozen pizzas move more than our regular pizzas. A lot of our guests love the idea that they have access to fresh, quality pizza at their beck and call and have been stocking them in their freezers.”

Impresario Handmade Restaurants’ delivery continues is a percentage of their pre-COVID numbers/figures, but pure delivery sales have gone up (over 50%) at many of their outlets. “In these times, to keep it relevant, innovation is absolutely the key,” says Mukherjee.

Seth adds that while their innovations are helping in small doses, there is a long way to go. “It is going to get a lot tougher. These practices may help but everyone has a limit. I still have rents to pay. But there is hope that things will get better.”