In the month of Ramadan, if you are late to lunch at a restaurant in Bangladesh you will barely find waiters entertaining you heart and soul.
All their focus somehow shifts to the restaurant's entry point where they compete with each other to make an alluring display of their large array of iftar delicacies – a part of passion and excitement, also the biggest seasonal sale in the restaurant industry.
From upscale and large hotels and restaurants to roadside food courts, small tea stalls, temporary iftar sheds – everywhere people queue up for their favourite items to add to the iftar menu.
Iftar is the evening meal with which Muslims end their daily Ramadan fasting, known as sawm in Islamic terminology, at sunset.
Pianji, beguni, chop, chhola, various kebabs, halim, biriyani, sweetmeats like jilapi, firni, and various refreshing beverages are popular food items among Bangladeshis all through the year. And the love for these foodstuffs has eventually evolved into a seasonal food buying spree.
There is no exact statistics on how much money Bangladeshi people spend to satisfy their tongues during iftar.
A conservative estimate in a 2014 study suggested that in the present economic and demographic context of Bangladesh, the iftar economy surpasses Tk15,000 crore each season.
Due to the ongoing nationwide shutdown imposed to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, the burgeoning iftar economy this year is going to be squeezed into home kitchens and an extremely underpenetrated online shopping ecosystem.
Veteran banker and economy expert Mamun Rashid, now a partner at PWC Bangladesh, led the 2014 study on iftar economy.
He tells The Business Standard that at least 12 crore people in Bangladesh arrange iftar. Their per-head spending each evening ranges from Tk20 to over Tk1,000. If the average is Tk40 per head, daily iftar spending is around Tk500 crore, which has created an iftar economy of around Tk15,000 crore in each Ramadan.
"People's ability and spending vary in different neighbourhoods of the country. But the average spending is unlikely to go below the estimated figure of Tk40 per head," says Rashid.
Alongside restaurant takeaways, there has grown a sizable economy of iftar events, which is the biggest occasion to get together in Bangladesh.
The turnover from iftar parties would add a few thousand crore taka to the estimated figure, Mamun Rashid argues.
In Ramadan, over a dozens of star-rated hotels, hundreds of large local hotel restaurants, thousands of party centres-cum-restaurants, and convention halls across the country barely give us a chance to get into without pre-booking.
This year, nothing will remain the same as the government has banned public gatherings for iftar parties to save people from the deadly novel coronavirus.
Five Star Westin Hotel in the capital can host 300 guests for iftar, yet, in normal time, it has to add chairs each afternoon because of overcrowding during iftar.
Jane Alam Shawon, Westin's director for revenue, says the price of their iftar dishes begins from Tk1,000 per guest.
This Ramadan is also going to be a losing season for thousands of common restaurants that sell iftar dishes.
Bangladesh Restaurant Owners' Association South Dhaka unit's Executive Member Hazi Abul Qashem, also the proprietor of Diamond Restaurant, says, "We keep waiting for this season for an increased sale. If we cannot sell iftar items, it will be really tough for us to recover the losses we have counted due to the shutdown."
South Dhaka's Chawkbazar, a legendary iftar market, have hundreds of businessmen for iftar items and most of them are carrying their heritage to excel in recipes.
Mohammad Hossain is one of them. He has been preparing and selling dozens of iftar items for the last 25 years.
Hossain says that he is suffering from a lack of workforce and disrupted raw material supplies amid the ongoing shutdown. He also points at the ongoing holistic uncertainties.
"We all have an air of uncertainty as to whether we will live or die during this pandemic. The same uncertainty applies to businesses as well. But we will make each of our iftar items to satisfy our soul whether there are people to buy them or not."
Echoing dozens of iftar makers in the area, Hossain says he seeks a limited-scale opportunity to make and sell iftar items with full understanding of the needs for social distancing during the pandemic.
Bakery and sweetmeat brands with a heritage which include old Dhaka's Alauddin, Decent, Ananda, Amania informed The Business Standard that they are preparing for Ramadan this year on a limited scale.
Baily Road, another iftar bazaar in new Dhaka, is more likely to be a ghost street during the shutdown. But the local restaurant and bakery chains are counting on online deliveries.