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Monday, May 17, 2021

What’s cooking? Pune restaurants are uncertain as lockdown changes rules of engagement

Nearly two months of darkness later, as the lockdown eases, many restaurateurs are staring at a void where a new social order is expected to emerge.

Written by Dipanita Nath | Pune |
May 11, 2020 9:55:32 pm
Pune news, Pune city news, Pune restaurants, Pune restaurants lockdown, Pune lockdown news, Covid-19 Pune Several restaurants are unsure if the future will be worth reopening for.(Representational Image)

When the sun went down, the streets in large parts of Pune used to brighten with the lights of restaurants. Now, nearly two months of darkness later, as the lockdown eases, many restaurateurs are staring at a void where a new social order is expected to emerge. Several of them are unsure if the future will be worth reopening for.

At The Fat Labrador Cafe in Bavdhan, one of the owners, Smita Murthy, tentatively started delivery of their famous filter coffee and sandwiches this week. “My partner, Aniket Naik, and I are struggling with the idea of food delivery because that wasn’t what we wanted when we quit our jobs and started The Fat Labrador Cafe,” says Murthy.

The Fat Labrador Cafe used to offer more than food on the menu. Founded by Murthy, a microbiologist, and Nair, an IT professional, who have dedicated their lives to the god of coffee, the restaurant is named after a pet dog, welcomes animals (and humans), and doubles as an art and culture venue and a clubhouse for like-minded quirky thinkers.

“We have already lost two months and the new norms of social distancing are worrying us. We are a small business and our salaries and rent come from whatever we generate over the month,” she says. “In the last one-and-a-half years, the cafe had become what we had envisioned. It had become a community space, where we had storytellers, live music, quizzing events and film screenings. I am not sure we want to be in the food delivery business.”

Across the city, similar sentiments are being echoed by several establishments that had invested in building communities and relationships. Such restaurants — the place where one could grab snacks on a budget, a cosy diner for date nights or a chic addresses for anniversary dinners and family celebrations — were a part of the collective memory for many in the city. The owners knew most guests by first name, their choice of literature, political leanings and opinion on sports. Many friendly neighbourhood cafes were also spaces for poetry open mics, jam sessions, book readings and painting exhibitions.

Students, who had come from other states, found an opportunity to showcase their skills here; working professionals used these as platforms to perform to small audiences; budding writers found critics and, sometimes, publishers; and senior citizens felt the impulse to return to an old hobby.

Pagdandi Bookstore and Cafe, where majlis, DIY workshops and acoustic nights were held under towering bookshelves, has opened for delivery of books. “I have to figure out if I want to open for delivering food. I will need to call up my staff, check their health and ensure that they are not affected. The kitchen has been closed for two months so I will have to do pest control. There is a lot of uncertainty right now,” says Vishal Pipraiya, who started Pagdandi with his wife, Neha.

At the Midnight Kakery, where Shruti Kapre, who is both owner and baker, sends out sumptuous celebration cakes. The orders started coming in as soon as they announced they were open for deliveries.

“At this time, everybody is tired of eating home food. All the home bakers have done their thing but it takes time to perfect the perfect cake. We had six orders the day after we reopened,” says Prasad Kapre, co-owner. The establishment has been fighting on several fronts, especially rentals. “A lot depends on whether our landlord understands the situation and how much leeway we get,” says Kapre.

The patisserie’s supply chain, especially of chocolates and creams that come from Mumbai, has become disrupted, and many of their vendors in Pune are located in containment areas of the city. “Employee well-being is very important. Our employees are from Pune but their family members are going to need convincing that they will be safe in customer-facing interactions,” adds Kapre.

Add to this the uncertainty regarding the rules of lockdown, economic packages and social distancing norms in future. Devesh Bhatia of the Pan Indian Eatery expects quieter lunch and dinner hours. The 40-cover restaurant is famous for its lavish menu drawn from far-flung regions on the country’s map as well as for innovative pies such as Mutton Keema Pie and Butter Chicken Pie.

“In that scenario, we will trim the menu and keep changing it every few days. The rules of social distancing means we may operate 10-15 guests at a time. The staff will also be smaller as many of them, who stayed back during the lockdown will want to return home, outstation, to their worried families. The first challenges we are going to face as soon as the lockdown is lifted, is that at least half of the staff — cooks, service and utility sections — will go back. We hope there will be a reduction in rent from our landlord. Sanitisation will also have to be carried out frequently, probably every hour, which means that the cost of running the restaurant will go up,” says Bhatia.

Then again, would consumers want to go out and spend money in a scenario where a lot of people are losing jobs or facing salary cuts? In the five years it has been around, Nukkad Cafe had become a buzzing space that held more than 50 events every month besides serving an array of munchies. Online performances, though well attended by loyal clientele are, at best, a pale shadow of the real thing.

“These are difficult times because culture is all about enabling people to interact. One of the key outcomes of any cultural richness is that people should be able to meet, listen and talk. Now, we have a situations when people are not allowed to get together,” says Vaibhav Paliwal of Nukkad Cafe.

The cafe, which had fostered groups around poetry and music, is now working on an app, web browser or a scanner code on the table that will offer contactless menu. They have published three Kindle books, on poetry, short stories and quotes, and two more are in the pipeline. “In terms of events, our revenue has fallen to zero. In terms of walk-ins, zero again. We are delivering through Zomato and Swiggy, but there are few orders,” says Paliwal.

“Until people are willing to move out, cultural events, in the traditional way, will take a backseat. We will continue through online events. Food deliveries, on the other hand, may extend to late night or 3 am. We will adapt to whatever will come. Adapting is the only way,” adds Paliwal.

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