There is nothing we have missed more in the past seven months more than eating out. We may have made peace with home deliveries and home cooking to a large extent, but they have not been able to replace the joy of dining out. And I suspect they never will. While dining establishments have finally started to open all over the country, stepping out for an elaborate meal or a quick coffee has become a stressful activity — one where we are constantly worried about the safety of self and others. But it needn’t be so, since the F&B industry is working tirelessly to ensure our return to cafés, restaurants and bars is as safe as it can get.

Back in summer when stories about new normal were doing rounds I was the first one to diss them. How was it possible to eat with masks? How could one possibly run a no-contact restaurant? How was social distancing even possible at bars? But time and the do-or-die attitude of the industry proved me wrong. And I am happy it did. In the past few months restaurants across the country have not only restrategised their business plans (think delivery models, cloud kitchens and DIY kits) but have also gone back to the drawing board to redesign in-dining operations like never before: from air conditioning systems to kitchen SOPs, staff training to restaurant layouts, wash areas to bar counters — most processes have changed to suit the new requirements.

One of the first to revamp their restaurants to suit the new normal was ITC Hotels with their initiative, WeAssure. Undertaken by the group to ensure utmost safety to their guests, WeAssure was launched way back in May when most of us were still grappling with lockdown blues and redesigned the dining model at ITC properties across the country. Restaurants in ITC Kohenur in Hyderabad for example now follow stricter norms of hygiene, social distancing and sanitization than ever before. Dining areas have been remodeled with WelcomSeparators (shields) to ensure safe distancing; tableware, crockery and cutlery come pre-sanitized inside a cover; tables are equipped with sanitizers; and all food is served covered in singular portions. While most of such practices are fast becoming standard, some differ from establishment to establishment.

“It is important to understand how crucial guest safety is at this time,” emphasizes well-known chef and restaurateur Manu Chandra when I talk to him about the reopening of restaurants and bars in Bangalore and the protocols he and his team is following. “We have a huge responsibility towards our guests and we are following every norm in the book and many more,” asserts Chandra. His restaurants like Canton, Olive Beach, The Fatty Bao, and Toast and Tonic have now opened although with just a fraction of capacity and many levels of precaution. “We have added additional layers of safety and sanitation protocols in kitchens, service areas and dining rooms.” The air-conditioning, informs Chandra, has been redesigned to ensure fresh air circulates regularly; bars have been fitted with large exhausts, and tables are placed far apart. The bar counters operate at less than 40% of capacity and alfresco dining is encouraged. “We actively discourage guests from crowding even in smoking areas and bars; it might mean a bigger ticket for business in the short term but my guests come first.”

Ironically even though most businesses are struggling to stay afloat, commerce has taken a back seat for them while safety and precaution have become the priority of all establishments whether big or small. “Hosting our guests is a huge responsibility, and we want to ensure we do everything to keep their trust in us intact,” feels Chandra.

Not everything that restaurants, bars and cafés are doing to ensure safety is visible though. Most work happens outside the service area and before the restaurants re-open. “Before reopening in Chennai, we implemented enhanced precautionary measures to ensure the safety of our guests, employees, partners, and vendors,” informs Saleem Yousuff, Senior Vice President — Operations, South, IHCL. All IHCL hotels across Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Kochi, and other centers, he adds, are following strict protocols of heightened hygiene and safety procedures under the group-wide initiative — Tajness. “The new experience has been carefully thought through with escalated cleanliness routines, fewer tables, redesigned layouts and movement guidelines,” all this without significantly altering the guest experience.

While it is expected from large chains and hotels to create and follow stringent and elaborate guidelines, smaller standalone places aren’t leaving any scope for mistake either.

At Sofrehh The Bistro, Hyderabad, prominent signage displays safety protocols. Tables are set at least six feet apart, menu cards have been removed and single use cutlery has replaced fancy china. “Most people are open to stepping out, especially if they trust the restaurant,” says Arash Mehdi, owner of Sofrehh who is grateful to his regulars to have kept the business going even during the lean time. “We had adopted WHO guidelines before anyone else and we are doing everything to ensure guest safety.”

It is however not only the service area that is under constant scrutiny; kitchens, which are the beating heart of any eatery, have undergone many changes too. Most are working with a fraction of staff who do longer shifts; some have rotational staffing and some provide accommodation to their kitchen staff. “Among other things, we have made our shifts tighter, staffing smaller and norms even stricter,” Ayaz Salim, owner of French Toast, Kochi, tells us. “We have also arranged for special accommodation for our staff and track their contacts, this apart from the constant reinforcement on sanitization and hygiene even inside our kitchen.”

With such strict measures and hard work on their part, aren’t these establishments expecting anything from their guests? “Guests do need to be reciprocal,” agrees Chandra when I pose the question to him. “You cannot crowd or be irresponsible to the fellow guests, that is all we ask. Our restaurants come with certain insurance and this can continue only with mutual trust and collective responsibility.” Responsibility is something others expect too. “We only ask our guests to be patient and maintain distance. As a community, at least in Kochi, we see a sense of collective awareness and we continue to reinforce it.”