Restaurants in many parts of the country will begin welcoming patrons on Monday for the first time since the first phase of the lockdown began, but there is little cheer in the restaurant community. Bars continue to be barred from opening, and with a curfew of 9 pm, dinner service is virtually out the window.
The current guidelines gave rise to more confusion, for restaurants with bar licences aren’t clear if they could open without selling alcohol. In addition, the sector, which has repeatedly asked for financial help due to the severe impact of the lockdown, did not receive financial assistance from the government, which makes recouping revenues harder.
Sameer Seth, CEO and Founder of Hunger Inc that owns The Bombay Canteen and O Pedro in Mumbai, says it is important that they get clarity over the restaurants with a liquor licence. “There is no clarity. It is important that there is clear communication and clarity from the government in order to plan. It is always challenging when there is uncertainty. You have to think if you are taking the right steps, making the right plans, and then have to switch it all over again. Every stakeholder in the system needs to communicate clearly for this coming out of the lockdown to be successful,” he said.
According to Anurag Katriar, the President of the National Restaurant Association of India, allowing restaurants to operate is a good first step, and containment and non-containment zones are being differentiated. “However, the way I look at it is that it is an enabling act by the MHA which now leaves the onus on the states to frame their own ways of kickstarting restaurants,” he said.
Ashok Hemrajani, President of the Hotels & Restaurants Association of Telangana State (HRATS) and Group VP at Minerva Boutique Business Hotels & Restaurants also concurred that state governments were doing what they can, but businesses are not hoping for much revenue from the get go on Monday. HRATS’ members consist of 3, 4 and 5-star hotels and restaurants located in Telangana, most of which are in Hyderabad.
For these restaurants, many of which will be opening up on Monday, Ashok says that things may slowly pick up from the weekend after. However, with many offices extending their work from home dates, hotels in places with a high density of offices will also continue to suffer.
Ashok and Anurag both add that alcohol sales should have been allowed.
“Alcohol sales are anyway being allowed in most states. On the other hand, if you look at it from a safety and security perspective, serving alcohol in a restaurant probably has fewer touchpoints than, let’s say, a full plate of food. This is something which needs to be assessed,” Anurag said.
According to Ashok, opening the sale of alcohol would have certainly helped. But for hotels which have restaurants and an attached bar, he said that the current understanding is that they can be opened up barring the sale of alcohol.
For bars and breweries, this has only made an existing situation worse. Sibi Venkataraju, co-Founder of pH4 Food & Beverages that owns Toit and The Permit Room in Bengaluru, called it disappointing.
“It’s disappointing that they decided to make that distinction, because the way we see it, we don't see any distinction or anything different in terms of the challenges that we would have in following the same norms as they would expect from restaurants.
He added that while a brewery like Toit cannot even open, the second roadblock is the 9 pm deadline, as it pretty much eliminates an entire meal.
”Indians typically eat quite late. If your curfew is at 9 and you need to get home by then, it means people need to have finished their meal by 8 o'clock which is again a huge challenge for restaurants, just for the food business itself,” he added.
“I think there are larger issues in front of the nation and to seek this smaller segregation may be difficult, but we have made our efforts and have written to them to kindly look at if we can be considered as an essential service, and our hours can be extended,” Anurag added.
Multiple restaurateurs TNM spoke to confirmed that representations had been made to respective state governments, especially over the sale of alcohol.
Another possible worry that restaurants have is a shortage of workforce, with many having returned home due to the lockdown. “We may face some problems with people in critical positions, whether it's a housekeeper or a waiter or a cook. People are not all local, they come to work from all over the country,” Anurag added.
One of the guidelines in the SOP to reopen restaurants state that they can open with 50% seating capacity.
Zorawar Kalra, founder of Massive Restaurants Pvt Ltd told PTI said he understands the SOPs were released keeping in mind the current scenario when the country is battling rising COVID-19 cases, but running a restaurant with 50 per cent customer capacity is not feasible. Anything below 75-80% will render most restaurants unfeasible, he said.
Priyank Sukhija, the owner of restaurant chains such as Plum By Bent Chair, Lord of the Drinks and Tamasha, told PTI that with a 50% seating limit, about 80% of restaurants will not make money even when they open up later because managing rental costs, staff salaries and electricity bills won't be possible.
With inputs from Nikhita Venugopal