‘This Halal Vs Non-Halal Fight Is Causing Losses, Creating Fear’

Rahul Kumar, a restaurateur in Bengaluru, says the sudden hateful controversy created over meat products in the state may force him to close his business

I have been running a restaurant in Bangalore for the past seven years. In the past few weeks, there has been a lot of disturbances in Karnataka over religious issues. Now, the food is caught in the controversy — halal vs non-halal meat.

Amidst this, we witnessed how some goo ns targeted a restaurant owner over serving halal meat in a restaurant. This incident has alarmed other restaurateurs like us. We serve both Muslim and non- Muslim customers without any discrimination since starting of the business. But recent incidents have made us fear for our lives. Mahaul kharab ho gaya hai.

To assure our Muslim customers, we have printed on our signboard that we serve halal food. I’m afraid that I’ll have to remove the word ‘halal’ from there. This means that we are definitely going to lose over 20% of our customers.

During pandemic, restaurant businesses were severely affected. We have come down to 50% of sales compared to pre-pandemic time. At this time, when the business is already going through a difficult period, losing those customers will be a huge setback for us. I will have to re-consider whether it’s viable to run the food business when we are continuously losing the market.

ALSO READ: A Headscarf Unmasks The BJP In Karnataka

The rising communal divide in the state is going to affect everything — even businesses like us. Though such incidents are happening in other districts of the state, the fire will soon reach at our doorstep. If the peace is disturbed in the city, small businesses are going to suffer the most. Nobody is going to barge in Domino’s or McDonald’s or KFC, where security arrangements are in place, to pressurise them to serve a particular kind of meat, but small restaurants like us are vulnerable to frenzied mobs.

I witnessed a similar backlash in 2017, when there was a sudden protest in the city by pro-Kannada groups who were demanding that every signboard must use Kannada language. My restaurant’s signboard was torn off because it didn’t use Kannada language. I thank my stars that they stopped at the signboard and didn’t damage things inside the restaurant. Yet, it was distressful. We didn’t know that there was such a rule to use Kannada on signboards.

Such incidents pose a threat to the growth of a cosmopolitan city. All big and small businesses have played a crucial role in building Bangalore. The Kannadigas Vs outsiders or Hindu Vs Muslim issues will spook small businesses, which will eventually move to a different state like Telangana where such problems don’t exist.

I think that the Karnataka government should take stern actions against such people who are trying to cause trouble in the city. If the peace in the city is disturbed, aam aadmi will suffer the most.

* Rahul Kumar requested not to use his picture for the story. The picture used is for representational purpose

As told to Md Tausif Alam

‘As A Food Startup, My Goal Lies In A Hunger-Free India’

Sakshi Guha, 34, founder and owner of Bengali Love Café, Gurgaon, who has been nominated as a ‘Covid-19 Soldier’ shares her story and her objectives

Mine is a Slumdog millionaire story: A girl who came out of a humble household, founded a food-tech startup amid pandemic, with zero financial support from anyone, and made a fortune big enough to support many other unlettered women. Today, Bengali Love Café, my one-year-old venture, distributes free meals to the less privileged, gives out educational kits to poor students, holds tree plantation campaigns and trains women in business skills.

I came to Gurgaon from Muzaffarnagar, a small town, for work and better opportunities. When I lost my job during raging Covid-19, I decided to start my own business set up. I noticed during those tough times that even well-to-do families were hard put in arranging meals; restaurants had shut shop, housemaids had left to their native places, and the disease caused fatigue.

Hence I along with my mother, Deepa Guha, started a tiffin service by distributing leaflets in and around our locality in the hope of getting customers for our service. It was a bona fide startup. We took money from those who could afford and provided free meals to those who could not.

There were all types of meals, of course it included traditional Bengali food, and several interesting options different from the regular fare. The food was freshly cooked, and delivered to the doorsteps of our patrons.

To save costs, we grew fresh and chemical-free vegetables at our own kitchen garden. All spices used for cooking are also home made by our women team members. This helped us maintain hygiene as well as keep them cost effective. We promoted zero-food-waste policy and decided to donate the extra food to the needy.

Guha with her mother (left) and other team members of Bengal Love Cafe

As business grew, we found pleasure in serving the isolated people, families of Covid patients, PG (paying guest) students, youth workers, corporate employees and senior citizens. Our good intentions clicked. We made enough profits to set off a bigger objective: a hunger-free future.

As per recent update, about 194 million people in India today do not have enough food to eat, the largest number in the world. According to the Global Hunger Index 2020, India falls under the ‘serious’ hunger category with a rank of 94 among 107 countries. These statistics do not take into account the effects of Covid-19. The resultant migration, unemployment and loss of earning members of households has pushed millions of Indians into extreme poverty and hunger.

ALSO READ: ‘How I Turned The (Dining) Table On Lockdown’

We believe that satisfying hunger is not an issue of charity. It’s a matter of justice. It is our true attempt to liberate ourselves as a community. We launched a Feed India, one-time meal, campaign under Bengali Love Cafe Foundation. We are glad to share we have being able to help more than 30,000 people across India so far. Though this is just a beginning. People from different cities are joining our campaign through social media channels and promoting the same.

