Passage to Asia

Hard hit: An empty Passage to Asia.

The total shutdown of all restaurants for the duration of this month has left the entire hospitality industry in a huge hodgepodge of uncertainty.

Restaurateurs were already hard-hit by Government-imposed restrictions on their operations, as the State continues the national fight against the spread of coronavirus disease COVID-19.

Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley intensified those measures, on Monday, when he declared that effective yesterday all restaurants are to remain completely closed until April 30.

While bars were instructed to be completely closed, restaurants were previously permitted to conduct takeaway and curbside services.

Even under those limited operations, several restaurant owners have said they were unable to pay their staff or cover basic operational costs.

Many were forced to close their doors even before the PM’s announcement. Others ran skeleton staff operations, while a few rotated staff to give all team members a chance to earn a living.

We caught up with a few prominent restaurateurs to check on just how they have been coping and what the forced closure means for the future of your favourite dining spots.

Tough ‘Passage to Asia’

Dipchan Persad, owner of the popular Passage to Asia restaurant chain, said he was forced to close his Ariapita Avenue location last week due to a lack of business.

Persad’s Chaguanas location was open for takeaway and curbside pick-up up to Monday. Even so, he said he had seen a huge drop in sales, forcing him to rotate the staff to ensure everyone could collect some earnings.

“The Port of Spain branch was very bad so we had to close it last week. We were not even making enough to pay the workers. At Chaguanas, our sales have been cut by 75 per cent.

“We have had to send home 40 staff from Port of Spain and only ten of 45 are working at any given time in Chaguanas. We trying to rotate to give everyone a chance to earn and whatever help we can give we give, but I must thank my staff for understanding,” Persad related during a phone call with the Express earlier this week.

Wind out of their ‘Sails’

Long before the PM’s orders, chef Attala Maharaj was forced to temporarily down her sails to navigate the recent uncertain economic waters.

Maharaj, co-owner of the Sails Restaurant and Pub at The Lure, Sweet Water Marina, Chaguaramas, and The Salty Dog at the Trinidad and Tobago Yacht Club, said she had closed both establishments after seeing a significant decline in business following the announcement of the first COVID-19 case in the country.

Maharaj said there has been a negative domino effect on their supply chain, which has been affected by the restriction of movement placed on non-essential employees.

“We work with a lot of small and medium business owners, from fishermen to farmers, entertainers and cottage industry owners. If we are not operating, it means we aren’t taking seafood from the community fishermen in Carenage, it means no bread orders to our small bakery associate, no green seasoning sales to the Paramin farmers—and it goes on and on,” Maharaj told the Express via WhatsApp on Wednesday.

The tough decision meant they had to send their 35 members of staff home on no-pay leave, she said.

“For us, the decision wasn’t easy, but we felt it was in the national best interest to comply. When you take away the ability to dine in, it impacts establishments such as ours whose location and ambiance are a large part of its unique offering. For us the takeaway option is not enough to create even short-term sustainability,” Maharaj said.

“We did not terminate or retrench, and that is not our intention. The jobs will be there for staff when we return. In the interim, however, we acknowledge that it’s an extremely challenging and difficulty position to be in.

“There is no real end in sight, and it makes planning feel as if you’re standing in shifting sand. Many of our staff members will be applying for the Government grants—so we’ve been working alongside, getting the data and required information so their applications can be processed.”

Difficult times

at Delhi Palace

Gautam Khanna, owner of the very popular Indian cuisine restaurant Delhi Palace in Charlieville, said they, too, were bracing for difficult times ahead.

“We are in a very difficult situation to maintain the place. We have foreign chefs and have to maintain their work permits and lodging, all while not making the income we are used to,” Khanna lamented during a phone call with the Express yesterday.

The India-born restaurateur said despite initially offering takeaway and delivery service, traffic to his restaurant has been slow. He called on nationals of T&T to support every local business, once the stay-at-home order is lifted. Their support is crucial to saving the local economy, he said.

“I know people are confused, but Government has to think outside the box. Let citizens know that they must support all local businesses the best way they can. They have to see the bigger vision of how it impacts the economy,” Khanna said.

All hands will be needed

on deck to aid recovery

The recovery of the hospitality industry will require owners, the Government and the public to work hand-in-hand, says Maharaj.

“The longer this continues, the harder it will be for some to start up. For many, it will be like starting from scratch. We will certainly need Government assistance. We’ve already seen Government making VAT refunds, etc, available and that’s a good start in injecting money into the system. However, there are many establishments that might not have benefited from that, so Government can look to other mechanisms—tax breaks/deferrals, subsidies, etc.”

Persad agreed with Maharaj, and called on the financial sector to lower interest rates on mortgages to help the recovery of small and medium business.

“Apart from getting staff back to work, we need to look at interest rates on existing business loans. My mortgage is heavy. It would help if we could lower interest on the mortgage we have right now,” Persad said.

Maharaj also called on the people of T&T to openly support all local micro and small business when restrictions are lifted, in order to help kick-start the economy. “The hospitality industry cannot survive without the support of the people—when this is over, we will need the support of the people—to come out and buy at the local bakeries, eat at the restaurants and cafes,” Maharaj concluded.

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