Abdul Qadir, a recent university graduate, opened a restaurant named Atithi, in South Surma of Sylhet, last year. His business had been doing well, but now it has been closed for four months due to Covid-19 and he needs to pay rent, utility bills and the staff's salaries.
"In these four months, I've lost almost all my capital. The cost of running a restaurant in compliance with hygiene rules will also increase. Even if the restaurant is allowed to open, the chances of doing business are very slim. As a result, I have decided to sell the restaurant," he said.
Not only Abdul Qadir, but many others have decided to close their restaurants as they have incurred losses due to Covid-19 crisis. At least a dozen restaurants have already closed or been sold.
Restaurants – like Spice Chicken, Buffet House, Doctors Cafe, Fat Belly and Calorie Height – in the Kumarpara, Nayasarak, Zindabazar and Medical Road areas of the city have closed down.
There has been a trend of launching restaurant businesses in Sylhet over the years – which continued until the Covid-19 outbreak. In the last five years, 200 restaurants were set up in different parts of the city. In total, there are more than 500 restaurants in Sylhet.
The restaurants sold Chinese, Thai and fast food – among other varieties. Other types of restaurants sold local food in open air dining facilities with huge amounts of space.
The restaurants are not getting customers, even after reopening, as tourists have stopped coming and educational institutions are also closed due to Covid-19. Additionally, Covid-19 has also reduced the trend of going out with the family.
Most of the restaurants in Sylhet opened through competition. There was competition to reduce food prices to attract customers. For this, many did good business but failed to make profit. They are now in trouble.
Manzoor Ahmed, business partner of Ethiopia, said, "People are not coming to restaurants. As soon as the restaurants open, employees must be paid salaries. If there is no business, how will I pay salaries? This is why we decided to keep the restaurant closed for now."
Divya Jyoti Shi, a private university student in Sylhet, with a few friends, opened a restaurant called Royal Dine. Divya said, "I took capital from my family to run a restaurant. It is no longer possible to make new investments. Like me, young entrepreneurs are in dire straits because of Covid-19."
During a visit, this correspondent saw that Pansi, a restaurant at Zindabazar which was once always crowded with customers, is almost empty. There is no such rush of customers as before. Just a few customers are having lunch at the restaurant.
Jahangir Alam, an employee of the restaurant, said customer numbers are very low as tourists have stopped coming plus colleges and universities are shut. Moreover, office-goers are now afraid to eat at restaurants.
During the shutdown, home delivery service was in full swing at several restaurants. However, the traders did not benefit from the take-away system as it is not popular in Sylhet.
Shahiraj Chowdhury, owner of Madgrill restaurant, said, "Despite restaurant closures, we had a take-away system operating during the shutdown. However, people here were not interested in it. So, it was impossible to sustain a restaurant with a take-away system and meet the expenses of the business."
Aminul Islam Farhan, an owner of Karagar restaurant, said before Covid-19 there was business of Tk30,000 to Tk35,000 per day, now there is not more than Tk5,000.
There are two organisations of restaurants in Sylhet. Bengali food restaurants belong to the Bangladesh Restaurant Owners Association while the Sylhet District Caterers Group is an organisation of fast food restaurants.
Shanto Dev, president of the district caterers group, said, "We have to run the restaurant in compliance with the hygiene rules. We are accommodating 50 people in a restaurant that has a capacity of 100. As a result management costs have increased a lot. However, the price of food cannot be increased."
He said, "This sector was most affected by Covid-19 but we are not getting any incentives. When contacted, the banks say there is no instruction to give incentives to the restaurant category."
"We have about 300 restaurants of our type in Sylhet. Many restaurants are being sold."
"Half of the restaurant workers have lost their jobs as most entrepreneurs do not have the means to pay their salaries," Shanto, managing director of Spicy, said.
Md Nuruzzaman Siddiqui, general secretary of the Sylhet unit of the Bangladesh Restaurant Owners Association, said, "We have submitted a memorandum to the Sylhet Deputy Commissioner seeking incentives. However, no decision has been made about this yet. We have also written to the concerned department for a waiver of Value Added Tax. We have yet to receive a response to this."