Anam Khan, Co-Owner “Books & Bricks Cafe”
When the lockdown was imposed in March, as a response to the COVID 19 pandemic, it seemed unimaginable that there would come a time when we would be able to run the cafe as normal again. Not undermining the fact that millions were on the verge of starvation, not directly because of COVID but because of the state of poverty and inequality, the post lockdown phase of COVID looked very grim. It still is the same.
At least a dozen people had asked me, when will your cafe open? More had asked me if we would start delivering food when the lockdown was lifted? Relatives had also asked why I had to come to Kashmir, to which my response was always the same- look at what’s happening around the world! Many had expressed their concern over how our business is suffering monetarily with the multiple lockdowns, the longest being since August last year. All of these questions infuriated me, to say the least, and gave me multiple panic attacks. Thousands of Kashmiris like me, who in the last one year have suffered tremendous losses because of the lockdowns and have been thrown to the edge with hopelessness, are thinking the same. How are we going to survive this?
We are sheltered by our privilege and cozy comforts and yet our business is at the brink of starvation too. Rent, salaries, doubling debts! Rent, salaries, doubling debts! Rent, salaries, doubling debts! Plays on loop in my head each time I start thinking about the cafe. The biggest of my concerns always remains the staff, our boys, for whom the salary is what their families sustain. If the lockdowns continue, how will we support them?
When TV channels hysterically debate over the hospitality sector or when administrative spokespersons talk from their twitter handles, they mainly talk of it from a safety standpoint. They never look at it from the purview of a chain of interconnected job spectrum that this sector upholds and how our sinking ship is majorly posing a threat to our sinking economy as well. While it is still debatable that the lockdowns have ensured the curtailment of the virus, they have also set the restaurant industry to a major loss stream! We don’t have any formal statistics of how the restaurant industry has directly been affected in Kashmir since August 5 last year, but you can do the math. While the restaurant industry is taking a major jolt all across the globe, the situation in Kashmir is worrisome since this sector, directly and indirectly, employs a large population with no security to their incomes. When you eat that creamy Alfredo non-veg pasta with a coffee on the side, you are in turn supporting a big line of families- from vegetable vendors, transportation fellows, poultry farms, cold storage guys, manufacturing units of packaged F&B items, dozens of coffee growers (from some state in India), basically many many families including our electrician who comes and repairs our deep freezers or ACs at least once a month.
None of the politicians, who otherwise talk of blooming Kashmir’s economy, have ever discussed how businesses like ours can be revived. After the near doomsday experience last August, and collapsing of our worlds in the following months, each of us was hoping and secretly praying for a vibrant, hustling and bustling, busy summer this year. It was our chance at putting on our ventilators and gently forcing normalcy into our rustic cafe. Now that feels like a distant dream. If we are to believe that the Vaccine could be ready by September, and considering it is mass-produced and reaches us by December, it still doesn’t take away the haunting fact that physical distancing is going to be a norm for a very long time.
When our cafe decided to open for home delivery and takeaway in the month of June, we had a lot of leg work to do before we got our engines running. Safety and hygiene were going to be the game changers for months to come as unlock ONE was set in motion. We understood this and strategised every little detail very meticulously. First included getting all of our boys back from their hometowns, safely into our rented house. That was followed by a training on guidelines and lifestyle change, delivered by the Srinagar Administration at Tagore Hall. We got every single staff member tested for COVID and while many restaurants and cafes opened, we remained shut- waiting for the test results and strategising even more.
Our other problem here was that Kashmir didn’t have a strong ecosystem of food delivery, so that was an added roadblock. Food delivery along with maintaining hygiene isn’t as easy as writing these words down in my to-do list. On the 4th of August last year, we were close to signing papers with Swiggy, a food delivering service, but then that was busted. Zomato was to come next, that is an old story too. But undeterred hope and resilience do make miracles happen. We understood that the only way we could prioritise the health of our customers and our staff was by directly involving ourselves in the entire process of home delivery and not partnering with a third party, so as to have more control over hygiene. We did it! We dived into home delivery and takeaway, head-on, and opened the place mid-June for the same.
