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In a soup: Coronavirus brings restaurant operations to a grinding halt

The coronavirus epidemic has hit the F&B sector hard. In the backdrop of falling revenues and footfalls, restaurateurs have been struggling to maintain their fixed overheads and other expenses.

, ET Online|
Last Updated: Mar 20, 2020, 10.05 AM IST
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Mumbai-based Talli Turmeric is among thousands of restaurants in India facing the full blow of the coronavirus pandemic. (Pic- Talli Turmeric/Facebook)
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This time, last year, a typical day for Mansij Vaidya, co-founder of Mumbai-based Indian restaurant Talli Turmeric, would span anywhere from 10 in the morning to 12 at night. A year later, the situation is starkly different. Vaidya now follows an altogether different schedule and not necessarily one that he quite understands. He has gotten back to long drawn cooking sessions, exercising at home and reading as a new habit that he has set his eyes on. “I wasn’t patient enough for reading earlier. But now there is ample time at hand. During the first two days, I had started to get restless. It was very new for me. This is the first time in my career that I have seen a situation of this nature,” admits Vaidya. The restaurant saw a 20-25% reduction in footfalls in the first week of March with diners shying away from eating out post the coronavirus panic rising day by day in India.

The coronavirus epidemic has not been easy on the F&B sector. In the backdrop of falling revenues and footfalls, restaurateurs have been struggling to maintain their fixed overheads and other expenses. Maharashtra had announced that all malls, pools, movie halls and gyms across the state would be shut till March 31 amid the spike in the number of Covid-19 cases that were witnessed.

Falling revenues and footfalls
Restaurant body National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI) had also urged its 500,000 members to down shutters till the end of the month after the virus outbreak. Speaking to ET.com, NRAI President Anurag Katriar said they are very concerned as an industry that the spread should not go far and wide. “At this point, it really means a complete disaster. We are trying to find whatever can be the possible solution. But I believe the shutdown by the government can be the best thing right now. We can all bear the losses for a couple of weeks and eventually bounce back. Else it will continue for months and will spread to a larger populace,” Katriar said.

The restaurant body is also requesting all state governments to extend the liquor license by another quarter and time be given till the end of June to renew it. This, Katriar says, will help everyone to manage their cash flows and such an extension could greatly help at this point.

Thomas Fenn, Co-Founder of Mahabelly Restaurant, known for its Kerala cuisine among food buffs in the capital, couldn’t agree more. “The excise fee is in the range of Rs 8 - 18 lakh depending on the size of the restaurant. We are seeking a moratorium on this as the cash flows are the biggest problem right now. The government needs to step in as, after agriculture, it is the restaurant industry that employs the maximum number of people,” he states.

The restaurant has seen a 45% drop in revenues on the back of the Covid-19 impact. However, they haven’t shut down just yet. A lack of clarity on the directives laid out deters them from doing so. “We want clearer directives. For instance, pubs and bars are shut. But there is no directive on restaurants that serve liquor. We have large overheads namely in rent and salaries, common area maintenance, etc and so cannot shut down as there are legal implications of the same. Unless there is a force majeure clause, we cannot voluntarily shut shop,” he asserts.

A glance at the restaurant’s social media page lists the many steps that the restaurant has taken to ensure a hygienic environment at present. For instance, multiple hand sanitiser dispensers are available for guests and staff within the premises, gloves and masks are worn by staff during their interactions with guests, table mats have been removed and cloth napkins replaced with paper napkins as some among the many steps strictly followed by the restaurant during this time.

mahabelly FB
(Mahabelly/Facebook)

Fighting it together

Others in the fraternity such as Priyank Sukhija, MD and CEO of First Fiddle F&B, which houses a number of brands, also feel that bolder steps need to be taken before a situation arises which isn’t recoverable in any way. “We were the first ones to voluntarily shut down till March 31. Social distancing is really not possible in restaurants and we did not want to put our staff in jeopardy. The government has not shut down so far. That is the only way to flatten the curve. What are we waiting for? We cannot wait for India to have a similar fate as Italy,” he rationalises.

Sukhija says that if delivery kitchens are to remain open, these should be contactless deliveries or the guidelines for delivery personnel should be of a similar higher scale as is followed by doctors.

All the industry players are unanimously rooting for the government to support them at this crucial juncture. Perhaps this, they feel, is the only way that survival is possible and can help them tide through such tough times. “The crisis is unprecedented. Unless we don't have complete support from the government, financial institutions and our partners in the ecosystem - fighting this battle alone will not be possible,” adds Katriar of NRAI.

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