Business closures, slashed menus, empty seats, furloughed staff—restaurant and cafe owners in Delhi wish to put these unpleasant memories behind them as they prepare to welcome guests for Christmas and New Year after a two-year lull due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The hospitality industry was one of the worst-hit sectors as multiple waves of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic in the last three years had broken its back, forcing many restaurants to shut down permanently or let go many of their staff.
However, owners of several restaurants and cafes and their associations feel the "worst is behind them", hoping that their businesses will once again thrive as "it is beginning to look a lot like Christmas again".
Some owners said although there has been a bit of a scare after coronavirus cases were reported in some countries, as far as bookings for Christmas and New Year were concerned, they were back to pre-Covid numbers.
The Centre has urged all states and Union Territories to gear up the whole genome sequencing of positive samples to keep track of emerging variants amid a spike in Covid cases in Japan, South Korea, Brazil, China and the US.
Coronavirus cases in the national capital have reduced significantly in the past several weeks, with five cases and one death due to the viral disease being reported on Wednesday.
At Connaught Place, restaurants like Diggin Cafe, Zen Cafe, Farzi Cafe, Out of the Box Cafe, Warehouse Cafe and many other restaurants have put up Christmas-themed decoration, and toy shops and apparel brands in the old British-era shopping arcade are also wooing customers for festive shopping.
Manpreet Singh, owner of nearly 30-year-old Zen Cafe, an Asian cuisine restaurant, said, "In our industry, a lot of restaurants shut down on a normal basis too, but in the last two years, this figures have been very high. Even in CP, many restaurants have shut down permanently, about 30-40 restaurants which have shut down and not opened again".
But the worst is behind us, the industry is recovering and this Christmas and New Year will see "happy and cheerful faces again," says Singh, also treasurer, National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI).
"Right now, we are doing quite well. Earlier there were many challenges. Now, the customers are back in numbers, and they wish to eat out. So, we are happy. We are selling well now and weekends are much better that it was before.
"On weekdays, shoppers are back, and though there is slight dip in sales on weekdays, our business is now is much more than what was in the pre-Covid days," he told PTI.
Singh said his restaurant management has taken a lot of measures to build confidence among guests as they slowly return to tables after feeling unease earlier due to COVID-19 and its psychological implications.
"Hand sanitizers are used at our cafe, waiters still wearing masks, earlier they used to wear a face shield too. Also, we have special equipment to sanitise crockery and cutlery," he said, adding, sales are expected more this year.
A 'Merry Christmas' trinket hung outside the main door of the Zen Cafe greets visitors while the decor inside has also been decked up in Yuletide spirit.
During the pandemic, many restaurants had to slash their menus, as the supply chain was severely hit due to lockdowns.
"Certain items like raw fish for Japanese food were temporarily discontinued. Now, we are looking forward to serve full menu to our customers, including, sushi, sashimi, etc," Singh said.
During lockdowns, business establishments were largely shut and when the restrictions were eased by authorities, restaurants and cafes were allowed to operate with a cap on total number of guests. However, this year, there are no restrictions.
Recalling the pandemic and its impact on the industry, Rahul Singh, founder and CEO, The Beer Cafe, said, "It was devastating, these two years have been hell for us, hospitality and the aviation sectors were the most hit."
He said after the first lockdown, the supply chain was hit and there was a lot of spoilage in his company.
"We sell a lot of beer. We had to drain out a lot of beer, which is a perishable item, so we suffered a lot of capital loss. As per our staff, we had a furlough when the first wave hit us. Certain staff didn't join, they went out and probably got another job.
"But, most of the staff came back, and we didn't have to recruit from scratch. Next two waves didn't have major shutdowns, so life is normal now," the Beer Cafe owner told PTI.
"We have gone through a survival stage and revived ourselves, and about to hit the thriving stage" he said.
A restaurant under the parent company of his cafe, has planned a "sunset programme starting 3 PM" on December 24 and then a Christmas brunch and New Year festivities, he said, adding that in Delhi-NCR, it has about 18 outlets and the response is good.
At Khan Market too, Christmas decorations are attracting both shoppers and diners, especially the youth.
Nami Jain, a third year engineering student at a university in Noida, was on Wednesday busy packing gifts for her friends for Christmas at Connaught Place, and said she has plans to celebrate Christmas with her family.
"CP is a hotspot for parties and nightlife during Christmas and New Year. We will do BBQ parties with family, and go out with friends. This year Christmas season is being celebrated very enthusiastically, it's so good," she said.
"I was in first year when the first wave hit, and we had fears till second year, so we took precautions. But, we are not fearing Covid so much anymore," she said.
Joy Singh, owner of Raasta restaurant, said, "Things are looking good for the F&B (food & beverage) industry this time. There has been a bit of a scare with the news of a fresh coronavirus threat in some countries like China, the US, etc".
"However, as for the bookings for Christmas and New Year, we are back to pre-Covid numbers. Almost 70-80 per cent of our restaurants in Delhi and Gurgaon are booked and there are still a couple of days to go for Christmas."