Only 40% of hotels in and around Chennai will be re-opening for dine-ins on Monday. Around 30% of the restaurant owners are in a wait-and-watch mood, while the rest are grappling with labour shortage and cash crunch.

According to industry estimates, the city has over 9,500 eateries, including bakeries and coffee shops. “There is a huge manpower shortage in the hotel industry and it would easily take over six months [depending on the COVID-19 situation] to get back to normalcy,” said M. Ravi, president, The Chennai Hotels Association and chairman of Vasanta Bhavan Hotels India Pvt. Ltd.

“Many hoteliers are facing a huge cash crunch to resume operations. The government should come forward and remove GST for one year and also ensure banks provide a lending hand to the industry,” he said.

While there would not be any immediate impact on prices, hotels that are opening have decided to drop many items from the menu and the major players are opening only select outlets where they see potential for good footfall.

For instance, of its 30 outlets in Chennai, Vasanta Bhavan will open only its Mylapore and Maduravoyal branches for dine-in. “We are not opening branches near railway stations and bus stands as it does not make economic sense. We will wait and see how these two outlets perform and open others in a phased manner,” Mr. Ravi said and added that only 25% of what is listed in the menu card will be available at the counters. “We will serve only south Indian food and we are avoiding meals. We will give food that can be served quickly,” he said.

Touch-free transaction

Dindigul Thalappakatti has said that it would re-open only 18 of its 30 outlets for dine-in in Chennai. “We will have takeaways at all the other restaurants,” said Sathish D. Nagasamy, Managing Director of the group.

All outlets will have a QR code, which will direct customers to the menu page. After the order is placed, the server will scan the order confirmation. Those who are not tech-savvy will be given takeaway menu cards. “This will ensure that customers do not have to touch anything. We will be using disposable plates. A six-feet gap will be maintained between each table,” Mr. Nagasamy said. All Thalappakatti workers will wear a badge which will display their temperature. “This will give confidence to the customer that the person serving food is healthy with no fever,” Mr. Nagasamy said.

K.T. Srinivasa Raja, managing director of Adyar Ananda Bhavan Sweets India Pvt. Ltd. that owns the A2B chain of hotels, said they would be opening only select outlets. According to him, it would take five or six months for businesses to get normal. “We have adequate staff to run business and most of our cooks are from Tamil Nadu only. We had migrant workers in cleaning and washing zones only,” he said. “We cut down the menu as we want to give food items that can be made and served fast. Our takeaways have improved and we are witnessing good traction there,” he added.

Hotel Pandian, which has six branches in Ambattur and Gummudipoondi, is expecting only 30% footfall. Its owner Muthamil Pandian said he was facing a shortage of labour. “We have reduced the seating capacity from 150 to 40 now,” he said.

Cooks absent

While a few hotels have managed to rope in local talent to address the labour shortage, others said that they would not want to risk. The Managing Director of one of the popular vegetarian restaurants, who did not want to be named, said: “Most of my cooks are from northern India and they have left the city now. I am waiting for them to come back and only then I want to open all my kitchens. If there is any difference in quality or taste I will end up losing my customers,” he said.

He pointed out that many hotels in Chennai had lost their original flavour as the cooks (majority of them who are migrants) had left to their hometown. “I can’t call a cook here and ask them to make tandoori in north Indian style or Chinese food — you need to be an expert. Cooking is a very delicate business and you need to satisfy customers’ taste buds,” he said.

“We are waiting until Monday or Tuesday to open our outlets. We will study the footfalls that other hotels are getting and then take a call,” said the founder of another popular food brand in South India.

On Sunday, hotels that are set to allow dine-in on Monday sanitised their premises. Managers have been instructed to check every customer and ensure that they follow safety protocol. Most hotels have pushed aside eight-seat tables and have only kept only three-seat or four-seat tables now.

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