By Rithika Siddhartha
TWO of Britain’s most influential Indian restaurateurs have cautioned that it cannot be “business as usual” for the industry after the pandemic led to a three-month lockdown earlier this year.
Vivek Singh, who runs Cinnamon Club, and Asma Khan, who will open her restaurant in central London later this month, said that the Covid-19 pandemic has prompted a change in how restaurants look at their business models and pay structures.
Khan noted that it “has taken the pandemic for people to realise the wafer-thin margins that restaurants are run on”.
Both restaurant bosses also cautioned that there was a risk of some unscrupulous owners using these challenging times as a reason to squeeze wages of staff, lay off employees or hire illegal workers to work in their establishments.
Khan has called for a union of restaurant workers so they have a bigger, united voice.
“Coronavirus has thrown up absolutely unimaginable opportunities,” Singh said in a virtual interaction with the Indian Journalists Association (IJA) last month.
He added, “There is a lot of introspection to be done. There is serious opportunity and a need to introspect, to evaluate what we’re doing, how relevant is it going to be going forward.”
According to him, a vast majority of the eating out experience has been “grossly subsidised” in the past two or three decades.
Singh said, “People associate the cost of a meal with what it costs to buy that ingredient. Most customers do not have an adequate appreciation or an understanding of everything else – the rents (restaurants pay), the business rates, VAT, and there’s a lot more that goes on.
“The industry has survived, restaurants have been phenomenally successful, and some have gone on to become institutions. But, that’s not merely going to be enough to stay valid, and competitive, and coherent, going forward. There is a lot more that needs to be done.
“The true cost of eating out has been subsidised by either cheap labour or unfair practices, whether it is harassment (of staff), bullying, mental health issues, long hours.
“However, that’s not going to be the future. It’s not enough. When the going gets tough, it’s how you treat people that really says it all about your business. In good times, people say you look after guests, they come back; in bad times, they say, ‘look after your people, they will look after the people that you need to serve.’”
Singh explained how his business model was not based on service charge or tips collected. “For the last two or three years, all our employees receive all the wages as house wages, that’s their salary.”
Khan said restaurateurs like her were in the business because they were driven by a passion to feed people and showcase their culture and heritage, rather than by the money to be made in the industry.
She also said it was time to “to clean up our act”.
“You need powerful voices in the industry to come out. I’ve been talking about the need that we should have a union – not of the owners, but of the workers. Because the problem is that if you are not united, you will be pushed around. It is time we honour the people whose hands work.
“We’ve gone through a really hard time. Many people don’t understand how brutal and tough it’s been.”
While Khan’s Darjeeling Express restaurant was closed during the lockdown, she spent the time talking to people in the industry about their concerns.
She said, “I’m afraid that some people may use this time when we come back (to business) to squeeze wages further, to make working conditions harder. A lot of women will lose their jobs because they’re seen as physically weaker.
“People think that this is a tough time. You know, you’re not going into war, you’re going back into service, and so many women have come to me where they have been let go, because the employers are worried that they may have childcare issues.”
Lord Karan Bilimoria, the founder and chairman of Cobra Beer and president of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), described how he relayed the concerns of the hospitality industry to ministers from the start of the pandemic. The CBI held webinars and had a coronavirus hub to help those in the industry with up to date information on available government help – in terms of loans, business rates and VAT reduction.
He said, “We’ve had the government and the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, who have been willing to listen, and are willing to collaborate.”
According to data from Cobra Beer, which supplies 7,000 restaurants, only 50 had shut during the pandemic. However, while the peer acknowledged that the pandemic was tough on the industry, he believed that Indian restaurants were resilient and would fight to stay open.
“Because these are hard working people who do it to serve customers. If you think of value for money, Indian food on the whole provides fantastic value. It is the favourite food of the British people, they love it. It’s exotic food, not the easiest to cook if you want to do it well. That takes effort. It’s incredible. That’s why it’s so popular.”
Khan added, “Please do not see my cuisine as cheap and cheerful. It’s a very sophisticated cuisine with a deep heritage. Give us a chance to tell our stories; when people eat our food they are actually connected to our history, heritage, to healing, to nourishing… It is not just about something you eat, it’s about nourishing your soul. We offer food at birth, marriages, we give food to Gods. Food is so symbolic, it is auspicious, it is sacred, it is part of our DNA. And I think as restaurateurs we need to do this.
She added, “We will survive, although some statistics predict a 25 per cent shrinkage in the industry. It is no surprise. Yes, it’s going to be very tough, but we will take less of a hit, and less of a battering, because we will come back… For us, this is not just about the bottomline.
“If it was about money, many of us would have dropped out long time ago. But this is about the whole love for feeding and love of service, which is part of our culture of the entire South Asia. So those who are in the industry will not leave defeated so easily.”