Caught Between Curbs and COVID, Cafes in Kashmir Count on Community Care

After dented and deserted by succeeding lockdowns, Kashmir’s new-age cafes are trying to regain their pulse through a robust system of deliveries, utmost hygiene and clientele support.

Jyotsna Bharti

AS streets are slowly picking up the familiar footfall faded by consecutive curbs in the valley, Anam Khan, co-owner of Srinagar’s Books and Bricks (B&B) Café, is eyeing to make yet another comeback.

“In Kashmir,” the young café executive says, “it’s an unending tryst for people to start afresh after every lockdown.”

Inspired by the aesthetics of American diners, B&B Cafe was the first-of-its-kind cafe in Srinagar started by two friends, Danish Zargar and Arsalan Sajad, in 2015. It was later joined by Anam Khan. The cafe hosts book reading and live music sessions.

Considering that there’ll come a time when the lockdown is lifted, Anam continues, and one has to get back to run the show.

The likes of Anam are Kashmir’s new-age self-starters. Her young and assertive tribe has been following a popular pattern to create a different niche for themselves in the valley’s hospitality sector.

These young Kashmiris leave behind lucrative jobs and careers outside to start their own ventures in a place where private sector is still struggling to shape up. Despite facing situational hitches in their homeland, these young lots were instrumental in transforming the dull social hangout spots in Kashmir with their theme-based cafes in recent past.

“We reopened the cafe after renovation on June 5 last year,” Anam continues. “It was a massive event. And then August 5 happened, and we could do nothing for next 6 months.”

From February 2020 onwards, the restaurant business had picked up the steam before clouded by COVID.

“We had to pull down shutter again on March 16,” Anam says. “We’ve been shut ever since. Now, it’s up to the people to embrace us back and that is what we’re banking on.”

During the current health crisis times, Anam is making it sure to be mindful of hygiene and health of their customers and staff.

“But my main concern remains my staff,” she says. “We might not be in a position to pay their salaries from here on. They’ve their families to support and there is nothing we can do at this moment. But I’m sure things will pick up soon.”

The current circumstances, however, aren’t new for the hopeful and resilient Kashmiris, says Javid Parsa of the popular food chain, Parsa’s. “But yes, Kashmir isn’t the right place to make a profit,” he says.

“We wanted our outlet in Kashmir, so that it can connect with people. I wanted to give my home something back where they can come together and lighten up their world with smiles and happiness.”

But due to lockdowns, Javid isn’t able to “spread smiles”.

Javid Parsa

“Restaurateurs in the valley aren’t ready to take things for granted,” he says.

“They know their responsibilities during these dreadful times. We serve food with faith. I do not want to break that faithful relationship with my customers. I want to take all the precautions and protection before resuming services. Business can wait, life can’t!”

Apart from Anam and Javid, many theme-based cafes and eateries run by young Kashmiris are today looking forward to resume their ventures. Kashmir Observer talks to some of the owners and executives of these cafes to know their forthcoming business plan. 

Fat Panda

I don’t consider it [lockdown] a toll on our business. It literally brought us on our knees. We had to stop all our operations and all our stock was wasted. Most importantly, we had to let go our precious human resource, on which you spent so much time and money in training and grooming. 

The plan ahead is to retain our lost staff and building confidence among ourselves first, that yet again we can emerge out of this and then building confidence in our customers that food from Fat Panda is completely safe.

While we’re following SOPs and guidelines, we hope that at least 50 percent of dining is allowed as soon as possible, because surviving only on takeout and delivery is not possible.

Jhelum Café

We had already been suffering after the abrogation of Article 370. This [COVID] came as second wave of disaster. We were honestly expecting good season in 2020 but unfortunately God had other plans. We suffered huge losses and we’re in fact mentally disturbed too. 

We saw new light as the lockdown was smoothened and found an opportunity in home delivering our food to people. 

We’ve got a great response till now, and are very positive for the future.

Hukus Bukus

The lockdown-induced gap has put business on the brink of collapse as the footfall of our restaurant has depleted. But thanks to our staff, we’re back in action. 

With proper SOPs in place, we hope to regain our normal customer footfall soon.

Zero Miles Café 

Lockdown has put cafes in a lot of pressure. Since people are afraid to go out to dine, it has affected the business. It’s also affecting home delivery system since people don’t prefer to eat from outside as of now. 

But we need to restart, and for that, we need a capital infusion. Situation is still critical. Many restaurants are shutting down because they can’t pay the rent and salaries. 

And therefore, we would be focusing on home delivery and takeaways in post-COVID era. Hygiene will be our priority.

Alif the Café

Our plan was to serve something unique—say, for example, Kashmiri food with Lebanese or Turkish twist—in the valley. But unfortunately, lockdowns changed everything. 

As a travel agent with extensive travel experience, I’ve observed that tourism and food are interconnected. Such combination works well in Thailand, Tashkent, Europe, Egypt and other countries. 

We tried to reopen our cafe in January 2020, but after one month COVID once again made it a shut shop. As Kashmiris we’re used to these kinds of lockdown and restrictions, but pandemic experience was really new and different, so it really changed entire lifestyle.

I was also keen that opening restaurant will also boost the economy in the valley. We’ve almost more than 2.5 lakh people who’re directly involved with this sector. Only in my restaurant, I’ve 15 staff members, which means 15 families are dependent on my restaurant. But now, due to low demand and uncertainty, we’ve only 8 staff members. 

Winterfell Café

I think, from now onwards, innovation is the key to survival. Social media is a powerful tool and needs to be used properly. 

Quality of food will matter the most now. Packaging and presentation will give you an edge over the competition. 

With a market dominated by certain delivery chains, it’s imperative that your food be different than the rest.

  • With inputs from Tanya Rigzin and Namisha Raj

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