Dubai: With only few stove burners lit and most pots and pans hanged dry, the usual busy and noisy kitchen in the heart of Karama is no longer abuzz with cooks and servers running here and there.
Gone too are the usual habitués who – aside from being regular diners – come to Hot Palayok Grill and Restaurant to belt out their favourite songs while enjoying good food in the company of family and friends.
Speaking to Gulf News, Chef Michael delos Santos said prior to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, Hot Palayok was filled to the rafters on most weekends and during pay day. They used to serve at least 1,000 diners on Fridays and holidays from lunch till midnight.
The restaurant located in Karama, which opened three years ago, has been closed for over a month, and nowadays Chef Michael is only busy cooking breakfast and lunch for a company with 35 employees.
He used to supervise the preparation and cooking of 60-kg beef, 60-kg chicken, 100-kg fish and other seafood, plus sundries of vegetables, fruits and deserts daily.
The majority of the 60-plus staff, meanwhile, are currently housed at a company accommodation in Abu Dhabi to reduce their expenses. Rent is free and they are given three square meals a day, internet connection, and other amenities but they have been placed under a no-work, no-pay scheme and were not able to send any money to their respective families back home in India and the Philippines.
Chef Michael said he could not estimate the financial losses the company has incurred. Hot Palayok was supposed to reopen on June 9 but staff has been stranded in Abu Dhabi due to the extended restrictions.
Chef Michael, however, is confident loyal customers will return and the restaurant will bounce back.
No more Nasi goreng
But it was not the case for the first authentic Indonesian restaurant in the city.
Just last month, Betawi Restaurant, also located in Karama, has permanently shut its doors since serving its first sumptuous Nasi goreng to eager customers in 2007.
The owner, Isti Regnard, 43, said she tried to salvage the restaurant by negotiating for rent reduction from the landlord but to no avail.
“We simply could not afford the Dh190,000 annual rent for a 700 sq ft restaurant after incurring losses in the past months,” she shared with Gulf News.
Her other restaurant in Jumeirah Lakes Towers is still operational but barely turning a profit from home deliveries.
“I had to let go of many staff and some were given the option to work for two weeks in a month. Some are planning of returning to Indonesia and I told them we would re-hire them once our business has recovered,” said the Indonesian expat who is married to an Australian national.
Isti said she was emotional with the shutdown of Betawi Restaurant in Karama. “For me, it was more than just a restaurant. It was a place that brought our community together. We had created a lot of memories there – weddings, birthday parties, family reunions and other special gatherings. We will miss the familiar faces that gave us so many great memories,” she added.
A look into how some restaurants, which are already institutions in the UAE, are struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic can be best exemplified by Golden Fork, which opened its first branch 42 years ago in Al Nasr Square, Baniyas.
Shanavas Mohammed, Golden Fork Group managing director, told Gulf News six out of their 11 branches across the country are on the brink of closure lest they get rent reprieve from landlords.
“Sales is now down to 20 per cent but rent has stayed the same,” explained Mohammed, adding: “The average rent of our standalone restaurants in Dubai has remained between Dh600,000 and Dh800,000 per year.”
“On top of paying rents, we are also seriously struggling with staff and supplier payments, utility bills, plus we also have to pay VAT (value-added tax). It would be a challenge to return to pre-COVID-19 sales at any time this year,” he underlined
“Rent is the biggest hurdle but some landlords are not hearing our plea,” said Mohammed, adding: “We are left with no option but to close and look for other locations which are more affordable.”
“We are opening a new branch in Fujairah, because LuLu Fujairah is offering rent sharing,” Mohammed continued.
Structured relief needed
Sunil, owner of Soy to Chutney, recently posted on company social media: “We’ve tried our best to sustain longer but cannot continue operating under the current circumstances and have decided to close our Bay Square branch for business.”
He told Gulf News: “The dine-in footfall was reduced next to nothing even after the lockdown was lifted as some companies have adopted a work from home culture. Delivery system continues to play in an already saturated market but cannot offset the loss in dine-in lunch footfall.”
“Landlords need to provide a structured relief and not just during the lockdown period. This is the only way we will be able to survive and plan future strategies revolving around the new normal,” he underlined.
Anmol Mehta, managing director at Little Italy, added: “There are some fixed costs that are just not possible to waive off. Getting a 10-20 per cent discount in utilities is not going to solve the bigger problem. Some restaurant owners have started realising that it’s better to close shop than incur more losses.”
Mehta suggested rent waiver for at least three months or real estate companies can work on a revenue-sharing model.
Cooking up solutions
Riyaz, managing partner at City Makkani, has suggested creating a reserve fund by selling few shares or other highly liquid assets to create a savings account, where restaurant owners can dip their hands during emergencies.
“We can aim to set aside at least six months of operating expenses,” he explained.
He added they also need a stimulus package from the government and authorities can help them look for better terms from vendors/suppliers and landlords.
“We need to increase the payment window and have more flexible options like reducing manpower and salary. We also need to implement cost-saving measures without affecting the quality of food,” he emphasised.
Priya Jaganathan, managing partner at Kurakura, a bristo inspired by Indian cuisine, added: “With our current situation, the suppliers, landlords, tenants, government authorities especially for utilities, and staff have to come together to assist and support each other. There is no other choice. We have to be ready to get back to work after the COVID-19 pause without giving up.”