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More hiccups than cheers: Here’s the latest on the new bars in Chennai

A mixologist creating a new mocktail at The Thief   | Photo Credit: RAVINDRAN R

The kitchen of Middle of Nowhere was frantic with activity. Staff at the recently launched bar in Mogappair checked expiry dates on meat, cheese and perishables, even as they energetically wiped down tables and sterilised equipment. One would think they were getting set to open a restaurant. But, this was in preparation to shut down.

Middle of Nowhere, along with a clutch of other optimistic bars, launched early this year, only to close down almost immediately after opening night.

As the second wave of COVID-19 battered Chennai, an intense lockdown was announced in May. “At that point we did not know how long we would be shut for,” says Arasu Dennis, consultant for Middle of Nowhere, and other popular city bars including The Living Room (Anna Nagar), Off The Record, BOATS, and Fat Monkey. Living Room ran for four months and Middle Of Nowhere for a month before the lockdown.

Reopening after a lockdown is as tough as a launch, says Arasu, stating, “All your investments are dead.” He adds, “It affects stock, food gets wasted, and we need to service the air-conditioning and other equipment before opening.” Given his association with multiple bar launches in the city, Arasu has almost mastered the skill of shutting down and reopening ever since the first lockdown in March 2020. “You have to learn to adapt if you want to survive,” he adds.

Which could explain why, despite the repeated drill of launch, close, reopen and the challenges of operating during a pandemic, a slew of new bars and restaurants have opened across the country.

The scene is no different in Chennai, with restaurateurs fearlessly going ahead with pandemic babies. “If anything, launching in times of COVID-19 has equipped us to be better prepared for all situations,” says Madhulika Umashankar of Down Sterling. The charming 75-year-old bungalow on Sterling Road that is now a resto bar, opened late March this year.

More hiccups than cheers: Here’s the latest on the new bars in Chennai

PHOTO: Ravindran R

“Post our launch, we were getting 70-80 people for lunch and dinner. It dropped down to 25 just before the lockdown,” says Madhulika. Now that they have reopened after a two month hiatus, the biggest challenge is drawing back clientele. “It’s about 40 people per day now,” she says, adding that they are operating at 50% occupancy, adhering to Government orders.

While most businesses have tried to put on a brave face, the recent, temporary ban on serving alcohol by the Tamil Nadu Government has been an added disadvantage for bars, pubs and restaurants.

As they wait on tenterhooks for further updates from the Government, Arasu says the no-liquor order has led pubs and restobars to rework their game plan, and focus more on food. For example, he says, Middle of Nowhere was not doing delivery when they went into lockdown. But now, bracing for a possible third wave, they are all set to deliver to clients.

Since bars primarily depend on the sale of liquor for their profits, menus normally list 90% alcohol and only 10% non alcoholic beverages. Now, bartenders are concocting more mocktails to keep afloat. “Mocktails have gone up by 30% in most places,” observes Arasu. Bars are expensive business, he says, adding that even rentals are 50% more for bars than restaurants. “We are making 30% of what we used to make pre-pandemic,” says Arasu. Right now the restobars he works with are on survival mode, managing to pay rents and salary to the staff. But for how long, is the question Arasu and others in the business seek an answer to.

At Down Sterling, the lack of liquor has not made a real difference as people treat it as a restaurant that just happens to serves alcohol. However, they have also forayed into the delivery model, bracing for impact should the lockdowns intensify.

A few businesses have decided to remain shut till liquor can be served again. The much-awaited Monkey Bar, which finally opened in Chennai this April, functioned for around three weeks before stopping operations. As patrons pored over its exhaustive online menu created by Chef Manu Chandra, and shortlisted what to order, they were disappointed to learn that the gastro pub is not even doing delivery.

More hiccups than cheers: Here’s the latest on the new bars in Chennai

“Delivery alone can never keep a restaurant our size afloat. With aggregators taking commission, our margins are thin,” says Chetan Rampal, partner Monkey Bar Chennai (Olive group of restaurants), over a call from Mumbai. “We are designed for restaurant and bar operations; our menus and kitchen are planned that way. If I was going to bleed one rupee, with delivery I’ll bleed two rupees,” he explains. Delivery also means the kitchen has to be fully stocked and the entire menu made available, he adds.