Focus is around taking action against hunger by kindling the spirit of fulfilment through giving while reducing wastage of food. As we all know in food tech business majority of food get wastage daily either by walking customer or by staff but we manage to minimize it to zero wastage.

As Told To Mamta Sharma

‘Centre Did Little To Help Businesses Amid Covid’

Biplob Basu, 34, a food entrepreneur, says small businesses suffered due to demonetisation, GST and there was little help during pandemic from the BJP-led government at the Centre

My story is one for the books. Both my parents are doctors but I pursued Hotel Management and chose to be a food entrepreneur. And it hasn’t been a smooth ride. The year I opened Petuk, a home-based eatery with a catering division in Kolkata was also the time when politics began over the palate. What you were eating and serving came under scanner.

People with no understanding of Bangla food, wanted to dictate what others should or should not eat. I would therefore prefer a government which is open-minded and understands plural cultures and cuisines.

There are other reasons too why I would choose Mamata Didi’s Trinamool over the BJP. My food venture had just about begun to break even in 2016 when the Centre announced demonetisation. It was taxing time as people queued before ATMs and eating out was not a priority. Just about when that phase was over, the GST (goods and services tax) was rolled out. My expenses (taxation) rose but not my earnings.

I was barely able to understand the nitty gritty of GST when rumours spread in Kolkata that many eateries were serving carcass meat. People in food business came under stress for two years (2018-19).

Biplob Basu is against mixing politic and palate

I waded through all this and stepping ahead of home-based catering, I opened a restaurant at Hazra (Kolkata) in 2018. A little over an year, and I managed to open another restaurant in Jadavpur in December 2019. And then the pandemic struck, strict lockdown was announced.

The new restaurant was at a rented property. I had to pay the rent, salaries of the staff, while there was no income. That broke my back. I am sure other MSMEs like me suffered a lot too, but Bengal also faced a cyclone (Amphan) during lockdown.

ALSO READ: ‘How I Turned The (Dining) Tables On Covid’

Even when the ‘Unlock’ began in phases, the business did not pick up. I was forced to shut one of the restaurant. I read about Central assistance to small and medium businesses so I went to apply for an MSME loan, only to realise that the process was lengthy and cumbersome, not beneficial for ventures like ours.

Now, with elections upon us, it is payback time. I want a party in power which understands that their decisions taken at the spur of the moment can adversely impact lives of people for years to come. I want a government that can create both a good social and business environment. I want a government that understands people as individuals and not a homogeneous groups with a single story. Clearly, my choice is the incumbent party. I am very happy with the way the Mamata government handled the pandemic.

There were strict checks at regular intervals to see if business units were following all due measures from face masks to hair masks, to regular sanitization of the premises to temperature checks. My entrepreneurship spirit is still alive and kicking and I will definitely steady myself up; all we need is a government that can put a spark into the hospitality sector again.

As Told To Yog Maya Singh

‘How I Turned The (Dining) Tables On Lockdown’

Lalita Patil, a 35-year-old food entrepreneur in Thane, Maharashtra, recounts how she decided to take a step back to tide over the setback caused by Covid-19 crisis

In 2016, I used my minor savings as seed capital to start a localised tiffin service in Thane. I always wanted to be financially independent. For that reason, after my marriage, I gave private tuitions for some extra income. I even took up a private job but quit after a few years when I felt I had to start something on my own.

The tiffin service was working moderately well but I realised that working from home had its limitations and to grow, I would need to step out. If a woman operates her business from home, she is still considered a housewife and not an entrepreneur. A bigger business model had germinated in my mind but I had little capital to translate it into reality.

ALSO READ: ‘My Kids Turned Prospective Chefs In Lockdown’

And that is when I saw an ad in local newspapers about a start-up idea contest. I took part in it and my idea won the prize money – Rs 10 lakh. With the required capital to boot, I launched Gharachi Aathvan (literally,Remembering Home), a restaurant that offers home-style food in July 2019. This was a fairly big leap from the tiffin service that I had started.

Things began to look up within six months, but then Coronavirus hit Maharashtra. Our state is among the worst affected. I had to down the shutters on Gharachi Aathvan after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown on March 24 to curb the spread of Covid-19.

After staying home for a few weeks, I decided that to tide over this health, humanitarian and economic crisis, I need to take one step back. Thus, I shifted my focus, and began catering to people who were still working in essential sectors such as medical staff and chemists along with students and young professionals who lived in hostels and PG accommodations. These people were facing problems as they were either unable to cook or to source meals with restaurants closed.

ALSO READ: Misery And Hope In Covid-19 Times

However, this time the tiffin service was a tad different in a way that with every first order I provided my clients a set of utensils. For, I knew it was difficult for them to get plates and spoons this time. I packed a bowl, plates, spoons etc with the first order and informed them that they can return the set once the lockdown gets over.

It started with a few lunch parcels to medical staff I knew. But the word spread, and today close to 50-100 people are eating from my kitchen every day. My revenues have become stable again. This is how I turned the tables on the lockdown.  

ALSO READ: ‘Teaching My Daughter In Lockdown’

Gharachi Aathvan is not just a restaurant; it is my dream. I will not let my dream be shattered by any crisis. I want to be known as a business leader one day, and not a housewife. Like Bisleri is synonymous with mineral water, I want to become synonymous with home-cooked meals.