Over the past few years, small but cosy cafes have been coming up fairly regularly in Kolkata. Often tucked away from noisy main roads, they are an oasis for the recluse, and for small groups. Even though most had anticipated the lockdown to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, a cafe owner said that no amount of mental preparation could prevent the shock when it happened.
When the lockdown was announced, many had perishable and other items on their hands, the quantity depending on their style of business. Mint, a health café, which does not hold an inventory beyond two days of sales, managed to dispose of its goods by sharing it with people around them and families. But it was not so easy for many others.
“We had decided to close the cafe even before the lockdown was announced,” said Sonali Lakhotia of Potboiler Coffee, a literary-themed specialty coffee house. “When the second wave of cases started to rise, I had to take a tough, but absolutely necessary decision to close down. We shut shop on March 20. Honestly, the first thought that came to my mind was about doing my bit to encourage people to not step out. When we decided to shut, the first thing I did was to separate the perishables from the items that won't go bad. Items like milk and veggies were divided between my staff members. I gave away all the coffee beans I had (as they have a short shelf life) to my baristas and I kept some as well so that they could be used and not go to waste. All of us are home brewers as well. But obviously, these steps were taken when we weren't aware of the 21-day lockdown period.”
Urvika Kanoi of The Daily Café, a European-inspired bistro which offers global flavours through locally sourced ingredients, says they had already shut shop before the lockdown was announced for the safety of customers and staff. "When the announcement was made it made me super anxious. I wondered how the daily wage earners would manage," she says. "Uncertainty, ingredient wastage, pressure of fixed costs, the overall massive hit to the industry, everything ran through my head all at once. Our menu is vast and uses a lot of ingredients. All the fruits, veggies, baked goods and fresh goods were distributed among our staff. The other ingredients were stored properly. Now I am worried that with the uncertainty of how long the lockdown will continue, we may end up losing many of the stored goods."
Manjyot Kaur, co-owner of Artsy – Coffee and Culture, a café which subtly merges gastronomy, coffee and art, says it was obvious that they would have to shut the cafe for the time stipulated by the state and central governments. So they had done some planning. "Prior to the lockdown, we had already asked our staff to work in batches, to limit their exposure to 50 per cent. Our prime concern was the safety of the staff as they have to travel by public transport." Meanwhile, they had drastically cut down orders for perishable ingredients. So by the time they closed for business on March 21, they were left with bare minimum supplies. These were distributed among the staff. The non-perishable materials were packed and stored safely.
But getting the perishables off the shelves is not the only problem.
“Many small cafes have loans that have to be met,” said Paramita Gain, “which makes it doubly difficult.” Gain, along with her partner, Arijit Dutta, operates a travel-themed café called Travelistan. It is a place where the well-travelled and the potential traveller share ideas. But with little chance of travel picking up any time soon, how one would justify a visit to a travel themed café is a cause for concern.
As the pandemic shows little signs of being contained, many fear that n the future, unemployment will be a huge concern. “It is not only about ourselves,” an owner said, “it is also about the people who are dependent on us – the service staff, the suppliers, even someone who comes in to clean the place. If we shut shop, these people stand to lose their jobs.”
But that does not mean the café owners are waiting idly for this phase to pass. On one hand, they are planning how to face the new situation when the lockdown is lifted, when people overcome their fear and throng the cafes, and how to manage the finances while not burning holes in the customers’ pockets. On the other hand, they are trying to make the best use of social media to keep themselves relevant to their loyal as well as potential customers.
They have been regularly posting on Facebook and other sites, messages of encouragement and what people can do while housebound. Potboiler has its own book club, Overbooked, and Lakhotia is planning to take their meetings online until it is time to open the cafe. Kaur of Artsy café plans to focus on festivals and season specials when they open. The Daily Café was about to launch a new menu when the lockdown happened. They will go ahead with the new menu when things are back to normal. For now, they are posting recipes for people to try at home, said Kanoi. Panchamer Adday, a café themed on R.D. Burman, is holding quiz and ‘antakshari’ competitions on Facebook based on trivia and songs related to the legendary music director.
“We are asking people to buy vouchers online for themselves, family and friends, which can be used when we are back to normal,” said Lakhotia. “These vouchers do not have an expiry date and are reversible if not used.” She hopes, with support from her customers, the offer will bring in some money, even if it is a trickle.
Gain holds a stoic stance for the future and believes that complaining about things won’t help. "We are all into this together and we have to find an answer when the time comes.” Lakhotia of Potboiler Coffee and Amrita of Panchamer Adday both agree that when life returns to normal and it is time to open the cafe, they may have to look at it as a re-launch and revamp of their brand.
The solution to the virus may be a reboot to the way they have been operating.