The struggles of Bengaluru's Darshinis during lockdown – and the long road to recovery

Even if customers trickle back in gradually, thereby increasing the cash flow, it will take months for most establishments to recover.
The struggles of Bengaluru's Darshinis during lockdown – and the long road to recovery
The struggles of Bengaluru's Darshinis during lockdown – and the long road to recovery

Walk into one of Bengaluru’s numerous Darshinis on any normal day, and you’ll be greeted by an unmistakable symphony of sounds and smell. The sizzle of dosa batter frying in ghee on the tava, the aroma of filter kaapi freshly poured into steel tumblers, the clatter of plates carrying bisi bele baath, kesari baath, rava idlis, and more to scores of hungry diners. It’s where bowls of bonda soup threaten to spill on every table and where the vada-sambar combo is at its Karnataka best.

These establishments, shuttered during the nationwide lockdown, are now struggling to get back into business. Metal tables have been propped up like barricades to prevent customers from entering. It was once thought nearly impossible to enjoy a Darshini breakfast without the atmosphere that each one brings. But now, while diners are all allowed to place their orders at the location, they must wait at a distance to pick it up and leave.

Sri Ganesh Fast food located right opposite the St Joseph’s College on Langford road is usually buzzing with students and office goers. Now however, it wears a deserted look. The establishment is reeling under losses, and the owner says he is mulling shutting down his nearly 20-year-old eatery.

“We began parcel service earlier this month, but we don’t have many customers. Our customers are mostly office goers. But they all have gone back to their native places. Those who order food are bachelors and those who live alone,” Krishna says.

For Krishna, it’s been trouble after trouble since demonetisation, which was followed by GST; and the pandemic has been the biggest blow, he says.

“I am yet to pay my staff for the last two months. Any money we make goes in buying rations and feeding my staff who have nowhere else to go.” Krishna adds. He also does not have enough savings; and with nearly zero cash flow, he is struggling to pay the rent for his establishment and has been negotiating with his landlord to get some relief.

A long road to normalcy

With the government allowing restaurants to open for customers from June 8, scores of Darshinis scattered across the city are hoping that their fortunes will reverse. However, it is not going to be easy to get back to normalcy.

Even if customers trickle back in gradually, thereby increasing the cash flow, it will take months for most establishments to recover from the financial blow delivered by the pandemic.

Foody’s, a popular landmark hotel on Double Road near the Shanthinagar Bus Stand, has seen only 15% of its normal sales in April and May. Abhinav Shankar, the owner of Foody’s, says that he has exhausted all his cash reserves, and is looking to get a loan under the government’s scheme of unsecured loans for small businesses.

“I have usually never defaulted on my electricity bill because it is a commercial connection and they will cut the connection within two days of non-payment. For the first time, I paid my bill three weeks late, and the BESCOM (Bengaluru Electricity Supply Company) gave me a grace period, with no late fee,” Abinav says.

“My landlady has not given me concession on rent but has only given me a time extension. The biggest expense is my suppliers, whose bills have been pending since February. Now, I have spoken to my bank to begin processing a loan to clear this due, under the government scheme. My suppliers have been patient, because they understand, but they too have their own expenses to meet.” Abhinav says. 

He estimates that a loan of Rs 5 lakh will keep him afloat for two months, until things begin picking up again.

Another small Darshini owner, Manjunath, who owns the Sri Dhanalakshmi Upahara on Hennur Main Road, feels that business will be dull for a few more months. “We have been open throughout the shutdown, giving parcels to people, and offering tea and coffee to police officials and others on the job. But I am afraid of what will come. Things will not get better for at least the next year. All we have to do is brace ourselves.”

When asked if he was planning to take aid from the government, which was being offered in the form of loans, Manjunath believes that those are false promises. “Do these things really materialise? Did the Rs 5,000 promised for drivers from the government reach a single person? We really are on our own.”

For larger eateries such as Foody’s, one major issue is also that almost 50% of the staff have gone back home, which may become a challenge at the time of reopening.

Cost of takeaways

While many of the Darshinis kept operations running by offering only parcels through the lockdown, it hasn’t brought them any relief. Manjunath and Krishna say that parcelling has added to their costs. 

The Darshinis, like other restaurants, are not allowed to pack in plastic bags, and complain they have to pay more for stiff brown paper. “Even plastic bags to hold sambar are not allowed. What else should we do? We are hesitant to raise prices because of the already low demand,” says Manjunath.

Krishna also points out that other than being costly, parcels were adding to the waste around them: “If you go out, you’ll see the roads are littered with parcel waste. How many days can you go on like this? This is unsustainable.”

Krishna also notes that it was less wasteful to eat off a plate, and that his staff always wash vessels with a disinfectant. “But we are being forced to create so much waste,” he says.

Sourcing raw materials

Another blow to restaurant owners is the closure of the major wholesale vegetable market in the centre of the city, the KR Puram and Kalasipalya markets. These markets are from where eateries source vegetables in large quantities at wholesale prices.

Krishna says they will now have to go almost to Hosur (on the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border) to go buy wholesale vegetables, thus increasing the cost of raw materials.

Manjunath echoes the sentiment. “We have paid Rs 40 for a bundle of coriander. Peas, an important ingredient for us, is simply not available. Rava, which costs Rs 20 usually, I have paid Rs 40 a kilo. Sourcing sugar too, was a huge challenge, as no one in the wholesale market had it. All the mills are shut. I literally had to go searching for sugar and I somehow bought a 50-kilo sack under the shutters.”

And yet, across the board, restaurant owners have decided to keep their prices the same, despite having to deal with a lot of variables. They are also planning to offer the entire menu as before, including the more expensive dishes, prepared with ghee. The Chinese items, which are prepared by a separate cook, will also be offered as usual.

Seating and cleanliness

Abhinav says that his eatery will reduce the seating by 50% to cope with the staff shortage and also maintain the distancing norms.

Manjunath says that he would not look at allowing seated customers until everything is normal again, “perhaps in the next 12 months.” He feels like a takeaway service, giving out parcels, would be a better option in the near future, to reduce the risk of infection. “To sit here and interact with so many people on a daily basis, I get frightened. This is my livelihood. It’s better not to take the risk for others to come in contact in the hotel,” he adds.

Besides this, the establishments are taking care to ask their employees regularly if they feel sick and are checking their temperature. As COVID-19 is not a food-borne disease, but that which spreads through contact, surfaces are being cleaned with disinfectants on an hourly basis, including floors and kitchen surfaces.

Staff are also being educated about the virus, and being equipped with gloves, masks, and caps.

Will things get better?

Even though the government has said that hotels would begin operations from the second week of June with dine-in service, none of the hotel owners see things picking up anytime soon. 

Abhinav says, “It’ll take a couple more months for things to become normal. I see that offices around here are beginning to go back to work, and I am hopeful.”

However, Krishna has a completely different view. He believes that things wouldn’t get better until the next elections. “I think it will take another four years for things to get better. First it was demonetisation, and when we just began coping, we got hit by GST. And now, this virus. We don’t know what the next blow will be.”

For a large population in Bengaluru, Darshinis are their first and most affordable choice for a meal. These owners say that even a fraction of the Darshinis closing down across the city would create a huge hassle for lakhs of people. They are hoping that the government will intervene to help them tide through the tough times.

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