© Provided by The Indian Express

Head chef of Madras Diaries in Bandra, K Murugan, spent the better part of 2020 in his hometown Chennai. On Monday, he was back at work to resume his pre-Covid routine of prepping fresh masalas at 4.30 am.

After readying masala dosas for two customers who came in around noon, Murugan said, “It’s all about getting used to a new routine. Wearing masks and cooking is not difficult when one keeps in mind the safety of others.”

Despite this mettle and a list of safety guidelines, Mumbai’s restaurants, bars and cafes managed only a lukewarm comeback on Monday – the first day of reopening after they were shut down in March.

Fewer customers were willing to dine in with most preferring takeaways. Neeti Goel, who owns Madras Diaries, said that customers seem to view air-conditioned rooms with suspicion now and there are more requests for al fresco (open air) tables.

Shiv Sagar, which reopened its seven outlets on Monday, also saw few takers. Nikita Poojari, its director, said the response is positive even so. “It is Monday and just the first day. It will take some time for people to know that we are open,” she added.

At Milan Restaurant in Parel, sanitiser bottles were stationed at billing counters, customers had to pull masks up to their noses before entry, and all five tables were frequently cleaned with a disinfectant.

The restaurant is located opposite KEM Hospital, and most customers were kin of Covid-19 patients. Owner Ashok Gohar said that though they got only 30 per cent of the crowd they used to before the Covid-19 pandemic, this was a good enough response for the first day. “It’s also because we are in a prime location. This area is always crowded,” he added.

Next to it, Aditi restaurant kept dine-in shut and allowed only takeaways. “There is also higher risk of infection because most of our customers are patients’ relatives. If any one staffer gets infected, we will have to shut down,” said waiter Rakesh Shetty. He added that they plan to allow dine in once their staffers return from their hometowns and the number of cases subside.

Pradeep Shetty, senior vice-president of the Hotel and Restaurant Association of Western India (HRAWI), said: “The option to reopen restaurants comes as a big relief. Although it is a good development, not all restaurants are geared up to reopen today itself. We expect only around 30 per cent of the restaurants to open and the rest will reopen only gradually through the month.”

The BMC has allowed restaurants, cafes, dining halls and bars to reopen with 33 per cent occupancy, as opposed to the state government’s rule of 50 per cent. The civic body’s circular further said that if all the standard operating procedures (issued by the tourism department) are properly observed, then the capacity will automatically increase to 50 per cent from November 1.

Social, Smoke House Deli, 1522 Bar & Kitchen and The Nutcracker are among those set to open later this week.

At the heart of the many challenges facing restaurateurs right now, the biggest remains transportation and accommodation for staff, which is directly connected to safety protocols. Most restaurants that reopened on Monday have staff rooms close to their establishments.

Madras Diaries, Shiv Sagar and Fountain Sizzlers, which saw a few customers on Monday, have staff rooms within walking distance. Amrish Arora, managing director of Fountain Sizzlers, said, “We have issued guidelines to our staff on how to mix with people in their neighbourhoods and which sanitation measures to follow if they are using public toilets.”

Most restaurateurs believe that resuming local train services will help the staff to commute and more restaurants to reopen. Some establishments have made it mandatory for the staff to stay within the premises, such as at Keiba — a dining space at Royal Western India Turf Club in Mahalakshmi — which opened on Monday with three reservations. Here, a room for the jockeys has been converted into accommodation for the staffers.

In the absence of available data or surveys, restaurateurs estimate that about 50 to 60 per cent of Mumbai’s restaurants have migrant staffers. Most are yet to return to the city. Hiring new hands is not even an option for business owners as it is time-consuming to train staff.

This is why Pranav Rungta, owner of Café Royal and HeadQuarters, is yet to figure when he can open his establishments again. “It is taking time to arrange bus, train and flight tickets for our staff. Many of them left the city after having emptied their accommodations, so we have to look into that too,” he said.

Ruchyeta Bhatia, owner and co-founder of Love & Cheesecake, originally had 275 staffers and is set to open her outlets on Tuesday with 90 of them. Only 40 per cent of her staff is from Mumbai. Shiv Sagar, likewise, has kitchen staff that is predominantly from Odisha and West Bengal.

Arora, the managing director of Fountain Sizzlers, said the reopening is a loss-making exercise, given the overhead costs and running at 33 per cent capacity, and will remain so for the next three to six months. “But we have had some good years and we should be able to last out one bad year,” he added.

— Inputs by Tabassum Barnagarwala