For restaurant chain Barbeque Nation, Covid has been a rollercoaster. The initial prognosis was grim. Even as India’s stringent nationwide lockdown eased in the second half of 2020, buffets—the chain’s mainstay—were anathema in a world where hygiene became a top priority. Delivery, previously a fringe part of the business, under the brand name UBQ, was suddenly a lifeline.
Unlike QSR chains, which slid seamlessly into a delivery-first mentality, the transition was more arduous for Barbeque Nation. The chain—which owns and operates 169 outlets across India and three other countries—needed to replicate the dining experience it was known for. This was feasible at its physical locations, which earned around Rs 30-35 lakh ($40,000-$47,000) a month each and were staffed with multiple skilled chefs. The element of speed required in the food delivery space, however, put paid to this.
The brand’s struggle to replicate its dine-in success can be seen in its ratings on popular food-delivery app Zomato. While outlets of its dine-in brand consistently boast a rating of around 4.3 stars, UBQ outlets are rated closer to 3 stars.
After a few false starts, UBQ eventually adapted to the delivery space by adopting a new approach—using frozen foods. This allowed the company to standardise its offerings across all UBQ outlets and shrink delivery times. The need for skilled labour to prepare food was also a thing of the past—restaurant staff simply needed to thaw and pack the food.
With a third wave of Covid now sinking its teeth into the country—leading to curbs on hospitality businesses in various states—optimising the way UBQ did is the name of the game. And ready-to-cook (RTC) products, one of the quick-service restaurant (QSR) world’s tried and tested hacks, is top of the menu. According to multiple foodservice industry executives, cloud kitchens and QSRs relied on RTC products for 5-8% of their offerings before Covid struck. In the two years since, that has grown to 40-50%, and in the case of some larger brands, as much as 70-80%.
Swetal Padhiyar, CEO of RTC food manufacturer Karamat Foods, has seen attitudes towards RTC change since the pandemic began. Prior to Covid, he recounts, a cloud kitchen that Karamat approached told the company that it didn’t use RTC products. After Covid, says Padhiyar, the same cloud kitchen now relies entirely on Karamat for its gravies. A decade-old family-run business, Karamat produces RTC gravies, spices, seasonings, marinades, and even desserts.