Social distancing has come at a cost to multiple players in Pakistan's food industry and things look pretty grim.
What is Pakistan's favourite pastime during the lockdown?
Whine and dine.
As one distressed foodie wrote on Facebook group Karachi Food Diary, “I’ve already had eggs twice, now what do I do?”
Jokes aside, restaurants across the country have shuttered indefinitely as we come to grips with a lockdown to control the outbreak of Covid-19... and things look pretty grim.
Social distancing has come at a cost to the food industry chain: restaurants, food delivery services and home-based food businesses are some of the key players who have taken a major hit.
With little to no revenue coming in and given the uncertainty of the situation, the question that lingers is, how long can restaurant businesses stay afloat?
Sindh is in full lockdown which means the provincial government has notified all eateries in the region to close their services until further notice only allowing grocery stores to operate within a curfew.
Karachi cafe Test Kitchen by Okra was the first eatery to shut operations indefinitely.
“From a business perspective, I was worried about closing TK,” said Ayaz Khan of Okra, “But staff safety and providing safe food for guests is foremost. I will be able to sustain for a couple of months but most new restaurants face worse challenges.”
… and The Verge is one of them. Aman Virji’s three-month old restaurant may have to brave closure due to the indeterminate timeline of the pandemic.
“The lockdown has killed my revenue but my fixed expenses like salaries and rent are still there - I don’t know how I’m going to pay utilities. I probably will not have the sustainability to last longer than a few months. I’ll have to close [the restaurant entirely] and then reopen [once the pandemic is over].”
He added, “We were finally going to start making money. I came home and cried that night because no one knows what the outcome is going to be.”
The lockdown extends to food delivery services like Foodpanda and Careem NOW who have also shut operations in Sindh until further notice.
Careem Spokesperson Madiha Javed Qureshi said, “Careem has temporarily suspended all its services in the region. Since Careem NOW is based in Karachi, it's not functional at the moment.”
The discontinuation of food delivery services and shutdown of restaurants has also influenced operations of home-based food businesses in the city since many of them rely on riders to deliver their items and restaurants to stock/buy their products.
Jalal Asim Ali, the man behind Karacheese, has seen a marked dip in revenue after scaling down production to limited quantities. They’re now only serving their individual customers and stocking at a few grocery stores.
The situation in Punjab seems a little optimistic for restaurateurs; the partial lockdown permits eateries to operate within the capacity of takeaways and deliveries but the severity of things still looms.
“Sales are down to 80-90% for most operators. Most businesses will be making a loss in the next two to three months. No amount of delivery and takeaway can cover overheads of a full service restaurant because they [only] amount to 5-10% of total sales,” Ammar Mohsin of Lahore-based Rina’s Kitchenette explained.
He has taken action to limit the damage to his food businesses as best he can.
“We’ve set up our own delivery services, we’ve temporarily converted most of our inhouse waiters to riders for deliveries.” As well as sanitising everything that goes in and out of the kitchen and doing temperature checks of all staff.
Burger joint Jessie’s in Islamabad though, felt the need of the hour was to shut the business to contain the virus as much as possible within their means.
“In our worst case scenario, we did not anticipate that the whole world was going to shut down, so we’ve closed our doors for all services indefinitely; we don’t want to expose our staff to the virus nor bring people out of their homes for takeaways or deliveries,” said the brand's co-manager Yasir Jaswal.
“It's very possible that the virus can spread via deliveries which is why we have ended our delivery services entirely,” said home-based baker Nida Iftikhar of The Teacake Company.
The mother-daughter duo plan to wait it out and start full production once the situation improves; till then “we are stocking our products at some stores in Lahore where safety precautions are being taken.”
The issue is not a singular one, it trickles down to the employees of food businesses which perhaps makes them the worst affected.
Some legitimate questions to ask these businesses are: Are their employees being laid off? Are they being paid in full? Is it fair (and safe) that they’re working in this situation? How can they be assisted?
Jessie's paid its staff in full and plans to pay the employees for as long as possible. Yasir stressed, “They are already making less as they’re not earning tips, however, we don’t plan on laying people off or reducing their wages.”
In Rina’s case, the employees who reside outside of Lahore with other means of income have been sent home with paid leave, those who live in the city are still working. “Additionally, we have cut managerial salaries by half and taken directorial salaries out,” said Ammar.
