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Thursday, March 04, 2021

The Budget Connection: ‘We understand the difference, but are happy to get back semblance of regular life’

As many as 7.3 million jobs across India were on the line, as the restaurant industry was battered by a prolonged lockdown.

Written by Divya A | New Delhi |
Updated: February 2, 2021 10:56:08 am
budget, restaurants covid lockdown, restaurants in delhi, restaurants shut, khan market, indian express newsVivian Lamington, 55, a restaurant manager, says he survived as his wife holds a govt job. (Express photo by Anil Sharma)

No one knows Vivian Lamington in Delhi’s Khan Market. But everyone there knows “Veenu of China Fare”. That’s what Lamington’s acquired identity has been, for three decades, ever since China Fare opened in the upscale market in 1989. The restaurant’s manager, he has been its face — even in the media — since China Fare’s owner — 67-year-old Upinder Singh from Sundar Nagar — has always chosen to remain behind the scenes.

Lamington says he remembers March 17, 2020, when China Fare had to be shut due to the lockdown. What started as weeks turned into months, and then the news came that China Fare has exited Khan Market, like many other restaurants, owing to uncertainty about the future of the business, and immediate rental concerns. The news felt like a personal loss for regulars, as much as for Lamington and the other nine-odd staff members of the small 28-cover space, many of whom were associated with it like Lamington, ever since the restaurant was born. They didn’t know what the future had in store.

As many as 7.3 million jobs across India were on the line, as the restaurant industry was battered by a prolonged lockdown. Some half-a-million restaurants across the country hoped the Centre and the state governments would announce quick relief measures, failing which, they feared they could be forced out of business.

In April, the National Restaurant Association of India started sending representations to the Finance Ministry and NITI Aayog, pointing out how restaurants are integral to tourism, retail and trade, and called for urgent steps to address marginal employees in the form of unemployment cover, 50 per cent salary, and extra rations.

Veenu has managed the restaurant pretty much since its inception. He does everything — from keeping a tab of staff salaries to procuring vegetables and grocery, and attending calls for reservations. He remembers preferences of regular patrons — who likes a slice of lime in their diet coke, who likes spicy food, and who complains of acidity if the food gets too spicy. He says he could survive because his wife — who holds a government job — could support the household. “All nine staff members of China Fare were getting partly paid and Mr Singh (the owner) ensured there wasn’t a dearth of supplies,” he says, adding, “But many of my friends and peers working in the industry, employed even at the best of places in Khan Market faced major survival issues in absence of a safety net.”

Veenu quotes the case of one of his friends who has now become an auto-rickshaw driver, and another one who has returned to his village in the hills and has no reason to return since the restaurant he worked at shut for good. Some of them, he adds, who worked in the kitchen, now cook at homes. Another one, who served at a restaurant in Khan Market itself, now hawks strawberries there.

October onwards, as the lockdown was relaxed, news of a bounce-back trickled in — many restaurants started to announce reopening. In last week of December, one could see printouts pasted at many places in Khan Market: China Fare is back. On January 3 this year, China Fare reopened — albeit in a very different avatar. It opened nextdoor in Prithviraj Market, where the rental is one-sixth of the Rs 9-lakh per month they shelled out at the original location.

The seating capacity had come down — from 28 to 12 covers.

Lamington says, “We do understand the difference but we are happy to get back a semblance of regular life. It’s much smaller, but we are serving the same taste and flavours, cooked by the same chefs and served by the same staff.

Those walking in are also our regulars — groups of lawyers and bureaucrats … and small groups of families from the vicinity.”

“Since eating out is the only diversion in these gloomy times, I hope our prospects keep getting better,” he says.

The Budget Connection

Nothing specific for restaurants. But with the flattening of the Covid-19 curve, cinema halls opening to full capacity, an almost complete unlockdown, and a vaccination push, more consumers are expected to return to restaurants.

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