Fear of contracting Covid-19 is keeping people away from the restaurants they love, says head chef and owner of Passage to Asia restaurant Dipchand Persad.
“People are afraid. We’re hoping after the lockdown, people will begin to understand that one day everybody will get it, and we have to learn to live with the virus,” Persad said when he welcomed the Express to his St Yves Street, Chaguanas, restaurant last Friday.
Persad said that fear has translated to a drastic drop in visitors to both his Ariapita Avenue, Port of Spain, and Chaguanas locations. Even before the ban on in-house dining, he said his restaurants have been surviving on take-away service.
“After the first lockdown when they opened back, people weren’t coming out at all. We were getting like two tables a night, two tables in the morning, sometimes none at all. So it was better for us to just do take-away.
“Now with the second lockdown, we’re getting take-away, but not as before. And it’s getting slower and slower in both branches, Port of Spain and Chaguanas. Port of Spain’s sales dropped 60 per cent and here (Chaguanas), 40 per cent,” the former Hilton Trinidad chef explained.
Passage to Asia took another big hit with the loss of several catering contracts they had mapped out in 2020, Persad said. With all functions and weddings cancelled, he said he has had to return hundreds of thousands of dollars in downpayments.
“Our main business was catering and everything was cancelled. Every weekend, we had like three weddings, and big weddings. This was to be the best year we had in the last five years. We had to return all downpayments for our banquet halls.
“Up to today, I paid back a downpayment of $50,000. I had to give back another couple $150,000 because the groom is living in USA and he can’t come. Some people took back their money because they have no job. Some people were doing their weddings, expecting they would have a continuation of earnings. Some banquet halls are holding downpayments for at least a year. I’m not doing that. I know how the situation is and I don’t want anybody to think of me badly,” he said.
Despite the challenges, Persad has opted not to lay off staff. Instead, he has adopted a rotation policy that alternates staff between three and two-day work rotations.
“We have sent home no staff. What we do is try to alternate it by giving them three days and two days (at a time), so we would not have to send home anybody and everybody could have a little something. Whoever wants to work somewhere else and do two jobs, I told them no problem,” he said.
Slow start to restaurant week
Besides a few calls with orders from regulars to his personal phone and a couple walk-ins, there was little activity at Passage to Asia’s Chaguanas location on Trinidad and Tobago Restaurant Week’s (TTRW) opening night last Friday.
Persad said he hopes interest will pick up throughout this week and into the weekend. He however admitted the forced take-away and home-delivery format of this year’s edition can’t compare to the full experience of getting dressed up and making an outing with family and friends.
“I think restaurant week is something customers look forward to dress up and come out and eat. Eating at the restaurant itself is a difference than just buying a bag of food and taking it home. Sitting and enjoying a meal with your family, your friends and your staff is a totally different atmosphere,” he said.
The excitement and appeal of Passage to Asia during TTRW is their extensive dinner buffet, featuring Indian, Thai, Chinese and American dishes, he said. Persad said he saw record numbers visiting his restaurant last September and was looking forward to an even bigger turnout this year.
“Our buffet has 60 to 70 items. Last year, we get high ratings for the buffet. It was a nice mixture. I was surprised; for the first time I did restaurant week last year, it was 100 per cent successful. This restaurant week would have been real good for everybody. It’s become so commercialised now, it’s like Valentine’s and Mother’s Day. People were really looking forward to coming out and eat,” he explained.
Persad served an eclectic spread of Indian, Thai and Chinese food on Friday, that started with a delightful shrimp cake appetiser. His main course meats featured a juicy lamb rogan josh, sautéed in coriander, onion, ginger and garlic sauce, and a spicy chicken with chilli and cashew.
They were both served with Thai khao pad rice—mixed vegetable fried rice—broccoli and mushrooms in garlic sauce and garlic naan. The real star of the show was his paneer mushrooms. Stuffed with cottage cheese and sautéed in a red sauce, Persad’s mushrooms were well worth the drive to Chaguanas.
Expecting a slow Christmas
Persad said with the continued rise in confirmed Covid-19 cases and the downturn in the local economy, he doesn’t expect this to be a good Christmas, even with a potential ease in restrictions.
“I don’t think Christmas will be different if they lift the band; nobody’s doing big functions again. Before March month, the number of functions we had booked—500-people, 400-people and 300-people functions. Now people not going to do functions that size again. The biggest you’re going to get is 50 to 60 people,” he lamented.
Persad urged wise spending in the coming months, revealing he was on the cusp of opening a new Passage to Asia location in South Trinidad when the pandemic hit.
“Spend wisely. Be careful how you’re investing. I was looking to open another restaurant in South just before the Covid. We were looking at properties in South, and thank God I didn’t invest because we were almost there to do it. I would have lost a lot,” he revealed.
He said the faster nationals can accept and adapt to the new reality, the faster the local economy can begin to recover.
“This Covid changed everybody’s life, from a baby to the oldest person, to every form of business. It’s not a normal life again like we knew before. People have to change their mindset, keep taking precautions and not be frightened to come out and enjoy life,” he concluded.