The past four months has presented the most dismal time for restaurants in town due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For Sahama al Haditha Enterprises, a popular Indian snack corner near the Omanoil fuel station in MBD, which has been abuzz with patrons every evening for the past 30 years, this, however, has been nothing short of a nightmare. Quite literally. But it’s owner, Prabhakar Pethkar, who has been busy treating diners to popular Indian delicacies till midnight all these years, is hopeful that this phase will soon pass away like a bad dream and usher in rays of new hope.
This Indian snack corner is popularly known as the ‘petrol pump cafeteria’ or as ‘Pethkar’s fast-food joint’ and one could drive in to this spot close to midnight and yet expect to be served a steaming hot plate of ‘Pav-bhaji’ or crisp hot dosas. Orders for the popular Punjabi samosas, Maharashtrian batata-wadas, north-Indian chaat items and south-Indian savouries keep the boys manning the stall on their toes all day. And, the evenings begin early as people stroll in from nearby offices as well as families walk in for an evening of spicy snacks, accompanied by steaming hot masala tea.
All this has, however, come to a grinding halt now and only a few orders for take aways are placed in the evenings. And from this week, with two weeks of total lockdown beginning, there will be no activity from 7pm onwards, which means absolutely no business for this food joint.
“Business at restaurants and cafes mainly starts in the evening. Since everything will be closed from today, obviously, we will have a massive setback,” says Pethkar,adding, “But, looking at the present condition (of the pandemic in Oman), we must cooperate with the government in its efforts and hope for good results.”
Despite being dealt a heavy blow for the first time in the past three decades when he steadily moved from strength to strength, Pethkar is optimistic of the future. He has no intention of folding up the business nor diversifying into anything else to stay afloat. “All businesses are suffering, no one is safe,” is his contention, and he is keeping his fingers crossed to see good old days return soon.
Pethkar realises the fears and concerns of his patrons who would love to visit his food joint but prefer not to take chances and stay home. About instilling greater confidence in them, he says, “It is difficult. Only the feeling of overall safety, health and job security can make people confident. I can join hands with services like Talabat, wherein customers can order from their homes, enjoy food, and remain safe,” he said, weighing some options.
Reflecting on the downtrend in his business, Pethkar said, “It is almost four months now. Around 70 per cent of our business has gone down. We were doing around 30 per cent of our usual business, but even that got reduce to 15 per cent during the month of Ramadan. Besides health concerns, people are also scared of losing jobs and curtail expenses by avoiding eating out. So, restaurants are very badly hit.”
He took note that, fortunately for some, sponsors and landlords have been considerate while the government has relaxed some rules and waived some fines for commercial establishments. Also, fines for irresponsible behaviour in public, like not wearing masks, has improved the situation to some extent, he said.
“I wish a vaccine is introduced soon and this worst pandemic I have ever seen comes fully under control,” Pethkar said, expressing the hope that things would improve in every sphere of activity once a cure for COVID-19 has been established and people have access to prevention measures along with treatment.