Drive-in restaurants are catching the fancy of diners in the pandemic era, with portable trays hitched to car windows, QR-coded menus and curated playlists
Move over BYOB, it is time to BYOC: Bring Your Own Car. With customers still nervous about eating at busy restaurants, but eager to get out of the house after successive lockdowns, a trend from the 70s is making a comeback and drive-in restaurants are sprouting across the country.
At Drive & Dine by Dhuaan in Kanpur, golf carts deliver food to cars packed in designated spots. Launched last August, by the Status Hospitality Group, this idea was a response to the pandemic. “The hospitality industry was shook. We have hundreds of employees to support. Home delivery was the only thing that was working but that was not enough to cover costs,” says Yash Malhotra who has taken over the family hospitality business along with his sister Insha Malhotra.
Drive and dine by Dhuaan
With large banquet lawns at their disposal, they realised a drive-in diner was a great way to capitalise on their expansive property. “This way diners can maintain distancing while being able to go out of the house and enjoy a meal,” says Yash. Picnic benches are placed alongside cars, in case people wish to stretch their legs, and get out of the car as well. Orders are made via QR codes.
The drive-in experiment got more traction than the Malhotras expected (roughly 60 cars over the weekend), and has now become a permanent feature. “Seeing the success, a couple of small restaurants from cities such as Surat and Chandigarh reached out to us and have implemented a similar concept,” says Yash. As Drive & Dine by Dhuaan turns one this week, the team continues to make an effort to keep the space exciting. They host themed evenings such as movie nights, Sufi nights, and even distance dancing nights. “Sometimes clients book the entire or part of the space to play tambola in their cars or for social events,” adds Yash.
Drive-in birthday parties are trending too. Shyam Sunder, who runs Arjun Garden Cafe in Chennai’s Medavakkam says he often hosts families and friends who park their cars at his cafe, and celebrate special occasions with confetti and cake. Flash mobs have also taken place here, he says.
Shyam, who worked briefly at the Imperial in Delhi, and trained at the Indian Accent restaurant, also in the capital, returned home to Chennai in 2019, to set up the drive-in Cafe with his father Bala Sunder. Spread over an acre, it houses a seating area with a thatched roof, another space for pets and their owners, as well as 30,000 square feet of open space that can accommodate 45-50 cars.
When launched two years ago, he says, no one really came just for the drive-in. He tried telecasting cricket and football matches on the large screen, which drew in a few clients. Post pandemic, it is a different story.
“People are more comfortable sitting in their car as it’s their space, while we take care of everything else,” says Shyam. He adds that once the pandemic hit, he lost out on his bachelor clients as most of them moved back to their home-towns. Instead, he saw a rise in the family crowd. “I now have 80% more sales from the drive-in than I did pre-pandemic,” he says.
What makes it safer
To ensure physical distancing, a metre’s gap is maintained between the cars. Although the drive-in cafe is busiest at dinner time, they have a growing clientele coming in early in the day, to breakfast on the cafe’s popular uthappam waffles, gingelly oil dosa and chicken keema dosa. Regulars often call in and order in advance. Some call to pre-order slow-cooked meat, which they then enjoy outside on areca palm plates.
In an attempt to make clients feel safer, restaurants are constantly upgrading systems now. At Kaasa Kitchen, Kochi, finger bowls and fumigators (to get rid of the smell of the food) are part of the process. Others, like Zam Zam in Thiruvananthapuram are thoughtfully providing trays that can be attached to the cars’ windows, so diners can eat comfortably without juggling hot food on their laps.
Recently launched Sri Kamatchi Mess drive-in in Parrys Corner, Chennai, has a carefully thought out system in place. “We have designed wooden benches that we slide into the cars, so customers can eat off them. They come in two different sizes to suit different models of cars,” says producer-turned-actor, V Natarajan, who launched this venture along with his daughter-in-law Rani Kumar. Their earlier businesses include maavadu.in (a Thanjavur-style meal delivery service), Sri Kamatchi mess in West Mambalam, and a food truck.
“We also have tables and chairs placed for those who prefer to sit outside and eat,” says Natarajan. Functioning out of the canteen building in the Raja Annamalai Mandram complex, the facility can hold about 40 cars at a time. Their strategic location, with the High Court and many Government offices located in the vicinity, has made it convenient for many to stop by for breakfast or lunch.
“Our USP is reviving old-style tiffin items such as Kanjeevaram idli, more koozh, puli upma, arisi upma. We also have a tandoori and Chinese counter, but the focus is on South Indian dishes,” says Rani.
This is an effective module, provided there is ample parking space. Some, like Sante Spa Cuisine in Bandra Kurla Complex, Mumbai, have made drive-in an extension of its dine-in restaurant. Kaneesha Jain, who owns this branch, says their parking area can easily hold up to 50 cars.
To cater to this car dining audience, the restaurant has invested in eco-friendly, plastic-free cutlery, hands-free ordering service via their app and a Spotify playlist that enables in-car diners to listen to the same music being played inside the restaurant.
People want to be in their safe bubbles and think of their cars as one. Yes, home delivery is always an option agrees Kaneesha, but certain dishes lose their flavour and character by the time they get delivered. This way, one gets to enjoy the best of both worlds: People get to go out and be safe at the same time. And of course, a little nostalgia never hurt anyone.
Woodlands did it first
In 1962, at the centre of what is now Semmozhi Poonga, stood Woodlands, South India’s first drive-in restaurant. The Woodlands Hotel Group leased out 18 of the 320 acres of the Agri-Horticultural Society on Cathedral Road to build what would go on to become one of the city’s most popular landmarks until it shut down in 2008.
Considered an innovative venture then, it helped popularise Udupi style vegetarian cuisine. The entire car parking area functioned as the restaurant and steel trays, with glasses of water, were fitted to the front doors of the cars. Waiters would then come to the car and narrate the items on the menu that day.
Its sprawling greenery that included a play area for children made it popular among families. Located in the heart of the city, it attracted many morning walkers who would stop by for breakfast and be assured of steaming hot pongal and idli as early as 6 am. Their chole bhature, masala dosa, sambar vada, chilli cheese, toast bonda and coffee were the most popular items on menu.
With inputs from Chitra Deepa Anantharam