Ahmad’s Cafe, a 30-year-old Pakistani eatery in Upton Park, reopened one week before the novel coronavirus pandemic struck the London restaurant industry. Owner Tanveer Ahmad had just completed a £100,000, eight-month renovation and rebrand designed to modernise the restaurant — formerly named Al Firdous — and attract a new profile of customer when the government mandated the closure of restaurants across the country on 20 March.
“We didn’t quite finish what we wanted to do,” said Ahmad. “We had a lot of plans to open up the back to offer a live barbecue station with grilled meats. The coronavirus situation has hit us quite hard.” It has more than halved the business’ forecasted revenue because of how much they spent on a complete refit designed to attract a broader clientele. Those guests haven’t been able to visit.
Since the government put London on lockdown, the hospitality industry has been navigating unprecedented challenges for its businesses. Restaurants have had to cope with difficult landlord negotiations, disrupted supply chains, staff shortages, and huge dips in turnover due to government-enforced social distancing measures. The government-assisted monetary schemes alone, such as the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS,) business rates holidays, and the staff furloughing programme, do not mitigate the seismic nature of those challenges, numerous restaurateurs say. Instead, they’ve had to adapt.
The business interruption loans that Ahmad’s Cafe qualified for charged exponentially high interest rates after the initial 12-month interest-free period, representing an additional risk in an already uncertain time, according to Ahmad. Additionally, he has not received confirmation of grants from his local authority. “Unfortunately, we have not been able to access any funding yet,” he said. “As far as I know, Newham has not confirmed availability and eligibility of the government grants, unlike other London boroughs.” Newham Council did not respond to calls or emails seeking to understand the reported hold-ups in its grants being issued.
With its late-night opening times, Ahmad’s Cafe has historically been a go-to for the cab drivers of east London, but it has seen its clientele grow in recent weeks to include all sorts of other key workers, due to its proximity to Newham University Hospital and many schools and supermarkets. This is why, despite the financial challenges, the restaurant has introduced an abbreviated menu of grills, nashtas, and packaged quick meals, maintaining its popular takeaway and adding a new home delivery service, all via an outdoor hatch for contactless operation.
“We are 100 percent still open,” Ahmad said. “We aren’t going to give up. We are continuing to support the neighbourhood as we know some people do rely on eating out. Me and my brothers are the only people running the place. We cut back on staff, encouraging them to stay home for their safety but taking care of their expenses.
“At the moment we are seeing what kind of response we get and, based on that, we will carry on. We are in the process of creating an offer for key workers that provide frontline service and we can accommodate delivery over a five-mile radius. We are motivated by what we are doing. It’s a frightening time but we are determined to keep ourselves positive.”
This crisis has forced a major shift in operations for several other East End institutions, many of which have had to reconsider their business models during the course of the last three weeks.
Biiju Gopinath, owner of outstanding Kerala restaurant, Thattukada — a bastion of London’s Malayalee community — told Eater, “I would say that business is less than 10 percent of what we would normally be trading at.”
The low turnover has meant the restaurant is run solely by Gopinath and his wife, Preeti, and is operating with a smaller menu and reduced hours — from 4pm to 8pm, when previously it was a 12-hour daily operation, from 11 to 11. “We two are managing,” Biiju said, “but we are being forced to increase some prices.”
Deliveries are scheduled for minimum £20 orders, but advance ordering has been encouraged. The restaurant is volunteering to provide food for vulnerable members of the community, with support from the Malayalee Association of the United Kingdom (MAUK), as well as offering discounts to students and key workers.
Meanwhile, operators that have built up reputations across more than one site are having to make the difficult choice of deciding which locations to keep open and which to simply close down. Salim’s Caterers, another much-loved Pakistani establishment, which has been in business for over 12 years, has kept working out of its Walthamstow premises, operating a takeaway service and delivery to E17 postcodes. A spokesman said it was forced to close its Ilford branch because of the crisis. “We do not know when we will be able to open it again.”
And even if restaurants are able to remain open, many have no choice but to adapt because of the interruption to international supply chains. An additional challenge for Biiju and Preeti to overcome at Thattukada has been the difficulty in obtaining ingredients imported from Kerala. They have felt the pinch particularly with what’s needed for their signature spice mixes. A state with a history steeped in the spice trade, Kerala has an abundance of black pepper (it still makes up 97 percent of national output in India), cardamom, vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Ingredients which are all essential in some of Thattukada’s specialty dishes, such as mussel fry, fish moilee and kanava peera (squid prepared with dessicated coconut).
“We have stock stored for the next few weeks but since all the products are from India, we don’t know what is going to happen after that,” Biju said.
Another business which has been adversely affected by import disruption is Ghanaian restaurant Kate’s Café. The soft drinks and snacks it orders from Ghana (as well as Star Beer, Orijin Bitters, palm wine and Malta, a lightly carbonated malt beverage) are no longer available to buy.
And although the restaurant was originally scheduled to close down last week, Kate’s daughter, Solace, said customer demand had led them to rethink the decision. It has remained open for takeaway and collection, operating with skeleton staff on rotating shifts, ensuring those that need it still have work.
She said, “We are putting together paperwork to see if we are eligible for any grants from Newham [Council] but at the moment it is a waiting game. In a sense, it is good we can still operate as a takeaway, while other businesses on this road, for example the salons, have had to close immediately with no idea when they can reopen.”
In order to survive the current crisis, restaurant businesses — of all kinds — that remain open have had to adapt in ways they would not have imagined a month ago. For now, that has meant feeding the communities that have sustained them, delivering food, maintaining those supply chains that remain in place, and preserving, as best they can, their identity.