Ours is a family business that has grown over the years, thanks to the constant patronage and loyalty of our customers. So, when COVID-19 dug its claws into India and the lockdown was declared, it came as a new challenge. It has so far, been the biggest setback to our business.
But this is not a problem unique to Theobroma; it has impacted the whole F&B industry, equally. There is no comfort in this collective pain. It is likely that a lot of businesses will not survive the crisis and we are working our hardest to ensure that we don’t end up becoming a casualty of the pandemic. We faced three main challenges at the peak of the lockdown:
- Keeping our employees, guests and partners safe and minimising health risks
- Mitigating the drop in revenues, created by the absence of walk-in guests who normally account for a high percentage of our sales
- Reducing our fixed costs to minimise the overall financial impact
Coping with Covid-19
Even though we had to temporarily shut Theobroma’s operations, we never stopped working. We started planning towards our reopening, as soon as the lockdown was announced. The key consideration was ensuring the safety of our staff, guests and partners, and this involved reviewing our operating procedures and adapting them to the new reality. For example, we had to make arrangements to accommodate our staff inside the production facility to minimise the risk associated with travel. We also had to re-define the processes at the outlets to ensure enhanced safety and lean staffing.
We worked on a special ‘lockdown’ menu keeping in mind the reduced capacity necessitated by social distancing norms and supply chain constraints. We adjusted to a new way of working and some of these changes will be permanent. We concentrated on products that were in high demand, while severely reducing the variety that was on offer before the crisis. We were also working with a much smaller team so the number of products we could make was limited. We made fewer items but maintained the quality and taste of our products, and this is valued and appreciated by our guests.
We were also in constant touch with our delivery partners so that we were abreast with the on-ground situation and their preparedness to deliver our products. Throughout this period, our loyal guests kept reaching out to us to check when we would reopen which was encouraging for us. About two weeks after the lockdown started, we felt prepared and confident to reopen.
Health and safety
To an extent, we have already adapted to the new normal and are planning our future strategy and operating plan keeping these factors in mind. Theobroma has two central kitchens, one in Mumbai and the other, in Delhi. These are ultra-modern facilities and everything we serve is prepared exclusively in these central kitchens by expert chefs and teams following the highest safety standards. Both our kitchens are operational, but working with limited capacity.
Mumbai accounts for a significant part of our footprint and turnover. We are fortunate to have what we believe is the finest and safest commercial kitchen in Mumbai city. We have invested heavily in our production facility, processes, and hygiene protocols allowing us to continue production while ensuring the complete safety of our guests and staff. We are taking every precaution to ensure that our guests, staff and products are treated with care.
The staff adhere to a strict safety protocol including hourly hand washing and sanitisation, cleaning and sanitisation of surfaces, mandatory face masks and gloves, social distancing and continual training and regular team briefings. We are checking staff temperature daily and have regularly scheduled doctor visits to ensure the well-being of everyone working in our facility. We are following all government and hospitality guidelines and directives.
The new normal
Our experience during the lockdown suggests that the demand for our products stays high. People confined to their homes are looking for avenues to brighten up their day and many of them turn to Theobroma. That being said, we don’t expect things to return to how it was before the pandemic for some time. We have to get used to the ‘new normal’ and we are preparing for that.
Given that social distancing norms are likely to stay for some time, we are temporarily suspending dine-in options at all our outlets. Our outlets are generally small spaces and we do not have the ability to offer dine-in facilities while maintaining the adequate social distance between guests. For the safety of our staff and guests, we are not planning to allow our guests to eat and drink on our premises for the foreseeable future. We are, for now, a takeaway and delivery business only, and we plan to continue in this way at all locations for many months.
The need for social distancing will also limit the capacity in our kitchens so we will continue to focus on a ‘core’ menu of our most loved products and expand gradually as restrictions ease. We started with a few types of bread, cakes and brownies. Each week we have added to this menu. We are now offering a wide product range, and most of our bestsellers are back on the menu. We are already making many types of bread, tea cakes, mawa cakes, cookies, crackers, brownies, cakes, pastries and desserts. We have just added croissants, burger buns, pizza bases and pasties to our menu too. Each week we post our extended menu on our social media pages and update the products on our delivery partner's sites.
We already have tie-ups with delivery partners and we will continue to leverage and strengthen those channels. We have also forged tie-ups with online grocery and milk delivery companies to allow guests to pre-order and subscribe to our range of bread, tea-cakes, cookies and daily snacking items from the comfort of their homes.
Delivery is now a significant part of our business, a large percentage of our sales comes from delivery partners such as Zomato, Swiggy and Scootsy. This is supplemented by sales via e-commerce platforms like Supr Daily, Big Basket, Big Basket Daily, and Amazon Fresh. Another avenue we are exploring is to make our products available in large housing complexes through tie-ups with dedicated groceries which serve those complexes such as Oberoi Exquisite and Lodha Bellissimo.
Another key part of our strategy going forward would be to take the product to our guests rather than expecting our guests to come to us. We will continue to expand our network and coverage. In the areas we don’t have an outlet yet, we may explore the possibility of cloud kitchens to make our products accessible to our guests via our delivery partners.
Baking during lockdown
One the home front, I baked quite extensively during the lockdown and I enjoyed the process of relaxed cooking for my family. I had to get used to a temperamental domestic oven, which I have not had to bake in for a very long time. I made soda bread, custard tart, cinnamon rolls and burger buns during the lockdown. My mum loves ice cream and I gifted her an ice cream machine on her last birthday, so we made ice creams almost daily.