It’s no surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the restaurant business but if there’s one industry that’s been doubly impacted, it’s the corporate food-service market.
While the jury is still out over how the virus gets transmitted — findings have suggested it could be airborne — several people have decided to stay away from outside food as a precaution. This has prompted restaurant deliveries to trickle down even as dine-in business remains suspended in several cities like Chennai.
While there’s no substantial proof that the novel coronavirus is transmitted through food, caterers are choosing to be extra cautious. This is perhaps why a visit to Elior India’s centralized kitchen in Chennai looks like a scene from a dystopian sci-fi thriller.
‘More like a hospital’
The signs of the new normal are clear. A full-service at one of these kitchens has personnel in full PPE gear with surgical masks and gloves, as they stir vats of sambaar, vegetables, rice and potatoes. Hand sanitizers are placed nearby and hourly sanitization is a must. Our filming crew gets their temperatures checked before we are let in, and given a thorough briefing on safety procedures and the need to stay in line with bio-security protocols.
At corporate catering service companies, food is loaded by personnel wearing full PPE kits.
“More customers want packed food, sanitization during the packing process, sanitization during the washing and cleaning process, and additional safety equipment and gear to be used even during the production process,” says Sanjay Kumar, MD and CEO, Elior India, “Kitchens look more like a hospital than a kitchen. It’s sad but it’s true.”
Differing safety protocols
What’s important to note is that not all personnel are in full safety gear. While we spot chefs in clean, white, sanitized uniforms, it’s the personnel more likely to come in direct contact with the food wearing a full PPE kit. There’s another reason for this distinction.
Those working near flammable areas have to take additional precautions.
Those who are standing near flammable areas follow different safety protocols from someone who is handling post-production dispatches. “The chefs who are usually by flammable areas only wear masks and have protection that ensures they do not contaminate but also stay safe when standing by a flammable area,” explains Kumar.
Business takes a beating
While these kitchens wear a whole new look in the post-COVID new normal, it hasn’t been easy going on the business front. Before the pandemic, corporate food-service providers would cater to lakhs of employees at industrial plants and offices. But with fewer mouths to feed thanks to social distancing norms at offices and factories, revenues have taken a beating.
“As India’s third-largest food service provider, we used to produce 224,000 meals per day on an average — between 220,000 to 225,000 meals per day,” says Kumar, “That is down to 40,000 today.”
But it isn’t just COVID-19. Headwinds on the input-tax-credit front dented business even before the pandemic hit. “The industry had already suffered a body blow when input tax credit was removed,” he says. “It took away 3 percent of the EBIDTA margin for most food-service providers.”
Today, a seven-billion-dollar market for corporate food service is seeing several caterers winding down their business. “If the investment environment remains this hostile, and with the removal of ITC, there’s a cloud hanging over most food service providers over how long we can be in this business,” Kumar says. “With every meal that we produce, we’re either breaking even or losing money even as we pay 5 percent GST. The scenario can only be described as dismal and scary.”
More heat, better safety
Back in the kitchen, there is one foolproof approach at work to keep food clear of microbes: heat. We see kitchen personnel keeping a close eye on the food temperature, using digital thermometers at every opportunity, ensuring that it’s hot enough to be safe for consumption.
Heat is the friend of caterers and ensuring that food is thoroughly cooked ensures that most microbes are at bay.
“As a safety precaution in India, it helps to ensure that food is sufficiently cooked because the supply chain is very weak,” says Kumar, “You can never get ready-to-cook raw materials. They need to go through a handling process in order to be safe. With these inconsistencies, it is safer to err on the side of the food being overcooked than undercooked.”
Packaged and ready to go
With food cooked and ready to dispatch, PPE-clad personnel transfer rice, lentils and potatoes into large, sanitized containers, before loading these containers onto large trolleys.
Employees wearing PPE gear prepare for the food to be transferred to their location.
In another packaging area, we find salads and snacks carefully covered with plastic wrap-on, while smaller portions of food are transferred onto clean disposable trays.
The trolleys with large containers are wheeled out of the kitchen onto a weighing scale. The food’s weight and quantity checked before these containers are transferred, one by one, onto a small truck and sent out to offices and factories — to feed a few thousand employees who managed to make it past the lockdown and the novel coronavirus.