In a conversation with Outlook’s Lachmi Deb Roy, AD Singh, Founder and Managing Director, Olive Group of Restaurants, talks about the closing of restaurants in Delhi and Mumbai.
A well-known figure in the restaurant business, AD Singh has been at the forefront of the Indian hospitality industry for the last 28 years. Since 1990 he has encouraged the growth of the ‘standalone’ restaurant concept in India, giving it direction, confidence, leadership and definition. He says that the restaurant industry has been adversely affected due to lockdowns. Excerpts:
What are the ways in which lockdowns have affected restaurateurs?
We have the experience of last year’s lockdown. Nevertheless, when we have lockdowns all we can do is try to minimise the cost. Last year, when the lockdown was imposed last year, the NRAI (National Restaurant Association of India), which I am a part of, estimated that about 25 percent of restaurants and bars will never reopen after the lockdown. My group which is a national group with 25 restaurants, felt that there is no other way of managing other than keeping the cost tight. Last year, we received support from our landlord, our investors, and vendors when were just trying to get back on our feet. We had some debts. Vendors normally give you credits for two months, but probably because of the lockdown the two months period stretched to eight months and that’s not viable for them at all.
With the second lockdown starting first in Maharashtra and now Delhi, it seems that there is a lot of concern even in Hyderabad and Kolkata and we feel when the elections will get over, much stricter action will be announced. The lockdown again is going to be as bad as the lockdown was last year. I feel this time over 50 percent of the industry will not be able to manage to reopen because of cumulative losses.
The scene right now for chefs, restaurateurs, landlords, managers is very worrying. The other concern is that when the second spike happened because of a different variant of Covid coming in, who can guarantee that a third spike and a fourth spike is not going to happen. The understanding that we all have is that we will probably have to take vaccination every year. We need to get to a state of balance once this spike goes down and be disciplined. How do we get there is a greater thing? We need to think about how are we going to get the economy back on its feet and ensure the virus is not spreading and the people are not dying. The government is hoping that the vaccination will help, but right now we are not sure or confident yet.
What can the government do?
The answer to that is very clear, simple, and doable. The government must develop a much stricter policy on wearing masks. It should be compulsory to wear a mask outside the house and they should be very strict about it and a good amount of fine should be charged… not a few hundred rupees, but a couple of thousand rupees and that should be fixed.
I will give an example from my last three years' experience. Like the rest of the world, we were struggling with drunken driving, the Maharashtra government some years back decided to tackle it head-on. They started using equipment to test alcohol limits. And if somebody was caught over that limit, they had to spend a night in lockup. That was a very strict and clear mandate; ‘you have to spend the night in the lockup for drunken driving'. With that almost immediately the drunken driving cases dropped completely. Nobody at a party would have a drink if they had to drive back home because nobody wanted to spend the night in the lockup. So, in this case, also there should be a strict fine penalty and most importantly its strict implementation.
Government must realise that we are really badly hit and it is devastating for us. There is absolutely no evidence that restaurants are the cause of the spread of coronavirus. We are one of the largest employers of the people in the country and so many in this industry are sole providers in a family of four or five. So, if you think about the number of people dependent on our industry, the numbers are huge. Also, I feel that the government must realise that the restaurant industry is monitoring, regulating and following Covid protocols and is putting on a lot of effort. We are following very strict instructions with regard to screening, sanitization, social distancing, hygiene, ordering and billing. So, our industry is trying its best to regulate, monitor and stop the spread. If you see the markets, public transports, election rallies and religious functions the numbers are staggering and they aren’t following any social distancing. If the government can put a penalty on those who are not following the rules, that can be a game-changer in our country and we can stop the virus from spreading.
What is the scene going to be like even if the curfew is lifted?
Last year in summer there was total despair because we had no idea as to how long it is going to continue. It was very encouraging in the last six months after the lockdown was lifted to see people coming out increasingly and wanting to go back and meet their close friends and family in restaurants. Slowly and steadily by March 2021, the footfall in our restaurants started getting back to pre-Covid days. So, we are still hopeful that whenever the fear of the virus goes below the acceptable level, the customers will come back like they did post the first lockdown and help us to get back on our feet. Not only was the hospitality industry, the economy was also getting back on its feet again. The question is how much time do we have, if there is going to be a third strain in a few months, it’s going to be the end of the road for our industry.
The industry has to in a way keep people connected. After the lockdown last year, The Olive in Bandra, Mumbai opened up as an all-day café and that created a lot of buzz. The people were coming out to see what our new menu. They helped Olive in Bandra to get back on its feet. The Bombay Canteen also opened an Asian delivery service. Many restaurants opened shops where ingredients can be shopped and delivered, so that’s another source of revenue. But people in the industry have been severely hit. One of the chefs I know is also reconsidering whether to stay in the industry or try other sources of income. Nobody realised that it is going to become such a grim reality. Closing down of the restaurants cripples the livelihood of millions and has much more frustrating long-term effects on the economy. My wife has started saying, ‘It’s the right time to become a grocer or a chemist’, (laughs)!