It's just been over two months into the coronavirus lockdown, but dining at a restaurant already feels like a reality so far removed. (READ: With lockdowns in place, small restaurants worry about staying afloat)
Gone are the days of dine-ins, buffets, and 5-hour coffee breaks at your favorite café – instead, restaurants are peppered with a skeleton staff, mask-wearing takeout customers standing 6 feet apart, and delivery service riders in line. It's that, or establishments are still eerily empty.
Fewer tables, less staff, more costs, or no customers at all – these are just a few of the predictions made by a local ice cream café owner, Japanese restaurant manager, and a chef-slash-food writer for an already struggling food and dining industry.
Goodbye to full houses and free ice cream
Take Papa Diddi's – a quaint neighborhood ice cream store usually filled with families and friends looking for a sweet nightcap after dinner. It's this crowd, according to owner Paul Perez, that contribute to a big chunk of their sales.
It's the hands-on experience people come for – checking out Papa Diddi's flavors for the day on display, trying a flavor or two before picking, and then sitting down to enjoy a scoop or two. It's is something Paul wishes to maintain, although he is realistic about the future of his business. "It might not be seen again in Papa Diddi's, or would take a long time before it comes back," Paul told Rappler.
"Even the social distancing within food outlets is something we need to comply with, even if it will hit us hard. We'll have to reduce our seating capacity to half for this 'new normal,'" he said.
And it hurts just as much for modern izakaya Japanese joint 12/10, a hidden gem along Guijo Street, Makati City, where experience has always been key.
"This lockdown has affected, and continues to affect every aspect of our business, since we took pride in experiential dining for our 12/10 customers," Thea de Rivera, general manager of 12/10, told Rappler.
12/10's evening crowds comprise mostly of couples celebrating anniversaries or friends splurging for a special occasion. It's the dim lighting, modern interiors, lo-fi tunes, and intimate bar set-up (with curated cocktails every night) that they enjoy – but it's the tasting menu, hands-on staff, and the intimate ambiance they stay for.
Unfortunately, this experience will be put on hold indefinitely – even after the lockdown is lifted.
"It will not be the same. Dining will definitely not come back for us until we feel that it is 100% safe for us and the team to be cooking and shaking cocktails again," Thea said.
"It'll be a while until we can operate a dining area in full capacity, and even if, it'll take a while for customers to be a 100% comfortable in actually dining out," she added.
Even pop-up restaurants and events aren't spared – chef, author, and TV show host Sharwin Tee had to cancel his monthly culinary pop-ups: one in April for Filipino Food Month and a fundraiser in June for public school libraries. A pop-up would usually include close friends from the industry in one venue, enjoying a curated set menu cooked by Sharwin on the spot.
Of course, tapings for his GMA weekly cooking talk show Let's Do Lunch were on pause too, until further notice.
View this post on Instagram A post shared by Sharwin Tee (@chefsharwin) on Jan 20, 2020 at 1:54am PST
"The whole industry – from landlords, to restaurant owners to customers – need to first accept that this isn't a temporary problem that can be resolved with a temporary solution," Sharwin told Rappler.
"What the pandemic has taught us is how devastating a single virus can be and how unprepared the country's health system is to handle it. Even when we find the vaccine, the virus will still exist and the possibility of a new virus cannot be discounted either."
Deliveries and DIYs: Adjusting for the future
To survive, everyone had to pivot.
As soon as malls shut down, waiters of Gaita Fores' Italian restaurant Cibo were left jobless, so Gaita asked her staff with motorcycles to be in-house delivery riders instead as the chain explored a more aggressive takeout scheme. Cibo's catering business – usually for weddings and corporate events – had to downsize as well by packaging their ready-to-eat feasts in party tray sizes for homes.
Wings joint Frankie's and burger shop Sweet Ecstasy continue to go all out for takeout. (READ: Inside the Industry: The future of dining with Sweet Ecstasy's Monica Tobias and Al Galang)
Locavore and Manam are offering their bestselling dishes in ready-to-cook format, Vikings is delivering "create-your-own" buffets. Sambo Kojin and Soban's raw Korean barbecue meats are now for sale. Big chains like McDonald's, Mang Inasal, and Potato Corner are selling uncooked stocks in bulk, and in groceries, too – Rico's Lechon and Shakey's included.
Paul, who avoided ice cream deliveries due to temperature constraints, also had no choice. Fearing for his staff's welfare and the cost of storing inventory, Papa Diddi's quickly doubled pint production and sought on-demand delivery.
"Food is an essential need, so I had to push the idea that ice cream can be a essential dessert option too, especially that it's summer," he said.