There is more to it. If the pub is functioning, then a percentage of the revenue goes towards the landlord. But with the whole setup closed, Monkey Bar is saving on rent, says Chetan, adding that Chennai has given them a rent break.

It is a different story in their other branches in other cities, as each State Government has their own set of rules. Their operations remain closed in Bengaluru and Mumbai. Mumbai allows liquor to be served only on weekdays and till 4 pm. In Kolkata they are open till 8 pm, and in Delhi till 10 pm.

More hiccups than cheers: Here’s the latest on the new bars in Chennai

At the end of the day, says Chetan, “There are a lot of people dependent on us: right from our staff of 70-80 to small vendors like the one who supplies us with flowers or the person who brings us eggs. Where do they go?”

The waiting game

For most businesses, waiting for a return to the old normal, or even an approximation of it, is not an option. Many of 2021’s openings were planned in 2019, and restaurateurs need to pay rent, regardless of lockdowns. Add staff salaries and other overheads, and the costs can be crushing, which is also why this year has seen many closures.

Sin & Tonic in T Nagar got tired of playing the waiting game and decided to take the plunge. The 300-seater resto bar, earlier slated to open in May 2020, finally launched in March this year. “There were too many things to follow up on,” says Swati Chauhan, partner and co-founder of Sin & Tonic. “Our manpower had left, including staff we had trained over months, so we had to hire again. Tastings did not go as planned, and crockery we had ordered had to be cancelled.”

More hiccups than cheers: Here’s the latest on the new bars in Chennai

Getting ready to open again after the second wave entailed a rigmarole of pest control, sanitisation and kitchen maintenance. “Lot of expense and no revenue,” says Swati, adding, “My kitchen team is from up North. With each State having different restrictions, gathering them back here is a big task,” she says.

Right now, the 8,000-plus square feet space is operating with 50% staff. “We are taking in only about 75 to 100 people. Since we are not serving alcohol at the moment, it’s nice to see families coming and dining with us. Some of the kids are so excited to be in a place like this that they run around the outdoor area and take pictures,” laughs Swati.

“It is also demotivating for the owners, promoters and staff to look at an empty space minus its clients,” says Swati, explaining why, despite all odds, a host of bars went live as soon as training, stock and licenses fell into place, hoping to make the most of the situation.

Bay 6 in Akkarai, started with a similar mindset. “We opened in December last year as we wanted to cash in on Christmas and New Years,” says co-owner Bharath Raju. “Things would have been way better if not for COVID-19 but I have nothing to complain about,” he adds, visibly pleased with the customers his beach facing property is drawing.

“It’s open air with a lawn so people don’t have to worry about being seated in closed air-conditioned spaces. The lower deck is family friendly, so a lot of kids come along,” he says. A cafe for pet lovers and their fur babies is underway as well: he is going in, all guns blazing.

The same can be said about Hari Chandran and Lakshmana Perumal, who launched their ambitious four-storey project The Thief on Kodambakkam High Road. Painstakingly curated with installations and pictures of digital and hand-painted art, this resto bar features different themes for each of its floors. “We haven’t scrimped on anything be it the decor or the menu which features Thai, Japanese, Italian... We are known for our lobsters, jumbo prawns and crabs that come from Rameshwaram,” says Hari.

One of the dining sections at The Thief

One of the dining sections at The Thief   | Photo Credit: RAVINDRAN R

The Thief opened in April and could function for only three days before the lockdown. “Even when it was closed we made sure some of the staff came in and cleaned the place. We did not want it to smell musty when it opened again,” says Hari.

The team worked on this project for a year and a half and had earlier planned to set up in December 2020. The only new addition is the fourth floor with cosy cabanas as most people are comfortable sitting outdoors now. They started operating at the first chance they got. “It made no sense to wait any longer because no one knows how long the pandemic is going to go on for,” he says, adding “We have to adapt.”

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Printable version | Sep 21, 2021 8:34:11 PM |

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