Restrictions leave a bad taste in the mouth

Restaurants’ association helpless as another COVID-19 wave in Delhi hurts industry with uncertainty and job losses

January 17, 2022 12:26 am | Updated 12:34 am IST - NEW DELHI

A restaurant at GTB Nagar wears a deserted look during the weekend curfew in Delhi on Sunday.

A restaurant at GTB Nagar wears a deserted look during the weekend curfew in Delhi on Sunday.

The fresh wave of COVID-19 in the city has brought with it another unpalatable experience for the restaurant industry, which is reeling under uncertainty and job losses.

As restaurants have been restricted to functioning only as kitchens, employees have started leaving the city to avoid paying rent. Meanwhile, those from the city have started looking for opportunities in other sectors.

Jugul Kishore, who works as a waiter at a plush restobar, lost his job overnight as the Delhi government issued orders to shut down. He is in search of employment to help make ends meet.

“During the first lockdown, I was left jobless for two-three months before finding a job of a security guard. Before the second lockdown, I had an inkling that restaurants would shut again so I had applied for a job in advance. This time round, the company does not have a vacancy and I am looking for other opportunities,” says Mr. Jugul.

“Life was smooth and I was able to take care of my family well before the pandemic hit. However, the crisis has wiped out all my savings and I am unable to buy a phone for my Class VII daughter to attend online class. I have to think about how to share my phone with her while looking for a job,” says Mr. Jugul.

‘Govt. should help’

He says that those employed in government jobs or the IT sector do not face job losses and wonders why it is the hospitality sector that is being singled out despite restaurants taking all precautions to ensure the safety of staffers and customers. “The government needs to help us out financially in this time. It is easy to announce closure but how does one survive without a job? Compensation is offered to those families who have had COVID-19 victims, but what about those who are struggling to live?” Mr. Jugul asks.

The National Restaurants’ Association of India (NRAI) estimates that there are about 95,187 eateries in Delhi, of which 32,777 are organised restaurants with an FSSAI number and pay GST. “We are worried about the fate of 3,01,715 people employed in Delhi restaurants. We don’t want them to suffer, but unfortunately we don’t have adequate resources to support them for long,” says NRAI president Kabir Suri. He adds that in Delhi, the income from takeaway/delivery is meagre while the dine-out frequency in Delhi is maximum in the country with the average Delhiite dining out six times a month as compared to the national average of 4.5 times per month.

Abhishek Patel, who manages a restaurant in south Delhi, says that most of his colleagues are from Himachal and Uttarakhand and they have already left for home so that they do not have to pay rent when restaurants are shut. “It is better to go stay with family back home. My restaurant owners supported me financially through the previous lockdowns but many have lost jobs and had to find other sources of income. I do not have a background where there is any work for me at home. I have been away from my family for the last 12 years so I looked at it optimistically,” says Mr. Patel. He adds that jobs are hard to find in this situation and the only option is to play the waiting game and hope things get back to normal.

Tough to survive

As established restaurants negotiate with landlords over rent, freshers in the field see their hopes and aspirations shattered as they had only recently signed agreements for their ventures. Sahil Bhalla, who started a café on December 15, 2021, says the response was positive for the first 15 days but just as the word spread and positive reviews started coming in, COVID restrictions were announced.

“Over the past week, we have been getting only 7-10 orders a day via online ordering platforms and 5-10 takeaways during the week when there is no curfew. With such small numbers it is very tough to survive as running costs are high,” said Mr. Bhalla. However, he adds that another cloud kitchen venture of his is doing well as there are minimum running costs and there are many people opting for deliveries.

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