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May 06, 2020

The Future Of Work: Rahul Akerkar On The Survival Of Restaurants

“The cooks and servers will possibly be required to wear full hazmat suits, all furniture will require regular and frequent sanitisation, customers will be screened upon entering… It’ll be like going out to eat in a hospital operating room.”

#WorkFromHome may be standard protocol now, but what happens once we resume our routines? In our new series #TheFutureOfWork, we ask professionals what their days look like during the lockdown and how they envision their jobs and industries changing in the time to come. Here, we chat with Rahul Akerkar, chef and restaurateur at Qualia.

How has your day-to-day work been impacted?
We are in the business of preparing and serving food to our patrons who dine with us in the restaurant. Clearly we’re not a business that can work from home on a laptop like so many others. So while the restaurant’s been shuttered since March 15th, I’ve been thinking about the business and what we’ll need to do to survive, by running “what-if” simulations. Unlike many others, we haven’t started home deliveries yet, but are now toying with the idea. Our food is not conducive to parceling and home delivery per se, so we’re creating an entirely new, easier menu for this. The other issue is to figure out how even some of our staff, who stayed back in Mumbai, can get to work if we do decide to start deliveries. We’ve also been having regular virtual meetings with our team to maintain human contact as best we can to keep spirits up. The rest of the time is spent figuring out how to change our operating model once this gets over and we find ourselves in a very different “post-Corona” world.

What are some of the ways that you are keeping yourself occupied? Where do you find comfort?
I’m catching up on a ton of reading, doing spring cleaning, getting personal affairs in order, hanging with the family, cooking, making videos for Instagram, learning to operate photo editing software, yoga, continuing to write my book, and above all, reflecting.

How do you truly feel about having to bring your work into your home environment, if at all? Are there any ideas you find yourself contemplating?
If we didn’t bring work home during this lockdown period, I think we’d all go bananas! During the day, all four of us do our own thing for the most part so we’re all occupied with something, hopefully constructive. We hang out in the evenings. We’re trying to maintain some sense of normalcy in how we manage the hours in the day.

What do you think the future of your industry/profession/business will look like? How will you have to rethink what you do if social distancing is still in effect?
This is a tough one. Generally speaking, we’re fucked. Firstly, it’ll take many, many months once the lockdown is lifted for people to garner enough courage to come out in sufficient numbers that make sense for a restaurant or bar to operate profitably. The fear psychosis will continue for some time to come, even though the authorities may deem it safe to go out. No one will want to take that chance on a personal level, and rightly so. Social distancing norms will force restaurants and bars to operate at around 50 per cent or less, even when full, with alternate table occupancy possibly being the norm.

The cooks and servers will be required to wear masks and gloves at the minimum and possibly full hazmat suits at the other extreme depending on the type of operation. All furniture, and the restaurant as a whole, will require regular and frequent sanitisation. Customers will be screened upon entering. It’ll be like going out to eat in a hospital operating room. Not really what someone wants to do when they go out to enjoy dinner, drinks and a night out on the town.

Restaurants are a discretionary spending business — we’re the first to get hit and the last to recover whenever public entertainment or dining sentiment gets shaken up for any reason. We survive on very slim profit margins under normal market circumstances, so you don’t need to be a genius to imagine what our business will be like in a post-Covid world where you’re required to reduce your business on all fronts because of health requirements and mandates.

As far as pivoting goes, Qualia was built as an elevated dining experience, with an open kitchen restaurant and bar. Our overheads are high, and based on people coming in to eat and drink in the restaurant and bar. Our numbers and operations work for a dine-in style of business. Yes, we’ll have to do an entirely novel delivery-friendly menu, which will generate some cash flow, but how does that help us in the larger picture? We’re just a year old, with no reserves, how do we switch to a delivery-heavy model of operation? There’s a limit to the pivoting that can happen. In the end, it’ll be public perceptions on the safety of going out to eat and drink that will determine our survival. Only once people feel that it’s safe to go back out and resume their lives like before, will we survive. Otherwise, possibly not.

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