Restaurant Employees Open Up About How Life Has Changed Since the Lockdown

7.30 million workers are staring at unemployment and pay cuts, and are looking to the government for help.

Suman Mahfuz Quazi

Inside Pranav Katyal’s 10 x12 ft room in Bandra – where he lives with a family as a paying guest – things are getting claustrophobic. Originally from Delhi, the 25-year-old junior sous chef with the fairly new gourmet delivery joint, Iktara (started by restaurateur Gauri Devidayal and celeb chef Amninder Sandhu in February), says, “I am used to working inside a kitchen for 12 to 13 hours, whereas as in my PG, I am not even allowed to use the kitchen to make myself something to eat. It can get really frustrating at times .” Iktara is currently doing deliveries, however, Katyal is working remotely with the team. 

But Katyal is not alone. Scores of chefs, servers, managers, cleaners and other working professionals in the restaurant industry are staring at possible pay cuts, unemployment and burgeoning mental pressures in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, which has brought the F&B industry to a screeching halt. Since restaurants decided to down their shutters in the interest of public health and the safety of their employees - following an advisory issued on March 17 by the National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI ), which represents the interests of 5,00,000+ restaurants across the country - thousands of other employees in F&B, like Katyal, have been ambling around an uncertain future, albeit within the safety of their homes . 

At present, a bunch of restaurants and cloud kitchens have begun delivering food in major cities, like Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi and Bangalore. With few, even going further to reinvent themselves – Smoke House Deli, for example, has come up with DIY kits, following in tow with ventures such as, Mumbai-based Ether, which is delivering DIY baking kits; or Perch, based in Mumbai and Delhi, which is doing cocktail kits. NRAI has also launched Rise 4 Restaurants (R4R), a platform that allows diners to buy virtual cash by paying 25 per cent of the amount up front and redeeming the full amount by paying the balance once things are open again. The restaurant body is also working on developing a food delivery app of its own to compete with existing food aggregators, like Zomato, Swiggy and Scootsy.

All these initiatives seek to keep the industry afloat and safeguard jobs. However, the staggered extension of the lockdown, which is now in its third phase, only makes things worse. The future is perhaps still far. Even the immediate circumstances created by the closure of restaurants is proving to be cloying for employees. 

Sachin Kumar Nirmal, Senior Server, Woodside Inn

“It’s like living inside a jail,” laments Sachin Kumar Nirmal, a 35-year-old senior server with Woodside Inn, a gastropub in Oshiwara, Andheri, owned by Pankil Shah, Sumit Gambhir and Abhishek Honawar’s brand, Neighbourhood Hospitality . When Nirmal left his native home in Lucknow 12 years ago, to pursue job opportunities in Mumbai, he became the first one to do so from his family. “I came here in 2008 looking for a job, and I had no idea where to begin. I joined Woodside Inn eight years ago as a delivery boy, and slowly rose up the ranks,” he recalls. Today, Nirmal is the sole earning member of his family, where he provides for a septuagenarian father, a new-born baby, another child and his wife, all holed up inside a rented apartment in Goregaon. “I can’t wait to go back to work,” he shares.

Thankfully, Nirmal has been able to get back to work. On April 10 Woodside Inn started doing deliveries in Mumbai with a limited menu. Seeing that he lives closest to the Oshiwara outlet, Nirmal has been allotted the task of managing deliveries from the restaurant and has been living inside the outlet to ensure safety. Employees turning restaurant outlets and kitchens into makeshift homes has now, become a reality, with many owners insisting on this format to ensure safety. This includes joints like, Iktara and Saransh Goila’s Goila Butter Chicken, among a host of others that are following the same protocol. 

Needless to say, this posits new challenges of its own, with employees having to stay cooped up inside their workspaces, often with colleagues they don’t know very well. But those on the other side of this, waiting to re-join work, would perhaps give a leg and an arm to be in their shoes. 

This - the wish to go back to work - is a shared sentiment among all full-time working professionals today – from out-of-job parlour didis to street side vendors. So, what does a daily-wage worker or those in the lower rungs of our economic structure do to earn their livelihood in the current lockdown scenario? 

