The tablecloth trick

The global health crisis severely affected the local food industry as the government shut down restaurants and bars to slow the spread of the virus. As the leading restaurant aggregator, Zomato relies heavily on the dining out space of restaurants, which to this day are still under heavy restrictions. But rather than buckle under the heavy weight of the present situation, Zomato looks for ways to help restaurants bounce back post-pandemic.

Have you ever seen the tablecloth trick? Either by a magician, or in some comedy sketch where a waiter miraculously whips off the tablecloth while all the crockery and glassware somehow remain intact on the table?

That’s what the current coronavirus pandemic felt like for me. Except the crockery and glassware weren’t completely intact, a glass and a couple of plates may just have crashed to the floor. Almost like magic, the tablecloth (business) was gone. But like most people, I couldn’t possibly fathom what was happening and more so, what the next few months were going to be like. 

My mindset has always been “control what you can control.” So we did that and didn’t get too caught up in the stuff that we couldn’t.

The first month of lockdown was of course a challenge. However, I was excited about the opportunities it would present. Working from home, connecting with the team via Zoom calls and other digital means was kind of fun at first. We got to take a breath after a crazy busy start to the year. We were able to finish off some projects that had been lingering and spend time on personal and professional development. I was invited to speak on the state of the industry in several webinars and we were planning our own series of talks. Lockdown, seemingly, wasn’t so bad after all.

Then the uncertainty hits — talks of layoffs commence, the news suggesting that things won’t recover until 2021 and while our revenue hit the floor (like the glasses and plates), we still had all our fixed costs like rent and labor. I could go right down the rabbit hole on all the conflicting news and anxiety that the situation was causing as well, but I won’t. This became the biggest challenge around week three or four. 

My mindset has always been “control what you can control.” So we did that and didn’t get too caught up in the stuff that we couldn’t.

To start with, while we were figuring things out, one thing we knew was that we could help those less fortunate so we began the Feeding Philippines initiative and partnered with Rise Against Hunger Philippines, raising awareness and donations from our Zomato community that would go to supplying meal kits to families in need. (The number of those in need is growing rapidly due to the crisis so there is still plenty more for us to do.) The initiative even saw me go a step further and pledge to shave my head, which I did, to have some fun and shine a bit more light on our efforts. Raising P600,000 and counting was, without a doubt, one of the most rewarding parts of this whole experience. 

The other priority during this period, of course, was our people. I had to continue to keep them motivated, keep them busy, and most importantly, keep them employed. We had to take some tough people calls and then also took the unfortunate step of embarking on a round of involuntary salary cuts even after many team members voluntarily chose to reduce their salary. This wasn’t just about controlling costs and ensuring our immediate survival. Looking longer-term and the realization that we have no idea how the economy will bounce back, I took a very much “hope for the best, plan for the worst” type mentality. 

Of course, we needed to keep an eye on the core of the Zomato business. Our business relies heavily on the dining-out space for restaurants, which was closed and still is now, is only operating with heavy restrictions. Many restaurants remain closed and who knows when or if they will reopen. So we concentrated on things that we thought would help the industry bounce back once they were allowed to do so. We built a “contactless dining” product super fast and have brought this to market already with over 200 restaurants using the service to provide a safer and more efficient dining experience to their guests.

A diner can simply scan a QR code on the table and order and pay for their meal through their smartphone. Not that we need another excuse to stare at our phones, but this eliminates the need for high touchpoints in the restaurant and gives customers more confidence when dining out.

As restrictions lift, we will rechristen the Zomato Gold membership to Zomato Pro, creating a more user- and restaurant-friendly offering that we hope will help the industry drive revenue in the latter part of 2020. Zomato Gold has been a hugely successful program in the Philippines and while rebranding and changing its concept slightly may seem somewhat radical, it is totally the right time as we enter this radically new world.

Moving forward, Contactless Dining and Zomato Pro will be the two key levers that drive our business for both users and restaurants. For our people, they will continue to work from home as long as they like and we will remain on flexible work arrangements most likely, forever. This is one thing that has actually had a resoundingly positive impact on our business and we will continue to utilize technology to be more efficient and also limit as much as possible how much time we have to spend in the field.

We have overcome huge challenges in the last four months and know there is a long way to go. But I take pride that I work with a team, who, like me, are genuinely invested in the success of our restaurant partners and together, we know that the success of the restaurant industry in the Philippines is directly related to our success. So in saying that, we will continue to watch, learn, understand and work on our business to serve the restaurant industry and the foodie community that rely on Zomato as the number one authority on where to eat.

Lastly, we will do whatever it takes to help all our stakeholders to stay safe.


Edited by Rica Delfinado

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