Catering businesses in TN stare at empty calendar this wedding season

Around 80% of the customers have postponed their weddings, leading to a loss in livelihood for thousands of workers.
Wedding food hall
Wedding food hall
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Around this time of the year, the month, being Chithirai as per the Tamil calendar, caterers in Madurai are usually snowed under with orders, the sweltering heat of the agni nakshatram (May) not doing much to help them.

In Madurai, Meenatchi Thirukalyanam is a major annual event, part of the Chithirai festival that is celebrated in the month of April. However, this year, during the nationwide lockdown announced to break the chair of novel coronavirus spread in the country, the festival was cancelled.

“The big season begins soon after Meenatchi Thirukalyanam,” says Kumar from Madurai’s Uma caterers over the phone. In Madurai, Uma Caterers have been in business since 1990 and are best known for their non-vegetarian food items.

Kumar’s voice lowers a little. “In fact it begins during the festival season itself.  The festival has people ordering for food, doing anna dhanams (charity)…” he trails off.

The cancellation of the event has come as a big blow to caterers who get a major chunk of their orders during this season. “Now all that has been cancelled. The coming month, Vaikasi (May 15 to June 15) is a big wedding season. Because the government has cancelled all weddings, many of us have lost our livelihoods,” he says.

“About 80% of those who had already fixed wedding dates have postponed them,” he says. “The remaining 20% have held small weddings, by inviting few guests. However, they have promised to hold a big reception after all this comes to an end. We hope it happens.”

Kumar’s story is reflected from all those involved in the catering business across the state.

In Chennai, Balaji of Pattapas, a 6th generation family run catering business who are best known for their vegetarian menu, stares at an empty calendar. “We closed business on March 12. Since then there has been no bookings. People have cancelled their orders, and taken back their advance. About 35 weddings that were booked with us until August this year have been cancelled,” he shares. Pattapas, we are told by Balaji, receive about 70 wedding orders annually in Chennai area.

“Even if the lockdown were to end, there will be no new weddings at least until October because there are no auspicious dates September. We don’t know how the next four months are going to be for us. With what we had, we were able to pay salaries to our employees and provide them with groceries. Next month we don’t know how we are going to manage. The situation is the same for everyone in the business,” he adds.

According to Balaji, theirs is an inflow-outflow business. “We run it on a rotation basis. We don't have work on all days of the month, only when there’s a wedding. We do about five weddings a month and manage the rest of it with what we’ve got,” he explains.

All allied services affected

Kumar tells TNM that the number of labourers directly under their business may only be around 100 but theirs is a model that works on a contract basis. “We subcontract workers based on the order. There are contractors to provide us with servers, cooks, for parotta masters… and the real impact will be felt by all of them,” he says.

Balaji also points out that not just catering business but all allied services too will be affected. “In India, weddings are a big occasion where 1,500-2,000 persons gather together. It provides employment to lakhs of workers who offer different types of services. Right now, from beauticians to flower decorators to Nadaswaram and Tavil players to photographers, there is no business for any of them for the next four months,” he laments.

Balaji estimates that in Chennai alone about one lakh persons in the wedding industry business could be without a job, unable to make money for the next four months because of this lockdown.

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