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Coronavirus creates a curry crisis on the UK high street

The Taj Mahal was the first Indian restaurant in Bridport, a market town on England’s south coast where the hit TV series Broadchurch was filmed.

At this time of year, the 42 seater restaurant would normally be fully booked, turning over three sittings on a good night for tourists and locals. But, weeks after lockdown rules were eased, customers remain in short supply.

“The bills still need to be paid and there are so many overheads,” said Sarah Ali Choudhury, whose family owns the restaurant. “We are not sure that we can recover from the past four months. We can only hope that summer season will bring more people.”

The UK’s Indian restaurant trade, made up of mostly small businesses, owned by families of Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani or Nepalese origins with few financial reserves, has been battered by the coronavirus lockdown.

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These fixtures of British high streets have salvaged sales during lockdown by offering takeaway services. But this has not always been enough for such low margin, high turnover operations.

The Millennium Balti in Royal Leamington Spa — run by Mohammed Ahad and his three brothers — typically makes more than four-fifths of its turnover from customers dining in.

It reopened initially just for takeaways, but Mr Ahad said “there is just not enough custom”.

Like many Indian restaurants, the interior of Millennium Balti is tightly packed, which made reopening more difficult. It restarted this month with just 20 seats — down from 60 — to enable social distancing.

“It’s very difficult for us to do business with reduced tables,” Mr Ahad said, pointing to the lack of “buzz” that would normally attract customers. Some local restaurants have closed forever, he added. “It’s uncertain times, and business will not return to how it was anytime soon.”

The strain is not just financial. The Ahad brothers took over the restaurant six years ago, creating a local award-winning venue with hopes to finally meet the ambitions of their father, a chef. “It has affected us mentally with the uncertainty and stress,” Mr Ahad said.

Customers remain nervous about returning to restaurants, according to owners. Spending on meals out in the second week of July was about half pre-lockdown levels in March, according to research by NPD Group.

“It’s not even been a week that we have reopened but it is clear that customers are more anxious and I would expect that lots of people are experiencing lack of funds to go out for dinner too,” said Ms Choudhury, an award winning chef who has become a campaigner for women in the food industry.

Karan Bilimoria, owner of Cobra beer, which supplies many Indian restaurants, said that this “great example of pioneering entrepreneurs” have been badly hit in the pandemic. With two-thirds of Cobra’s beer sold through restaurants, his business has also suffered.

“A few did takeaway but the majority shut completely,” Lord Bilimoria said. London has fared worse, fuelled by fears over using public transport, and people were more likely to eat locally, he added. Restaurants were operating at about 20 per cent of typical trade in London — rising to 30 per cent with takeaway — compared with about 50 per cent outside the capital. 

About half of Indian restaurants have reopened since lockdown restrictions eased at the start of July, Lord Bilimoria estimated, with more hopefully encouraged to open again to take advantage of government schemes to help kickstart the casual dining sector in August. These include a voucher scheme that allows customers a discount, and a cut in VAT.

The costs of opening safely have weighed heavily on the sector. The Taj Mahal spent about £3,000 on measures including deep cleaning, disposable serviettes and new menus.

The Taj Mahal has had to remove 14 seats, a third of its total. “We will be paying heavily for that loss of customers. We have had to get rid of some full time staff,” Ms Choudhury said.

Finding the right information was not easy, Ms Choudhury said. “I am sure that some restaurant owners, whose first language is not English, must really be struggling with this.”

Shaheen Malik, owner and chef of Rivaaz in Lymington, Hampshire, spent about £15,000 for PPE equipment, including face visors, masks and gloves, and screens between tables. A quarter of the chairs have been removed from the 80 seater restaurant, which he plans to reopen next week. 

The Rivaaz started in December 2007 just before the last recession. After a difficult first few years, recently it has won several restaurant awards. 

The pandemic was the first time the Rivaaz has had to close its doors. “It was a huge blow to us all, mentally as well as financially,” said Mr Malik.

Government support has helped. Mr Malik has used the furlough scheme to retain his staff, and a “bounce back” loan has helped finance the reopening. He has offered takeaway for a few weeks, although this tends to generate lower margins.

“This will allow us to simply break even as all margins have been depleted due to rising costs of stock due to the pandemic, as well as the rise in the national minimum wage . . . however the safety of our employees and customers is of paramount importance,” Mr Malik said.

One advantage for many Indian restaurants is a loyal customer base that the owners have already seen begin to return, gradually.

“Complying with government guidelines we reopened our restaurant only to find out customers are not coming out as we thought,” said Aminul Choudhury, owns the Crooked Skewer in Kingston upon Hull.

This “created a massive loss in the first week”, he said. But business has improved, he added, with bookings this weekend looking healthy. Takeaway had also proven successful.

With the lockdown offering time to think, Mr Choudhury sought to innovate and diversify, such as offering meat ready to barbecue at home and DIY curry kits. “Time will tell for us to see if keeping restaurants is a viable option,” he said.

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