Hope on the table

By Indira Laisram
Right: Sachin Garg, Shiva Indian Cuisine

Indian restaurateurs gear up for new innings

After their mandated closures, restaurants, pubs and cafes in Victoria will start reopening from 1 June but with limited customers of 20 at a time per enclosed space and under strict social distancing rules. For some Indian restaurants, this is a time to improvise and also a testing time as they grapple with a new reality and a pervasive uncertainty of what the future holds.

In the days before COVID-19 struck, Rajesh Wahi, owner of Ginger Club restaurant in the northern suburb of Melton, was on a high. His restaurant was adjudged the best takeaway restaurant by Menulog, an online food and beverage ordering app. It would be a momentary high as the state soon declared emergency and lockdown. Like the rest in the hospitality business, it was not the best of times.

As restrictions eased, Ginger Club resumed takeaway services but for Wahi, a seasoned restaurateur who used to own Balti Indian Cafe in Carlton and Chimney Indian Restaurant in Fitzroy North back in the 2000s, the experience was not the same as catering to patrons in the cosy confines of his restaurant.

“We are now looking forward to reopening on 1 June,” says Wahi.

Rajesh Wahi, Ginger Club

His restaurant has put up signs and it is understood that bookings are required to take down contact numbers and names of customers. “In further preparation, we have reduced our tables and are setting them apart. We will be hiring more staff. We are also putting a sanitiser station at the entrance and one small bottle on each table. Before customers touch the menu, they would have to sanitise as it would be a common item for the staff too.”

Anil Kumar Karpurapu, who along with his partner Praveen Indukuri, runs Dosa Hut, a chain of 13 outlets in Victoria, is happy about the reopening of restaurants, although he is unsure how that will pan out in his smallest chain in Footscray, which has a 40-seating capacity.

“In my understanding, irrespective of the size of the restaurant the maximum number of people has to be 20. So, for every four-square meter, there should be only one customer. Some restaurant dining spaces are only about 20-30 square metre, which means only four-five people can fit in there. In that case, opening that restaurant is a loss and it is better off focussing on takeaways. We will also need to have extra staff outside, an extra dishwasher and these are all additional costs. So, we will only come to know after a week about the advantages and disadvantages,” says Karpurapu.

Sachin Garg, who along with mentor Arun Chauhan, run the iconic Shiva Indian Cuisine which completes 32 years in operation this year at Prahran, is a bundle of emotions right now. “I am happy, excited, nervous and anxious,” says Garg, whose restaurant is ready with all the props such as temperature recorder and hand sanitisers.

“We are coming from a time when people were eating the cake in which candles were blown into. Now we are the same people who don’t want to shake hands with anyone”
— Sachin Garg, Shiva Indian Cuisine

“We are coming from a time when people were eating the cake in which candles were blown into. Now we are the same people who don’t want to shake hands with anyone. In one way, life has changed forever. We are doing things at the pace which nature wants us to do, not what we want to do. The whole scenario has changed. Now businesses have to learn to become more efficient because the model has changed. We will learn to be respectful to one another too,” reflects Garg.

In the inner suburb of Thornbury, Atul Khore, chef and owner of Masala Craft, which was set up in 2008, is no different. While looking forward to the reopening on 1 June, he is also looking forward to seeing how the business evolves during the next couple of months.

“At the moment, we don’t know how it is going to pan out because there are many job losses. The financial packages and JobKeeper and JobSeeker assistance are not going to last forever. It will be interesting to see whether Victorians are happy to dine out and spend money,” says Khore, adding, “Part of the business is that we get a bit of revenue from the beverages. That was stopped because of the restrictions, so we are now keen to observe the experience of how people are going to dine.”

The restaurateurs agree that with the economic downturn, they have to confront an uncertain future.

Praveen & Anil, Dosa Hut

Wahi maintains that takeaways and contactless deliveries will be his priority. Even before the announcement, a suburban restaurant like his was doing OK through this, he says but with the opening up of the food courts that has taken a bit of a hit.

Despite the limitation on the numbers of customers, he has not reduced his menu. “We will be getting more staff and the feedback is that customers are waiting so they can go and eat out,” says Wahi, whose Ginger Club completes 10 years in Melton.

Karpurapu is of the opinion that restaurant business in Australia has ‘been bad’ even before COVID-19 and that Indian restaurants are suffering losses. In fact, he finds the mushrooming of home catering a bigger threat to restaurants now.

“We have to take into account salaries, taxes, superannuation, weekend rates, public holiday rates, over times, annual leave, and outgoings. Therefore, we need to sell the biryani for $20-25 in order to be able to pay all of these. But if a restaurant is selling a curry for $15-16, home caterers are dropping rice, curries and chapatis for $10 at your house. Now, who will come to the restaurants? It’s not the fault of the customer, he will go to whoever is offering him a cheaper price,” argues Karpurapu.

Whether COVID-19 remains or not, the industry will struggle as home catering poses a big threat and hindrance, says Karpurapu.

Atul Khore, Masala Craft

He also raises the fact that businesses need to operate under certain guidelines. For instance, all restaurants need to have a grease trap. “Our sinks are connected to a grease trap, which collects all the oil. A third party cleans it once a month or quarterly depending on the size of the tank. This is to ensure that only plain waiter goes into the drainage. If you don’t have a grease trap, you are not given a permission to open a restaurant. But do home caterings follow such norms? Why shouldn’t laws and regulations apply to them as well? It costs 40-50 grand to install one,” he says, adding, “After spending this much if we can’t make any profits, it is frustrating.”

Meanwhile, Garg is optimistic that with a loyal base of customer for more than 30 years, the business will survive. “Yes, it will take at least 24 months before things go back to normal. People will dine out, but they might not dine out with that much enthusiasm. They will remain cautious for a while. But I am Test player,” he adds.

At Masala Craft, Khore is prepping for next week. “People need restaurants and vice versa. It will be unfortunate if the number of patrons dwindle. In such a scenario, many cafes and restaurants will have to shut down because the business cannot become sustainable. The rentals are already too high and if you don’t have high turnover, how will you pay the outgoings, the utilities, the overheads and other bills?”

When COVID-19 recedes, here is hoping that the world inherits a more equitable culinary world.

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