For a cafe like mine, home delivery is a tough market since the whole idea of my cozy rustic cafe was to enjoy a cup of coffee and chit chat with friends with some good ambience. The pandemic took that away. The new normal also meant that we had to get our customers used to the idea of packed food and deliver the same feel of the cafe somehow in tiny bags! Our energies went into ensuring that every food item, that was prepared, was made with absolute finesse. Quality, taste and extra cheese! Because the packed food was our only mouthpiece to customers sitting at home with friends and family.
Things we set in motion to give you a beautiful and healthy experience:
- From checking the temperature of the delivery boy each time he left the premises, to making sure that every little detail of maintaining hygiene was taken care of in the kitchen while preparing the food, to making sure that that all staff wore PPE and masks irrespective of gender, we are doing it all!
- We also took out the glass from one of our windows and turned it into a makeshift takeaway and order placing station. Apart from installing a no-touch sanitiser dispenser just outside this window, we also stuck our menu, in a big print, on the glass pane outside so that no customer has to touch a menu. You can order and enjoy the food while sitting in your parked cars as well!
- Home delivery also helped us stretch our own potential. The food from Books and Bricks Cafe can now be enjoyed in the comfort of your home, along the banks of Jhelum, along the Boulevard stretch or even at Harvan. Yes, you read that right, the delivery is possible all over Srinagar!
Home delivery really depends on our telephone lines, mobile services and social media pages and we can only hope that they are not shut time and again. With a slow speed of 2G internet, my personal frustrations are often high when I’m trying to take an order on Instagram/WhatsApp or trying to upload content for the official page. It’s also very disheartening because uncertainty always cripples in. I know, in the next moment, anything can happen. I am constantly worried about my delivery boy when he is out delivering an order. As I said, anything can happen.
Also, as I come to the end of this article, I am thinking about how I was very apprehensive about dine-in even though my cafe completely banked on dine-in. In a COVID pandemic phase, it looked very scary. You don’t know who has come in contact with whom, so door and table touching, cutlery contamination, menu contamination are some of the little things things that we knew for sure had to be taken care of when dine-in with 50% occupancy was allowed for Srinagar. (Currently, with another lockdown in motion, dine in has been stopped until further notice).
For a brief period when we did allow customers to dine-in, we checked their temperature as soon as they walked in, sanitised the menu after they placed an order, made sure that a person kept a check on what items were touched by any person in the cafe and obviously maintained the protocol of wearing PPE and masks and maintained as much physical distance as was possible. I was quite satisfied with our efforts to ensure that everyone’s health was kept as a priority. Dine-in also meant that sanitisation and disinfecting the place had to be done tirelessly each time a table was vacated and a thorough clean up of the place had to be done at least twice a day. Typing this down makes us worried for a reality that makes OCD look cool!
It is going to be extremely difficult to convince our customers that we are doing everything in the ambit of our possibility to make sure that hygiene is taken care of. But, as important the health my own kin is to me, my staff’s health is equally paramount and so is our customer’s. If our staff is fit, so will our customers be and this is the cycle of interdependence that I’m really worried about and that really keeps us on our toes. The health and well being of all customers, in turn, ensures that the staff is healthy and vice versa. The ball game is to earn the trust of our patrons and also of the new customers who would be ordering from beyond the periphery of our usual clientele. It would also mean that our customers understand that when they order that creamy Alfredo pasta they also support Showkat Bhaiya’s (our electrician’s) family. There are many many lives that are touched by a small cafe like mine. And that’s a beautiful thought in itself. But that also puts a lot of responsibility on each of us reading this. I think for any business to thrive in Kashmir, and for Kashmir to become a strength in its own, we all will have to push each other up, trust one another, support our local businesses and support each other in whatever capacity we can.
When are you meeting me for your next cup of the best coffee in town?
– Anam Khan, Co-Owner, Books & Bricks
SOURCE: Anam Khan, Co-Owner, Books & Bricks