Before the pandemic, the food court on Runner Plaza in Bogura town used to be the ideal go-to place for local foodies.
But, the popular eateries in the only air-conditioned mall in the town – mostly owned and run by women entrepreneurs – are now struggling to keep open as Covid-19 ravaged businesses across the country.
Even a year ago, the 7th floor food court was abuzz with large crowds of food-lovers and the business was thriving. The 17 restaurants would offer various cuisines such as Indian, Chinese and Mexican – Hyderababi biriyani, kachchi biriyani, doi phuchka, grilled naan, burger, nachos, soup, chowmein, wanthon.
But the pandemic and a series of lockdowns caused major setbacks for these food entrepreneurs as many of them were forced to shut their business. Those who are still open are reeling under loans.
The food court now hardly has any customers these days.
The food stall owners are having a hard time paying the monthly expenses including rents, employee salaries and utility bills.
Tahmina Parveen Shyamoli, a second-generation food business owner, started her food shop 'Mandolin Cafe' in 2017 in memory of his father who owned a Chinese restaurant in the late 1980s. Tahmina's café was doing well until the pandemic hit.
"I have spent my savings to pay the monthly rents for my two stalls, utility bills and employee salaries during the pandemic. I hoped that the situation would improve, but there's literally no sales as the market is empty so to speak," she said.
"Creditors are pressuring for their money. Many of my fellow store owners are in a similar situation," Tahmina said, adding, "unless the market goes back to normal it will be extremely difficult to pay off the loans.
Owner of 'Chill Café' Bipasha took a Tk4 lakh loan from an NGO to pay rents and salaries for three stores.
"I also had to sell my son's bike," she said.
During last year, three restaurants closed down–Palli Vojon, Sabitas Kitchen and Sub Club.
Another lady took a Tk6 lakh loan from the market union. Failing to pay the amount she now stopped going to the food court altogether. She refused to talk to the media when requested for comments.
Owner of 'Twist and Tasty' restaurant Farhana Afrose's son Rifat, said, "We used to make sales worth Tk20-30 thousand daily. But, now there's hardly any customers.
According to people linked with the food court business, before the pandemic overall daily sales were Tk3.5 lakh a day on average. Now, total daily sales in the entire market are roughly around Tk60,000-70,000.
Bonfire restaurant's owner Umme Fatema Lisa said, "The business started to go downhill after the second wave of Covid."
"The market union, which provides loans at 2% interest rate, is now reluctant to give any more loans," she said.
Rezwan Islam, linked with union's loan disbursement said, "Most of the business people in the market have failed to pay back due to the pandemic. That's why we have stopped giving out further loans.
Asked whether the Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation (BSCIC) is open to provide financial support for these food brand owners, its Deputy General Manager told The Business Standard, "If we receive any loan application, we will consider it."
He also added that the government offers many loans at low interest rates.