The flip side of scaling down his business has come with operational redundancy as the need for dishwashers, front staff and cleaners has become inessential.
“I’m still supporting them at the moment as I plan to reopen," he added.
It is no surprise that the lesser privileged are in need at the moment, like No Fries Lies’ co-owner Safwan Leghari put it, “As owners we will pass this time someway or the other as we are privileged but we need to keep helping our staff and every possible person in need in any way that we can.”
Which makes one wonder how food delivery services are caring for their employees and riders given the circumstances.
“Careem is facilitating medical insurance for riders and their families in case of an infection or hospitalisation and is providing rations with NGOs to as many riders as possible,” said Madiha.
Alongside, her colleagues have donated money to riders and the company is “maintaining hygiene standards in regions Careem is operational.”
Foodpanda rider Rahim* expressed that due to the company’s suspension of operations he has been actively searching for work in the city. “[Before the lockdown] I had a side hustle which helped me earn Rs10,000 a month on top of my salary, now I’m hardly taking home Rs600 a week,” he lamented.
Home-run businesses perhaps have it easier than full-service restaurants in this regard; they have less employees and can take manageable precautions at home.
Karacheese has not felt the need to lay off its limited staff. Jalal says he will continue paying their wages and is also providing them with accommodation.
Batter & Dough, a Karachi home-based bakery run by Eesha Hussain, went the extra mile and closed business for a two-week quarantine period after having returned from an international trip.
“This was around mid-March when a lot of cases were being reported; I got tested, followed the quarantine and decided not to take orders till then so as to not expose anyone else to the risk including my team and family,” she said.
One homecook has a different story to tell. Ayesha Khan, who recently rose to fame on KFD for her biryani, “decided to help feed people during the lockdown because I have friends who don’t have house help or live in rented spaces and don’t have access to a kitchen.”
With Careem NOW and FoodPanda having halted all operations in the city, she offered to cook food for people and deliver it to their homes. A week in and she was forced to shut her business after receiving death threats and online abuse for being ‘irresponsible’ during a pandemic.
People’s backlash is unwarranted but Ayesha's motivation is valid: what are people in Sindh who solely rely on food delivery services (students, old, sick/ with dietary restrictions, live alone, rent a space, without a kitchen) to do in this situation?
Careem is in talks with the government to resume delivery services for customers but at the moment there’s been no luck, responded Madiha.
In times like these, some have stepped forward and assumed responsibility.
For instance, two boys who sell vegetables in an area in Gulshan-e-Iqbal have taken the task of helping people in the neighbourhood, especially the elderly who are at high risk of contracting Covid. The duo deliver groceries and other items to people in nearby buildings.
“My parents are old and unwell, I refuse to let them step out of the house. As I cannot take the car out by myself, these boys have been a blessing to our family as well as our neighbours,” said Tania*.
With no timeline to hold on to and almost no revenue from their eateries, food business owners have a shared concern in mind: “There are limited savings, for how long can I continue to give money out of my own pocket?"
This is where the head of All Pakistan Restaurant Association (APRA) Athar Chawla hopes to facilitate eateries as much as possible.
“APRA is demanding the provincial government to lift the full lockdown on restaurants and bakeries after April 14, which should come into effect next week,” he said.
Along with going to news channels and voicing the problems faced by the food industry currently, the Association has also “demanded the government to give restaurateurs relief by exempting utility bills and rent for the next three months and waiving sales tax for at least 12 months.”
While restaurateurs pin their hopes on the Association in this hour of need, some food businesses are using the situation to becoming game-changers in the industry.
For example, Lahore’s Johnny & Jugnu launched a DIY-burger kit called Survival Kit featuring separately packaged ingredients of their dishes so customers can assemble their JJ plate at home.
Days later No Lies Fries introduced Karachi to its first DIY- burger kit with a step-by-step guide to creating the NLF burger. It didn’t take long for 2 Guys 1 Grill to join in and follow suit.
At present there is no saying what the future holds for eateries but one thing is for sure, social distancing has challenged restaurateurs and once the lockdown is over we will be looking at a new way of food businesses interacting with customers.
For now, it's a waiting game.
* Names have been changed to protect identities of the individuals
** The author reached out to Foodpanda but did not receive a response