Tuesday, 15 June, 2021; 10:44 pm
It started from the second week of this month. At first, Md Mahbub Zaman, the owner of Genial Buffet in the capital’s Dhanmondi, thought the cancellations for party bookings were coincidental.
But soon it dawned on him that there was a common thread: the looming fear of coronavirus.
“At first, people would cite personal reasons when cancelling the booking. But now, they are upfront: it is because of coronavirus,” Zaman told The Daily Star while sat in his sparsely-populated sprawling restaurant on Monday night.
In Bangladesh, the first reported case of coronavirus was on March 8. And since then, more than 15 reservations for parties, ranging from 20 to 120 people, have been cancelled.
Not only that, customer footfall in the restaurant that has an all-you-can-eat offer of 55 items for Tk 600 dried up to less than half of what it was in February.
“Fridays are always a good day for us. But last Friday was a gloomy day for us. If this goes on like this for a few more weeks, I don’t know how I will pay the rent and staff salary,” he added.
Zaman’s predicament is not unique. Globally, with the view to flattening the curve of coronavirus, social distancing and avoiding public places have been advised, leaving the service industry staring at an increasingly complicated business reality.
Shumie Ali, a student in a public university, and her coterie of friends took the advice of staying in to heart.
She catches up over lunch in different restaurants in capital’s Gulshan with her school friends every Saturday. But since the news broke of coronavirus in Bangladesh, their weekly ritual has been scrapped.
“I was not too keen on hitting the restaurants. Instead, I suggested we order in and watch a film on Netflix. We should all do our part to flatten the curve,” Ali said.
And many are doing the same as her.
HungryNaki, the country’s first food delivery platform with presence in Dhaka, Chattogram, Narayanganj, Sylhet and Cox’s Bazar, said its orders rose 30 to 40 per cent since coronavirus fears started to emanate.
“Our orders just picked up,” said AD Ahmad, chief executive and co-founder of the food delivery platform.
However, as the people are increasingly staying home to be safe, they are also relying on home-made food as well, he said, adding that HungryNaki also beefed up personal hygiene practices and put in places masks and hand sanitisers for its workforce.
“People will not leave homes,” said Maliha M Quadir, founder and managing director of Shohoz.com, whose arm Shohoz Food delivers food from 5,000 restaurants in Dhaka and 1,000 in Chattogram.
At the same time, they may feel fearful about the hygiene of the delivery system whether the restaurants or deliverymen are maintaining enough hygiene, she said, adding that since the maiden cases of coronavirus were announced, Shohoz has put in place in stricter measures for its office, depots as well as delivery personnel.
In a bid to flatten the curve, New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office announced that from yesterday the city’s thousands of bars and restaurants will be closed, with any service limited to food delivery and takeout only.
If a similar measure is enforced in Dhaka, it might be a boon for the food delivery platforms.
But for the wait staff it is bad news.
The employees of Flavours, a restaurant that serves Thai and Chinese cuisines in the capital’s Dhanmondi, told the correspondent they are on the brink of losing their jobs.
“See, there is no customer,” said Rana, a waiter pointing at the empty space on Rangs KB Square.
The 13-storied building on the capital’s Satmasjid Road houses about 20 restaurants, making it a hotspot for Dhanmondi food lovers. But the entire building wore a deserted look.
“We have been facing a tough time since the first week of March,” said Alamgir Islam of Tao Town, an Asian fusion bistro in Rangs KB Square.
Since Friday, Tao Town’s sales plunged 80 per cent.
And Islam envisions dire days ahead, once all universities, schools and colleges shut for two weeks from today.
“In January and February, when coronavirus was spreading around the world, our sales held up well,” said Md Nahim Reza, managing director of Coffelicious, which has two outposts on Baily Road and in Uttara.
But from March, customer footfall started petering out, with its sales as tumbling 30 per cent from the previous month.
The Monarchy Coffee on Banani 11 saw a huge decline in its sales too, said Naziur Rahman, an employee of the café.
“For the last three weeks, we have been facing a dire situation. We are maintaining proper hygiene and took protective measures for coronavirus. But people are still staying away,” he added.
All the restaurants The Daily Star contacted said they have taken precautionary measures to contain the virus.
The restaurants at upmarket hotels too have been deserted by customers, despite their heightened measures against the contagion of the novel virus.
“We have taken some serious measures to ensure hygiene since the outbreak of virus,” said Mashfa Alam, marketing coordinator at Four Points by Sheraton.
At the entry of the hotel, each customer is examined by infrared thermometer guns. “The food is also being served directly by our chefs for avoiding extra touches of spoons,” she added.
And yet, customers are staying away.
So, most have discontinued their buffet offerings and have pared down their menu to the bare essentials.
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