Launching the new normal of dining out

Restaurants around the world are rethinking and redesigning their interiors to uphold social distancing norms. Restaurateur Priyank Sukhija speaks of how Dragonfly Experience is the first to do so in the country.

A Penguin Eat Shabu outlet in Bangkok put up zig-zagging barriers using plastic sheets and PVC pipes, the Mediamatic Eten in Amsterdam built “serres séparées” or separated greenhouses, while H.A.N.D. in Paris put plexiglass bubbles around each of its seats. Taking a cue from these innovations, Dragonfly Experience, located in Delhi’s Aerocity, has become the first restaurant in India to adapt its interiors to the new normal. The restaurant has introduced private pods to encourage foodies to resume their pre-Covid dining out habits without worrying about their safety. 

The private dining pods in Dragonfly Experience have been designed by Bent Chair, with the view to make diners feel safe but not suffocated. The pods are open at the top and have transparent acrylic walls which allow a view of others at the restaurant. They are big enough for groups with up to 12 people too. “We want to give diners a sense of security, but not make them feel secluded,” says Priyank Sukhija, MD and CEO of First Fiddle Pvt Ltd, a leading firm in the F&B industry which handles brands such as Plum By Bent Chair, Lazeez Affaire, Diablo and Dragonfly Experience. 

More cautious parties can even ask servers to leave their food and drinks on tables placed right outside the door so that nobody enters their protective bubble, informs Sukhija. With the partitions, the walkways between them and the area needed to allow the doors to swing open, the new pods do eat up a lot of floor space, but Sukhija says it is worth it if it helps to reassure people of their safety at Dragonfly. The pods are also sanitised after each use and servers are in full protective gear. Besides the dining area, the kitchen is also sanitised regularly and the staff undergoes thermal screening as is usual now. “We are also holding random checks and antigen tests, and have an internal reporting system in place,” assures Sukhija. Fortunately, the efforts are already showing results. “The response has been phenomenal,” shares Sukhija. “After we put up news about the pods, we received a lot of queries and reservations. In fact, just after we launched (in late September), we had a very good weekend,” he says. 

It is no secret that the F&B and hospitality sectors were dealt a heavy blow by the pandemic, and as they reset themselves and restart their businesses now, establishments have to keep in mind the apprehensions of their clients. “Humans are social beings, but they actually want minimal interaction now,” says Sukhija. “There are people who are not even collecting their change after paying the bill,” he shares. Luckily, technology is playing its part in keeping things contactless at Dragonfly, with QR code menus and digital payments. But doesn’t this entire exercise affect the experience of dining out, which is always more than just good food? Of course, agrees Sukhija. Masked servers, contactless service and functioning at 50% capacity can make it difficult to give patrons the warmest welcome. Elsewhere, restaurants have had to get creative to fill this gap, as shown by Brussels’s Lodge Restaurant which had its staff wear masks with their smiles printed on them to make up for not being able to flash their real ones. “Indian customers have also been spoilt for choice of food and restaurant service, but the industry cannot go back to ‘normal’—not until a vaccine is out,” says Sukhija. Until the curve is flattened and restrictions are relaxed, cafes and restaurants have to keep social distancing measures firmly in place. 

Thus, the pods installed at Dragonfly are rather heavy-duty and relatively permanent, says Sukhija. While Dragonfly is the first in India to redesign itself for the pandemic, Sukhija expects others to follow suit soon—although, he admits, smaller places will find it difficult. However, they can take a page out of the book of restaurateurs in other parts of the world who have found great alternatives to pods and partitions. The cardboard cut-outs in Sydney’s Five Dock Dining, stuffed toys in Bangkok’s Maison Saigon and mannequins at the Hotel Haase in Hannover are all temporary measures for enforcing social distancing, as are the 6-foot crowns and pool noodle-hats at Burger King and Café and Kondithorei Rofe in Germany, respectively. Where all else has failed, restaurants have simply set their tables outdoors, as enabled by New York’s Open Restaurants initiative, or planned something more radical like the Swedish Bord för En which only serves one person per day. 

However, despite how conscious people are about their health and wallets now, cafés, bars and restaurants have hope because patrons are enthusiastic about returning to them. “The moment Delhi had reported a dip in the number of cases, people had rushed out to eat” reports Sukhija. Of course, the footfall doesn’t match pre-Covid numbers, but people are still choosing to spend on the non-necessity of dining out, he says. This is where innovation can help the industry attract the ones who are still reluctant to step into eateries. “Nothing is 100% secure, but we have to take precautions,” he adds.