Impractical or inevitable? ‘Contactless dining’ centrepiece of debate on eating out in post-corona future

Trisha Mukherjee and Manik Gupta

New Delhi, May 12 (PTI) Browse the menu on your phone, order and settle down, your companion just about within earshot and the rest of the crowd in the restaurant unseen and possibly unheard too – high on tech and low on people connect, this is perhaps what ‘contactless dining’ will look like in the immediate post-corona future.

The futuristic tomorrow, perhaps envisaged only in books, is here and ‘contactless dining’ is the centrepiece of furious debate with some restaurateurs dismissing it as a contradiction in terms, others looking to introduce the concept and aggregators such as Zomato aggressively promoting it.

As the industry ponders the uncertainties of the future where cosy dinners and large celebrations have both faded away, at least for now, contactless is the buzzword for the times – contactless delivery of groceries, food and essential, and now dining too.

But contactless dining -- being pushed by aggregators, including Paytm, Zomato, and Dine Out, and aimed at reassuring customers -- is not practical in the dining out experience, say several restaurant owners.

Anurag Katriar, president of the National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI), said the sheer thought that dining can be contactless is “rubbish”.

“It’s like somebody saying, 'Can I have chilli chicken without chilli or chicken’?” Katriar told PTI.

While the process will allow customers to browse the menu, place an order and make payments, all through their phones, contact during certain elements of the dining experience, including the food being cooked, served and consumed at the restaurant table is inevitable.  “Essentially what  is being proposed is an ordering system wherein you don’t look at a physical menu, you order your food digitally from your own phone. The idea is great, but it cannot qualify to be contactless dining.  “The menu is one of the hundreds of touch points consumers go through right from the time they enter the restaurant, so the idea is good but the nomenclature is absolutely a misnomer,” Katriar explained.

The right word could perhaps be “digital ordering”, he suggested.

It could also be called “smart dining”, said Karan Tanna. Or “less contact dining”, added Priyank Sukhija.

Tanna, founder of Ghost Kitchen, said dining is an “experience” and “not possible without any contact”.

In fact, he said the so-called new concept is nothing more than a “slight shift of events to the digital”.

“Customers can use their phones to see the menus, place an order and make payments. This will avoid contact with hard copies of menus, restaurant menu tablets and bill folders. Besides this, nothing really changes. Preparing the food and serving the food will be done by humans,” he said.

Sukhija, who owns restaurant chains, including Lord Of The Drinks, Café Jalwa, Tamasha, Lazeez Affaire, RPM, and Flying Saucer, agreed with him.

“There will always be someone who will be making your food, plating it and serving it. So you can’t avoid that part of the dining process. There would be times when people might want to instruct the server regarding certain customisations — less spicy, more cheesy etc.

“Besides, when you are at a restaurant, you use the washroom, you might give your car to the valet, so you cannot completely avoid contact,” he said.  However, Sukhija admitted he was indeed looking at aggregators to introduce the concept of ordering digitally across his restaurants as soon as they are allowed to open.

It’s all about leveraging technology, believe Paytm and Zomato, which recently announced plans to introduce an additional option on their respective apps for contactless dining in the post lockdown world.   “Post the lockdown, the nation will require a safe and hygienic food ordering and dining experience which prompted us to build a ‘Contactless In-store Ordering’ for restaurants and eateries.  “We're leveraging technology to make the entire experience of ordering food contactless, and eliminate physical contact with menus, servers, bills and cash,” said Paytm Vice President Nikhil Saigal.

Zomato explained the concept further in a blog post.

“Contactless dining minimises customer contact with anything that someone else might have touched – by eliminating the use of high-touch elements at restaurants. Imagine a full-stack tech enabled dining experience, but with the least risk to health and safety,” it said.

Sukhija is also planning to go the extra mile to assure his customers of “top notch hygiene” at his restaurants.

His customers will have access to the live feed of the kitchen, and their own food being prepared, a feature that is also being incorporated by Roseate Hotels and Resorts.

“The link to the video of their food being prepared will reassure our guests that utmost care is being taken with their food,” said Ankur Bhatia, executive director, Roseate Hotels & Resorts.

The practice of pre-booking tables and selecting from the menu on restaurant tablets was prevalent before the pandemic and is likely to become more popular in the coming days, said Yogeshwar Sharma, executive director and CEO of Select Infrastructure Pvt Ltd (Select Citywalk).

  “With the upcoming changing dynamics this concept will certainly gain pace and will be practiced in most of the restaurants across India,” he said.

Customers are key to the whole concept working out.

And those like 28-year-old Shiuli Chakravorty are apprehensive and also sceptical about hygience practices in restaurants.

Getting the menu, bill, and placing orders through the phone is “cool”, but not a solution to the hygiene fears that people have.

“At the end of the day, they will have to bring me my food, the cutlery, the napkins etc. If a medicine or vaccination is out in the market, I will go out immediately. But before that, even if the government opens the lockdown, I won't be eating outside for sure,” she said.  Gurgaon-based homemaker Prisha Mandavaya echoed her, saying she doesn’t see herself or her family dining out anytime soon.

“It is good to know that restaurants have started brainstorming on this and are coming up with innovative ways, but the risk will always be there. When out, we can't be not using the place's furniture, crockery and other things,” the 44-year-old said. PTI TRS MG MIN MIN MIN