The End Of The Road For Many Restaurants In Mumbai
A bartender wears a protective mask and gloves at a bar New Delhi, on Sept. 8, 2020. (Photographer: T. Narayan/Bloomberg)

The End Of The Road For Many Restaurants In Mumbai

BloombergQuintOpinion

March 17, 2020 was when we shut the restaurant. It is now April and exactly a year since Masque first started deliveries.

Adversity is a terrible thing to waste, and we all are hit by adversities in our life—personal and professional—but this has been possibly the worst year for the hospitality industry. All we could do was try to manoeuvre the waters and make sure our businesses survive. It's like when you don't know how to swim and somebody throws you into the deep end: you go into survival mode and just try to stay afloat. That was all of us, all of last year.

The restaurant was shut for around eight months. To understand how crippling this can be, you have to understand how narrow the profit margins we work on are. Yes, we did deliveries; we did whatever we could in order to survive. We introduced weekend specials called ‘Chef’s Pick’ menus, which we’ve just brought back. We organized Tailgates every Sunday, serving fresh, hot food to guests in the safety of their cars, which (thankfully) proved to be hugely successful. But for restaurants—especially those that aren’t geared towards delivery models—functioning in such a limited capacity can be debilitating.

Outdoor dining via Masque Tailgate. The restaurant served patrons in an open air parking area in 2020 when the coronavirus was raging in Mumbai. (Image: Masque on Twitter)
Outdoor dining via Masque Tailgate. The restaurant served patrons in an open air parking area in 2020 when the coronavirus was raging in Mumbai. (Image: Masque on Twitter)

By October-November, the government allowed eateries to reopen for dine-in. We opened the restaurant, but people were still very hesitant to come out.

Business was picking up around February. By March, we were actually really happy with the pace the business was growing at. Then, just when we said, okay, great, we can start healing from the last year…within a week, the new lockdown was announced.

So many businesses have borrowed money or taken loans to try ensuring their restaurants survive. It feels like there are so many factors that the government hasn’t taken into account. I’m not sure a lot of restaurants are going to be able to make it through another lockdown—definitely not without government aid and intervention. A lot of restaurants will be deeper in debt, and after this lockdown it’s going to be incredibly tough to stabilise again.

There is also so much confusion, and often a lack of communication, with new rules and regulations. We’ve had three different directives for the hospitality industry passed around in the span of a week. You shut the restaurant first, then you open the restaurant, and then you shut it again.

Every second line in the circulars recommend that staff “get vaccinated at the earliest.” How? Stocks across the city are dangerously low, besides which, none of our team—and this is the case across many industries—is even eligible for vaccination. And so all we can do is get our teams tested regularly, which is another added cost altogether, but of course one that has to be done, no doubt.

An employee wearing a protective mask cooks inside a restaurant in New Delhi, on Aug. 22, 2020. (Photographer: T. Narayan/Bloomberg)
An employee wearing a protective mask cooks inside a restaurant in New Delhi, on Aug. 22, 2020. (Photographer: T. Narayan/Bloomberg)

While I cannot compare workers in the hospitality sector to medical professionals, healthcare workers or the armed forces, the nature of this business is that it’s people-driven, with direct and indirect contact, and employs huge numbers across the country. I think there is a conversation that needs to be had about the bars on vaccinations.

I understand people are scared, but I find so many discrepancies in the directives.

A 50-person wedding or a political rally, where the idea of social distancing is laughable at best, is allowed—yet a restaurant functioning at half-capacity, where you can actually ensure distance and protocols, is the bigger threat?

Film shoots with scores of people are manageable but a restaurant seating 20 people at different tables is not?

Employees wearing protective masks and face shields clean a restaurant in New Delhi, on Aug. 22, 2020. (Photographer: T. Narayan/Bloomberg)
Employees wearing protective masks and face shields clean a restaurant in New Delhi, on Aug. 22, 2020. (Photographer: T. Narayan/Bloomberg)

The hospitality industry is a sizable part of India’s economy, that supports its GDP growth, and has played a large part in job creation. Let's be fair to everyone. We are happy to abide by the rules and fly at half-mast; limit the guests, and by all means, those not following protocol should be held accountable. We understand the severity of the situation, but it’s difficult to move past the double standards and see the logic here.

Most don’t realise the wide range of taxes that we pay every month or every year. It is enormous—be it excise or property tax. The government needs to consider giving us some tax relief or direct financial assistance. Organisations like the National Restaurant Association of India have been meeting the authorities concerned. We've asked for financial aid but there has been none. We need to find systems that work, we need government support, we need some form of relief.

A bartender wearing a protective mask adjusts his face shield at a restaurant, in New Delhi, on Sept. 8, 2020. (Photographer: T. Narayan/Bloomberg)
A bartender wearing a protective mask adjusts his face shield at a restaurant, in New Delhi, on Sept. 8, 2020. (Photographer: T. Narayan/Bloomberg)

I don't know when the government is planning to allow dine-in operations. With this much uncertainty, honestly, it’s one day at a time for us. I’m looking at revenues on a daily basis and seeing how we can best manoeuvre. Who do I need to pay? What is most urgent? The math doesn’t add up, and right now it is a question of basic survival. What the hospitality industry needs is to thrive and do well. It is one of the biggest employers in India, and a lot of people depend on it. If the lockdown continues, I think a lot of restaurants will be deeper in debt – and that means eventual death. It’s that simple.

Prateek Sadhu is the executive chef and co-founder of Mumbai’s Masque Restaurant. Masque was recently named to Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.

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