In Mumbai, thousands of migrant workers flocked to Bandra station on April 14 demanding to go back home, despite the risk of getting infected by Coronavirus. Have you wondered why? 

Mehrunisha Shaukat Ali, bouncer, Social, Delhi.

In and around Mehrunisha Shaukat Ali’s home in West Delhi, her neighbours and relatives, are dealing with the same fear as these migrant workers. For them, the loss of livelihood is equivalent to the loss of life, and that will perhaps get them faster than Covid-19 itself. The 32-year-old female bouncer with Social, Haus Khas Village - part of Riyaaz Amlani's Impressario Restaurants - is somewhat of a local celeb, having appeared in the news for shattering stereotypes with her trailblazing job. “My company is taking care of me, and god willing, I am able to provide for my family, but I am beginning to feel restless at home. I love my job.” Ali, lovingly known as Nisha by most, too, can feel strong tugs at her purse strings, with her less fortunate relatives already down in the doldrums slowly becoming financially reliant on her. “I am helping them to the best of my abilities, but there’s only so much I can do,” she argues, adding that her situation makes her think of her employers – there’s only so much they can do, too. “Government ko kuch kar na chahiye,” she tells us.

And this is exactly what the NRAI is demanding. On April 13, a day before the government officially extended the lockdown, the restaurant body wrote to Shri Amitabh Kant, CEO of NITI Aayog and the Chairperson of Empowered Group for Co-ordination with Private Sector, NGOs & International Organisations for response related activities of Covid-19. Among other demands and suggestions, the letter also comprised recommendations for an unemployment pay cover to all employees covered under the Employees State Insurance Act, 1948; a request to extend the purview of the scheme announced by the Finance Minister wherein PF contribution of both employers and employees is being borne by the govt, to cover companies having up to 1000 employees; and the suggestion to extend moratorium on retail loans by employees to help them with their cash flows. Additionally, NRAI has also requested for a stay on rents to help fill the gap created in the absence of new cash flow. 

Hetal Chauhan, manager, Indigo Delicatessen

Hetal Chauhan, manager at the Malad outlet of Indigo Delicatessen, Mumbai, which is owned by Anurag Katriar, president of the NRAI, says that her hopes are pinned on the government accepting the request for rent waivers. “Our outlet is situated inside Inorbit mall, so the rent waiver is important.” A decade and seven ago, Chauhan stumbled into the hospitality industry while training to be an airhostess. “They had placed me at a hotel for training. I realised that I loved the work, so I stayed,” she recalls. Today, like Katyal, Nirmal and Nisha, Chauhan, too is experiencing sleepless nights.

“At the moment, the situation looks worrisome. If the Covid-19 crisis continues for a long time, there is the possibility of outlets shutting down. In that case, all employees at these outlets would also lose their jobs,” she worries. Chauhan and her peers at the managerial-and-chef levels, plus those at the corporate office at Degustibus have taken pay cuts, so that employees who are more in need can be paid. “Their families are completely dependent on this salary, and in this situation, they can’t even look for a new job. It is important that everyone has something in their pockets,” Chauhan opines. 

In other words, without government intervention, the future of the F&B industry looks grim. With delivery services being allowed during the lockdown, many restaurant brands, are exploring food delivery as an alternate source of earning. However, the revenue from most of these operations can only account for a limited percentage of a restaurant’s earnings to make it worthwhile to call in their staff. 

Pranav Katyal, junior sous chef, Iktara

While the panache of a high-end restaurant complete with modern décor and its team of chefs, can make one forget that it is after all, a low-profit industry with a high mortality rate and humongous overhead costs, the truth is that behind the glamour, there is a 7.30 million-strong workforce comprising individuals, who began as unskilled novices and continue to work as predominantly underpaid professionals. Their lives are a hardscrabble, to say the least. 

“I am 25. In this industry, that’s when you begin to get financially independent. But now, things are different. I am worried about my job, or even if there will be one to go back to,” Katyal bemoans, resonating the feelings of 7 million odd workers who are betting against the odds in the hope of serving you again. 

Bannner Image: Iktara
Inside images: Woodside Inn, Social, Iktara and Hetal Chauhan.


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