Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXX No. 13, November 1-15, 2020
The third article in a series exploring the pandemic’s effect on Chennai’s industries, this piece takes a look at how the city’s restaurants have been braving the crisis.
According to industry estimates, Chennai and its suburbs are reported to have around 8,000 eateries of varying sizes. With a curb on social gatherings, the pandemic has hit the city’s restaurant industry quite hard, causing a significant number of hotels to shut down permanently. Dine-in services capped at 50 percent occupancy were allowed to resume in the month of June, but the number of customers choosing to eat out are understandably nowhere near pre-COVID levels. Even though food delivery services have fared better – a Zomato report published in August estimates that food delivery orders across the country has reached around 80 per cent of its pre-pandemic business – restaurants are reportedly earning less than half of what they used to before the crisis.
Kiran Rao, a restaurateur who manages premium eateries such as Wild Garden Cafe (Amethyst) and Chamiers recalls the panic that followed the initial lockdown announcement in March. “It was a nightmare. We had to give away all the perishables – food, fruits, vegetables. We were also concerned about the staff. We instructed them to stay put and assured them that their salaries would continue to be paid.” Many hotels had to make arrangements to ensure that the spaces were secure and well-maintained even when not in use. Kiran reached out to staff who lived close by. They visited the spaces when they could. They aired the place out and cooked their meals on premises, too. “Cooks became gardeners,” said Kiran. “It was crisis management across the board – everyone pitched in.”
Restaurants are finding it hard to manage financials as well. While revenues have reduced, operational expenditure and other costs such as repayments on bank loans, commercial rent and staff salaries remain due. In fact, it was reported that the Tamil Nadu Hotel Association applied to the government for rent relief in March. Despite a reported manpower shortage – a significant percentage of employees at specialty cuisine restaurants are not locals – many hotels have had to either lay off their staff or reduce their salaries.
With customer surveys suggesting that most plan to order in rather than dine out in the near future, food delivery services such as Swiggy and Zomato have been an alternative source of income for hotels. They provided an easy platform to immediately digitize ordering and outsource delivery, even in legacy restaurants. In fact, quite a few hotels in the city registered themselves on food delivery platforms during the lockdown. Restaurants and food delivery services are also working closely with each other to help customers feel safe and secure while ordering online. They provide transparency into the safety measures taken by the hotel and the delivery professional as well. However, some point out that the margins retained by the restaurants are much lower, since the model involves a commission pay out to the delivery platform.
In a bid to recover dine-in customers, restaurants are taking multiple measures to reassure patrons of their safety. Most hotels ensure that their properties are sanitized regularly, while the staff wear masks and wash their hands on a regular basis. Air conditioners are left switched off in accordance with mandated guidelines and customers are seated as per social distancing norms. Restaurants are turning to technology to minimise human contact, as well – from touch-free transactions to robot servers, they have brought new ideas to the table to secure the safety of customers and staff alike.
The numbers have finally begun to come down. Just as residents of Chennai had assumed that the daily COVID-19 figures would forever hover around the high 900s or low 1000s, the virus has shown signs of relenting. The statistics have taken a turn for the better, with the city registering around 750 numbers each day. The number of containment zones is less than 20. All of these are something to rejoice about. Unfortunately for us, many in the city have begun to assume that the pandemic belongs to the past.
That this is a very foolish notion will be made amply evident when we consider what is happening in Europe and in several parts of the USA – the numbers are climbing once again. All of these nations had experienced a peak, then a dip, and when the situation appeared to be improving, the pandemic chose to return. It would also be wrong to blindly believe pronouncements such as those made by the Finance Ministry, which declared that the COVID peak had passed. That was meant from an economic point of view – with factories, commercial establishments and shops opening up, business would look up anyway. It certainly cannot be interpreted to mean that the pandemic has gone. Similarly, while it is good to be optimistic about a vaccine, we cannot forget that as of now there is no such preventive intervention. True, Russia did make an announcement to this effect, as did China, but these are countries whose credibility is low at best. India too is in the race for developing a vaccine and the signs are hopeful, but it is still early days.
Which is why it comes as a surprise that residents of Chennai have chosen to throw caution to the winds and throng shops, ostensibly as a prelude to Dipavali. Of course, on the one hand it is understandable – prolonged lockdowns have failed the world over and have at best delayed the spread of the epidemic. And not everybody lives in palatial accommodation to opt for remaining locked up forever. However, a people fed up of remaining indoors would, it would logically be expected, throng the open spaces. Our Government has of course strangely enough, preferred to keep beaches and parks out of bounds indefinitely. And so, the people throng shopping complexes, than which there can be no worse option – an enclosed environment with several people in proximity has all the makings of a super spreader.
The Beach House
In the last issue of Madras Musings and the present one, we have serialised Karthik Bhatt’s two-part article on Sir S. Subramania Iyer, an early legal luminary, who gave up his knighthood in protest against colonial policies though this is not remembered or celebrated the way Rabindranath Tagore’s return of his title is.
(Continued from last fortnight)
Sir S. Subramania Iyer’s contribution to the world of law went beyond his career as a lawyer and his tenure on the Bench. He played host to several meetings of the Saturday Club, an informal think-tank comprising lawyers, at his residence, Beach House (which is today part of the Queen Marys College campus) where several aspects of law were discussed. It was at one of these meetings that the idea to bring out a periodical dedicated to law germinated. This resulted in the founding of the Madras Law Journal.
During my official travels to Madras from Mumbai, as a young executive, I always felt that I belonged to this city. I dreamt of settling down here, post retirement. I never imagined that this would happen when I was only 32. Madras welcomed me with open arms and in the last 46 years it has seen me grow not only professionally but also as a human being. Of the many interesting memories I have of the city, my brief association with the Safire theatre complex stands out. Before I elaborate on my story a few words about the theatre.