M Kadar Mohideen was chuffed over the expansion of his small eatery Midnight Biriyani. Just a week before the lockdown, he had opened the new Arumbakkam outlet and was looking forward to thriving business. But his hopes were dashed as the lockdown was announced.
Being a new entrant in the food business in Chennai, Kadar is worried whether he will be able to recoup the heavy losses. He is unwilling to partner with delivery agents owing to the uncertainty, but he wants to ensure that none of his employees go hungry, which pushed him to sell fruits and vegetables.
Kadar and his co-owner have four employees who take care of cooking and serving. As the eatery has taken a hit, everyone is in deep waters. While Kadar has not been able to pay their monthly salaries, he has decided to provide food for them. “I am selling vegetables every day in my locality,” he says, “If the entire stock is sold, I earn about Rs 1500 a day, I pay Rs 400 for the rental pushcart and use the remaining amount to buy food twice or thrice a day for my team.”
Small and medium-sized food business owners across Chennai have been in a similar situation as Kadar, ever since the state government ordered a complete closure of all eateries and banned the supply of cooked food by food aggregators. Recently, the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) has relaxed the lockdown norms to allow these eateries to deliver parcels, but the slump has hit the business hard.
Loss of sales
Many restaurants in the city remain closed even after the relaxation. The government has been continuously emphasising social distancing and proper hygiene, and many residents do not seem to be taking any chances by ordering food from outside.
Interactions with several food business owners made it clear that they prefer to keep the outlets closed rather than resume partial operations, as they are unsure of the volume of business they will receive now. If it is poor, the eateries fear food wastage which also means the loss of precious dry rations. Soaring prices of pulses and rice are also acting as a deterrent.
Then there are some regular customers who look forward to their trusted outlets resuming business. One such outlet appears to be Kousalya paati’s idly shop in Nanganallur. “Our phone has been buzzing with enquiries from our regular customers. Sadly, we are unable to resume operations till the lockdown is completely lifted,” says the 99-year-old frail Kousalya.
Soon after the takeaway option was given the green light by the government, Kousalya’s daughter Kamala (72) started taking orders and supplying food parcels . “I hoped to earn at least something through delivery of a few orders, but the cops were harsh. They did not let me work, even though I was only giving food parcels,” Kamala rued.
Kamala, like many others, is not keen to start a new business now. They have been in the food business for about 10 years now and moving to something new would mean squandering the experience and advantage gained over the years.
Rajkumar, President of Chennai Hotels’ Association, said, “It may take at least four months to re-establish our business and we find it financially pressing. Most of the migrant employees have left the city and we are unsure how to assemble our forces together once the lockdown is lifted. If the old employees don’t turn up, we will have to hire new staff.”
Employees stare at uncertainty
Many regular small and medium-sized business owners are struggling to pay their employees. Most hotels are functioning with a minimal workforce as a cost-cutting measure amidst the pandemic crisis.
“Even though the restaurant is functional, waiters are no longer needed as dining in is prohibited. The boss manages with the cook and the cleaner and distributes parcels. I do not know if I’m still on the rolls,” says Elavarasan* (26), a waiter employed at a Chennai hotel.
Elavarasan is not willing to take chances by going out to work now as his mother is a senior citizen. However, he is ready to take up any role once normalcy is restored, as he is unsure if he will be taken in by the hotel even after it reopens. A native of Villupuram, Elavarasan lives with his aged mother in Chennai. Old and vulnerable to the virus, she too has stopped going out for work. “None of us have received our full salaries yet. My boss deposited Rs 5000 in my account when the lockdown was announced,” said Elavarasan. Paying the house rent and making ends meet has now become a big challenge for the likes of Elavarasan.
A large section of staff employed in the hotels and eateries of the city come from different districts and states. When the lockdown was announced, many went back to their hometown or were stuck in the city; a few had nowhere to go and are currently camped at GCC shelters.
Even in a post-COVID world, the future of these employees doesn’t look bright. Having incurred heavy losses, many hoteliers say that they will either impose a pay cut for all employees or will maintain the same pay scale and fire some workers. Either way, it is not great news for the workforce for whom monthly income matters a lot.
While a majority of business owners are worried about the losses and wondering how to revive the business , JK Catering in Old Perungalathur has been supplying food for the homeless, migrants and others through NGOs and Perungalathur Town Panchayat. The owner, J Karthikeyan, has somehow managed to settle the salaries of his five employees.
“This is not the time to think about business and profit. Conservancy workers, domestic breeding checkers and several local body employees are risking their lives for us, hence I cook for them while the Perungalathur Town Panchayat supplies the raw materials,” Karthikeyan said.
Hurdles in resuming operations
Most hoteliers in the city, with whom we spoke, agreed that maintaining social distancing will be challenging even after the lockdown is lifted. It appears highly likely that distancing norms will continue to be imposed for quite some time into the future. The absence of a clear framework from the government on dos and don’ts is a cause of concern.
South Indian Hotel and Restaurant Association honorary secretary T Natarajan argues that social distancing cannot be imposed in a restaurant. “If a family of four walks in to dine, we cannot force each of them to sit one metre apart. Even a tea shop cannot function if spatial distancing is to be continued,” he said.
Under the prevailing and anticipated circumstances, therefore, the future appears clouded. Natarajan says that hoteliers are not going to make profits in the first quarter of the financial year: “If the government gradually relaxes intra-state and inter-state travel, the business may pick up after that. Assuming, the situation is normalised by the end of the year, we could do 60-65% of our regular business annually.”
The stigma and fear associated with the disease in general is another factor that could thwart business for food joints. At present, most eateries and restaurants in the contained zones are nonfunctional. Many hoteliers feel that continuing the business in such areas will pose a greater challenge. It will take a long time to convince customers of the safety of eating out in these areas.
Delivery agents too will have to follow strict norms to earn the confidence of clients. “All delivery agents should wear masks and gloves. Unfortunately, we don’t earn enough to be able to afford safety gear considering its surging price. Physical distancing norms should be followed during deliveries even after the virus is phased out,” said a food delivery agent in the city.
Suggestions are many, considering the unique and unprecedented crisis that the industry is battling, but the feasibility and method of implementation need thought. However, many owners, including members of the hotel association, do not seem to have started chalking out plans to recoup the business. A few caterers, with whom we spoke, said they plan to follow up with customers who have scheduled their events to a later date. A few hoteliers plan to continue with take away services only for some time, while others say they are going to redesign their spaces and revise marketing strategies.
However, reviving business may take more detailed and methodical planning than that, which is difficult unless more clarity emerges on the post lockdown phase and its norms.