From pioneering new technology to suing his insurance company, chef Hemant Bhagwani is embracing COVID as a catalyst for change in the restaurant industry.
COVID-19 has brought the dining industry to the brink of collapse, but it hasn’t slowed down veteran Toronto chef Hemant Bhagwani. Bhagwani has opened upwards of 40 restaurants since moving to Canada in 2000, including the Amaya Express chain, which now has six locations in the Greater Toronto Area. With his newest restaurant, his second this year, he hopes to revolutionize the future of in-restaurant serving in our post-COVID future.
In 2015, Bhagwani garnered attention for replacing tipping with a fixed “administration fee” at his restaurant Indian Street Food Company. His goal with the initiative was to reduce pay gaps between servers and kitchen staff and to offer his restaurant team higher salaries as a whole.
It, therefore, comes as little surprise that as COVID-19 continues to dismantle the restaurant industry, Bhagwani has been approaching the challenges of operating amid the pandemic with the same outside-the-box approach. He had been in the middle of preparing to open Egg Bird, a new fast-casual restaurant in Toronto’s Leaside neighbourhood when Ontario’s state of emergency declaration brought his plans to a halt in March.
As he stepped back to reassess his vision for the restaurant in the new COVID-era dining landscape, he realized that technology was about to become more important than ever before.
“I’ve always been a very traditional restaurateur,” he says. “People in the food industry, we end up spending a lot of money on the restaurant’s look and the food and all those traditional niceties. We’re so passionate, but we never think of technology as being a big part of our system.”
Bhagwani says the pandemic has driven up prices on restaurant tech solutions, as systems, such as those that allow for contactless ordering, become less of a convenience and more of a necessity. “It’s sad to see a lot of technology companies have been raising their prices and making it a lot more expensive for all the restaurants,” he says.
Ever the trailblazer, Bhagwani took out loans to finance and develop his own technology, with the aim to share his own chef-designed platform with peers in the industry in the future. The platform, which features POS (point of sale) integration, contactless online ordering, and digital menus, is now a few weeks away from final testing.
The prohibitive cost of high-tech solutions has tended to make it accessible only to major chains, but Bhagwani says he saw how he could help make it available to smaller operators like himself. “COVID has shown me that we can do it. And we should do it. I think it’s fast-tracked what needed to happen anyway,” he says.
Once finalized, Bhagwani’s new platform will be integrated into his new restaurant, Egg Bird, which opened in early July. It’s a casual, brunchy joint that plays off the age-old question: ‘which came first? The chicken or the egg?’ with a menu of fried chicken and egg burgers. “I wanted to set an example that even in these trying times, we can start a new concept and hopefully make it successful,” he says.
In addition to opening Egg Bird, Bhagwani has been finding unconventional ways to keep his existing restaurants afloat through the pandemic. Taking a cue from numerous U.S. restaurateurs who have filed similar claims, Bhagwani sought business interruption coverage from his insurance provider for damages caused by the pandemic.
Bhagwani’s policy is said to cover “damage caused by order of civil authority to retard or prevent a conflagration or other catastrophe,” which he asserts should have been activated when the Ontario government forced bars and restaurants to close in March. When his claim was denied, Bhagwani filed a lawsuit against his insurance company, Allianz Global Risks, in May.
With the court system largely shut down amid the pandemic, it’s been a long wait for an outcome in the suit but Bhagwani is hopefully a decision will be reached this month. “I see a light at the end of the tunnel,” he says. “I know that the insurance lawyer is hoping I will get tired and run out of money, but I will go to the end.”
Bhagwani says that the silver lining of the pandemic is that it has pushed restaurateurs to work together and support one another, as the industry tries to find solutions to the challenges of operating amid COVID.
“We are collectively sharing ideas and finding new ways to collaborate to come out of this. It’s never happened before. It’s such a beautiful thing,” he says.
“Now the number one restaurant in town is calling a guy like me and saying: “how do I do takeout properly?” How can we learn from you? It doesn’t matter if you’re the number one chef in the country or the number one restaurant. It doesn’t matter. COVID has equalized all of us. Suddenly, the egos are gone.”