Weary of staying at home, more and more young people are venturing to eat out at restaurants. The restaurant industry, however, is nowhere near any real recovery
The last Fariha Zannat, a student of North South University went to a restaurant was on March 21 - just a day before the government declared a nationwide shutdown to curb the spread of Covid-19.
She lives in Old Dhaka and most of her favourite restaurants don't deliver here, so over the last six months she had not eaten food from the outside. She lives in a joint family with elderly members, kids and a pregnant woman, so it would have been irresponsible on her part to expose them to the virus.
So, even if she wanted to dine out, she restrained herself from doing so in order to not expose her family to the deadly virus.
Finally, in mid-August, she took a trip to 138 East, a restaurant in Gulshan, to enjoy her favourite cream mushroom soup.
"It was lunch time during a work day and still there was a sizeable crowd. Although they were maintaining strict social distancing protocols, I was surprised to see so many people come out to eat.," she recalled.
Before coronavirus changed the world as we know it, Bangladesh's restaurant scene was a booming, dynamic industry. In pretty much all the major cities in the country, you would find countless options for both cheap eats and luxury dining, along with a few other dining destinations owned by famous restaurant brands and franchises.
And then the pandemic hit. During the two months of the nationwide shutdown, many restaurants were forced to lay off workers, fall behind on rents while some simply went out of business.
When the government finally lifted the shutdown, most restaurants tentatively opened their doors to the public. During the lockdown and ever since, foodservice operators such as Foodpanda and Pathao Food have been keeping the restaurant industry alive by scaling up their delivery operations.
That is however not enough to compensate for the pandemic's impact. And so, over the past month, more and more people appear to be showing up at restaurants. Restaurants, however, are still wary.
"We reopened in June and now in September, a small number of customers are dining in. We are not allowing any party inside the restaurants at this moment, but we may soon allow it," said Md Al Mamun, the manager of Jing Ling Chinese Restaurant in Dhanmondi.
According to Mamun, takeaway orders from Jing Ling surged as much as 40 percent during the pandemic.
Shadlee Bin Saif, the owner of Preetom (Dhanmondi), a burger joint, said they started online delivery in May and resumed dine services in August.
"Compared to the pre-pandemic times, people do not come to the restaurant in big groups now. Women were a big chunk of our customer base but their presence is now minimal," Saif added.
According to him, roughly 60 percent of their food is delivered online.
Tahsin Rob, the founder of Heart World Dhanmondi, the online baking store Butter Fingers and Fatty Bun, and the managing partner at Rice & Noodles Dhanmondi, told the correspondent that the last six months has been the biggest challenge for her so far.
"We have not started serving customers inside our restaurants yet. We managed to cover 70 percent of our expenses amid the shutdown and now we are covering 90 percent of our expenses. All of us had to do was adapt with the dynamic situation," she said.
Mahmid Hassan Samel, the co-owner and head of operations at Sugarpuffs Patisserie and Burger People said on average of 65 customers are visiting the restaurants every day. But to get back the normal flow, they have to wait a few more months.
According to restaurant owners and regulars, people have gotten tired of making fancy food at home and posting the pictures on social media. Hence, the young food enthusiasts are rushing to restaurants.
Rezwan Faruk, a businessman, said, "Going out to eat is not usually a big event but with the stay-at-home orders lifted, it felt monumental. So, I went to Burger King to have my favourite burger with my friends and it felt like everything is back to normal - as if there never was any pandemic. "
According to Bangladesh Restaurant Owners' Association, there are around 60,000 restaurants across the country and 8,000 of them are in Dhaka. Ninety-five percent of these restaurants were closed down due to the virus outbreak.
The restaurant market's worth in Bangladesh has been estimated at Tk4,500 crores last year. But now, a big chunk of the restaurants remains shuttered, with many expected to close down permanently.
Nahid Sultana, a primary school teacher, recently went out to eat at her favourite restaurant "Dosa Lajawab" - a small local restaurant at Old Dhaka which serves Indian cuisine. Sultana stepped out of home almost after six months with her cousin to go to the restaurant. But when she reached Dosa Lajawab, she was amazed to see a showroom for electronic goods where her favourite restaurant once stood.
The Business Standard contacted Dosa Lazawab and a former employee of the restaurant said that it was impossible for the owner to cope with the pandemic's impact on his business and that is why he had to close the business.
As per the health guidelines, a thermal scanner to measure the temperature of the guests on the entrances of each restaurant is mandatory while dining tables need to be disinfected after every use. But most restaurants are not paying any heed to these guidelines. In most cases, the only people wearing masks in the crowded restaurants are the waiters.
Harun Rashid, program officer at Bishwo Shahitto Kendro, said "In the last six months, I visited restaurants only thrice as I did not find it safe. Elementary precautions have been taken in some restaurants but that is not enough. Tables have not been safely distanced, the customers are not wearing masks and maintaining social distance."
Regarding the safety measures taken after reopening, Samel said, "Our first priority is to ensure that our crew is in good health. We sanitize our tables and chairs every time a guest leaves. We do not handle cash directly. Customers drop cash in a specific tray and we sanitize every note before putting them in the cash register."
Irrespective of the steps taken to make dining out safe, we are still in the middle of a pandemic and understandably, many people are still cautious or uncertain about eating out.
Syeda Shahtaj Sadaquat, an alumni of BRAC University, mentioned to the correspondent that she has not stepped out of her house since April. "I have not been to any restaurants since the shutdown was imposed. And even now, I am not willing to eat out. I believe masks and sanitizers are not enough to keep us safe from coronavirus in a public environment," Sadaquat added.
"No matter how many measures you take; it is not enough to ensure full safety" she added.