Dining in Times of COVID: Insights from a Food Blogger

By Dhara Gunawardene

During the lockdown in April and May 2020, my culinary skills were certainly tested. The delivery services came back online about a month or so after lockdown, so I had nothing else to do but engage in the usual millennial things such as cook,eat, and make the occasional TikTok video. 

Having been confined to my home for nearly 3 months, I was forced to research recipes to keep my food blog going. However, all that changed eventually when we were finally allowed to step out of the house once again, and I was back to visiting my favorite cafes, having embraced all the COVID-19 precautions.

Something I noticed however was that in Colombo, it is almost a second nature to us to go out and explore new dining spots. We’ve always been ready to support and visit a new restaurant or café as soon as it launches

Although we were cautioned to be very aware of the risk the virus posed, we still continued to visit places that made us feel safe and comfortable. Even if I did not have my food blog, I would still have visited places where I felt safe.

Rasai Machang (@rasaimachang) started out in 2015 as a hobby, but has since evolved into a passion that combines my interest in photography and food.

Being a part time blogger and full time foodie, has steered me to land a job in the food industry. To my friends and family, it came as no surprise when I joined a successful group of restaurants as their social media executive, but to me, this was not what I studied for. 

Having a Bachelor’s in Graphic Design, I never knew that a deep interest in food and dining could land me a job that paid to eat. This is something that my waistline does not thank me for. This amazing job has also allowed me to observe spending habits, as well as the ever-changing restaurant culture and food trends. 

What I’ve learned is that people get bored very fast. Restaurants and cafes need to keep up with trends, or they get left behind. Many restaurants closed down in 2020 due to a lack of cash flow, but also for their inability to think outside the box. 

Restaurants that thrived on dine-in customers, including tourists, soon experienced empty tables and snail-pace days. Why? They could not adapt fast enough to survive. Many restaurants quickly hopped on local delivery platforms and managed to keep their sales going. Some restaurants in the South that were heavily relying on tourists, moved their restaurants closer to Colombo to cater to the local market.

What I admired about some cafes and restaurants was how hard they worked to push through and survive these uncertain times. They changed their menus, changed their marketing photography style, upped their social media game and gave crazy offers. All this, to survive for a better day. 

Who helped them the most? Their loyal patrons did. People ordered delivery, takeaway, and some brave souls would even visit and sit at their favorite dining places despite the fear of COVID-19.

The new ‘restaurant culture’ is one where people are nervous about stepping out. Besides the fear of infection, most people have less money in hand these days. Some have lost jobs and others are on reduced salaries. Due to this, the average spends at restaurants is lower. 

I’ve also noticed that people prefer ordering directly to their homes no matter the restaurant, just because they’re safer and more secure in their own home rather than at a restaurant with other diners. Spending habits have decreased, and people, including myself, tend to go for deals and promotions rather than spend the full amount. 

In these unpredictable and unnerving times, people are looking for the new thing, the new deals; some kind of  distraction. Restaurants put out new menus and new items, for people have a form of escape.

Social media plays a major role in the customer decision making process. For example, when you hear about a new restaurant or café, you would immediately search for them on Facebook, Instagram or Google. If that  restaurant has an effective social media feed, it’s guaranteed that people will keep visiting for the aesthetic appeal. 

I follow this method as well; I only visit and review a restaurant once I have researched their establishment and seen their feed. It is important to me that restaurants have a strong brand, because it helps them create a loyal fan base and it helps them generate more foot traffic.

Food culture depends a lot on the trends around the world; what’s hot and what’s not. Then again, social media plays a big role because you see trends online and then try to follow a similar design.

In my view, restaurants and cafes should understand their local market and then cater to it in their own distinctive ways. It will be a while before tourists return, however it is only the locals who can help sustain and grow businesses. 

Since people cannot travel out of Sri Lanka, it is also important to create dishes and dining experiences unique to Sri Lanka. We shouldn’t copy and try to be like international restaurants, we should set our own standard. We can certainly emulate or be inspired by international players but not copy blindly. 

It’s very important to remember that when we had zero foreigners visiting, we always had the support of local customers. The minute you forget who you are really catering to, (pun intended), is when you stop being relatable. 

Being relatable is so important because people want to identify with a brand. They want to feel good and be appreciated when they visit. I do believe that restaurants in Sri Lanka could also use influencers to further promote their brand. It is certainly a cost for the restaurant industry, but sometimes you have to lose a little to gain a little.

I for one, can’t wait to see what’s in store for 2021. What I love about this industry is that it’s always changing, it’s always evolving and adapting. It’s amazing! And it’s even more amazing how we bounce back and how much support restaurants and cafes get from their loyal patrons. It’s this love and support that can help make or break a brand.

I certainly urge people to use caution, but also don’t forget to support your local restaurant or café. They need your help and you need food. It’s a win-win situation! Because, after all, you are the trend maker.

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