Paul replugged his dusty ice cream machines and got right back to work. They invested in insulated bags, and went for where the future of food seems to be headed right now – social media and delivery services.
"We've always been very lax on digital, and just reliant on word of mouth. We needed to push our online presence harder, so we created a website in lockdown. We got into ordering platforms fast. We hired our own riders and expanded with different logistics partners," he said.
And the response was "overwhelming." Customers from all over the Metro thanked them for staying in business, with many outside the city even requesting to deliver to their areas.
"Our production team is as busy as ever – or even more. They say you can find opportunities in the most challenging times, and I think somehow we found ours – speed, flexibility, and multitasking," Paul said.
12/10 knew what they had to do, too. "With everyone indoors, we had to completely shift the 12/10 experience by finding our way into people's homes. How do we execute this? It takes more than just offering takeaway food," Thea said.
12/10's pre-lockdown website luckily became their much-needed avenue for keeping the 12/10 spirit alive – customers engaged even more with 12/10's blog about everything food and bev: 12/10 recipes, drinking how-to's, and cocktail ideas. 12/10 also set up an online store selling home kitchen kits, bottled sauces, home bar kits, and their famous shortbread bars.
"While sharing our genuine love for food and drinks, we hope we get to inspire people to be adventurous with what our store has to offer," Thea said.
Closed restaurants and canceled events have also affected columnists and food writers, who are left with no content. Sharwin, though, has also resorted to social media to keep things alive – sharing his lockdown recipes via Facebook or Instagram Live, contributing on websites, and hosting the Sini Gang podcast.
View this post on Instagram A post shared by Sharwin Tee (@chefsharwin) on Apr 24, 2020 at 5:48am PDT
“But I worry for those in the industry who are not paid daily wages, with no work, no pay. Friends in the industry have been affected as well. So moving forward, I think I'll be looking into doing a cloud restaurant (restaurants that only do delivery) as a possible new business venture," he added.
The future of dining (or lack thereof)
Less dine-ins, more takeouts, countless delivery orders, and a focus on local – this, according to Sharwin, is what the future of the food and service industry should look like.
"We need to eat out only when necessary, and support local brands through delivery and takeout. I'm not saying to avoid the international chain restaurants, but the smaller establishments definitely need help the most,” Sharwin said.
Customers also need to be willing to pay for extra charges – for delivery fees, takeout containers, insulation packs, cutlery, and the safety equipment staff need to don every day.
"I hope customers can accept at least a 10-15% increase in food prices. Also, I'd love it if we, as customers, start to tip better as well,” he added.
Generosity has gone a long way during this pandemic – citizens have donated from their own pockets, and struggling businesses still took the initiative to deliver free meals to health workers. Select malls have also waived rent for their tenants.
"I would love for landlords to provide rent relief – maybe reduce rent for their tenants until March of 2021," Sharwin said, as this would greatly help restaurants with small margins who were already suffering from staggering pre-pandemic rental rates.
"For the long term, mall owners should also revise the way they design their public spaces – space allotments for tenants to provide a safer, more spacious space for everyone."
More people have also been relying heavily on foodie groups, Viber marketplaces, online reviews, and trusted recommendations to find their next online food business to support, done in the comfort (and safety) of their home – a behavior that seems to be here to stay (and rightfully so). (READ: In lockdown, communities find different ways to feed one another)
"Food is essential, so people will find ways to eat. The different Viber communities selling food is an indication alone that makes me hopeful for the industry. We just need to evolve,” Paul said.
And many are doing just that. “The future of the restaurant industry is in the take-home, reheat kits stores been selling, and in making delivery and takeout more accessible,” Sharwin said.
For those planning to reopen for dine-in, though, Sharwin advises a food safety reorientation for staff, chefs, and a total redesign. Uniforms will need masks and gloves, tables and chairs will need to be adjusted, and dividers per table will be crucial. All restaurants should have a “reliable, safe delivery and takeout system” immediately, as well as self-service systems to lessen human contact.
That might be in the far, far future – but what about today?
“Social distancing isn't going away soon, so we've accepted that and switched our attention with food and beverage as our canvas, to outside of our restaurant's walls – online,” Thea said, hoping that this channel could act as an additional business even as regular operations resume.
“Fingers crossed that all our efforts now to keep our brand alive pays off when brighter days finally come back,” she added – which can definitely be said for every other local business doing their best during the most trying to times. – Rappler.com
If she’s not writing about food, she’s probably thinking about it. From advertising copywriter to freelance feature writer, Steph Arnaldo finally turned her part-time passion into a full-time career. She’s written about food, lifestyle, and wellness for Rappler since 2018.