Features

Colombo’s little food hood: Then and now

 

Thimbirigasyaya Road, or Ven. Muruththettuwe Ananda Nahimi Mawatha, is a central main road running through Colombo 5 from Police Park down to Baseline Road (Elvitigala Mawatha). Having been dramatically widened a few years ago, it is now a main street that is home to an interesting mix of businesses, both large and small.

Many of these businesses are eateries, from large established chain outlets to smaller eateries that range from family businesses to one-man bands. This eclectic mix of cool little eateries has made the locale of Thimbirgasyaya Road an interesting little hub of sorts for foodies, with essentially all tastes being catered to in some form.

The Sunday Morning Brunch visited and spoke to a few of these small eateries in the area to learn more about how things have been in the wake of Covid-19.

A second wave could prove disastrous

Doner and Durum (D&D), a Turkish-German street food establishment founded by a group of five friends – Waqar Moulana, Abdul Ghouse, Atif Haariz, Sharanga Hettiarachchi, and Niki Senanayake – opened about one-and-a-half years ago, offering an interesting mix of street food with both Turkish and German influences. D&D uses these interesting influences to create delicious, comforting street food-inspired meals.

Speaking to Waqar Moulana, one of the Co-founders, we learnt that D&D moved fast to get back up and running during the lockdown, commencing delivery operations on 28 March with a restricted menu and being one of the few restaurants doing so in the early days of the lockdown.

Adapting to the post-Covid world, Moulana explained that D&D has implemented health and safety protocols with the installation of a portable sink and hygiene station before entering the restaurant, by carrying out temperature checks, by rearranging the layout of the space itself to allow appropriate distancing to take place, and by cutting seating capacity by 50%.

He explained that with the lockdown only being recently relaxed, they haven’t been overwhelmed by dine-in customers yet, adding that although their delivery orders have been steady, sales are dropping, which Moulana attributes to customers needing to be more careful with spending and an element of market saturation with almost all restaurants now moving to online delivery through platforms like Uber Eats, PickMe Food, and Eatts, as well as an influx of home cooks and bakers on these platforms.

Looking to the future, Moulana shared that there is a sense of doom; while things could possibly pick up in the next few months, a second wave could prove disastrous.

Delivery platforms an integral part of keeping businesses afloat

Sushi Kai, a quirky Japanese restaurant more or less across the road from D&D, ceased operations until mid-April, with Founder and Owner Pasindu Peiris using the time to approach public health inspectors (PHIs) and get everything set up to resume operations. With the majority of his 16-member team being out of Colombo for the entire duration of the lockdown, Peiris resumed operation with a skeleton crew of four members doing delivery orders until the lockdown was slowly eased.

Taking health and safety into account, Sushi Kai has invested in automatic hand sanitisers and restricted the number of customers to only taking in 50% of its maximum seating capacity at a time. Customers also have their temperatures checked when they enter. Furthermore, they only take in guests of very small groups while larger groups are only taken via prior reservations.

Sushi Kai Owner Pasindu Peirs

A challenge faced by Sushi Kai in the wake of the pandemic is that of ingredients. As a Japanese restaurant, Sushi Kai uses mainly imported ingredients; the scarcity of these and the related increase in the cost of these ingredients has put a strain on Sushi Kai. They have had to increase prices, but it is not feasible to put such strain on customers, particularly in times of economic uncertainty.

In adapting to the changing and difficult times, Peiris noted that delivery and delivery platforms were an integral part of keeping businesses afloat, although the commissions charged by such platforms are not always sustainable. Sushi Kai, along with other restaurants in Colombo, has appealed to Uber Eats in particular to negotiate on commissions at least on a temporary basis but to no avail.

Peiris too stressed that now is an important time for customers to come and dine at their favourite places. Everyone is hurting and dining in keeps small restaurants in business and allows them to keep full earnings within the company and reinvest.

Customers hesitant to venture out

Epi-Q Express Gourmet is a fairly new eatery in the area, offering waffles, crepes, pizzas, wraps, and ice cones along with mojitos and tea. Epi-Q Director Shazmin Ismail explained that after having Epi-Q shut down for two months after the curfew was declared, it reopened in mid-May for pick-up and delivery via Uber Eats, PickMe Food, and Eatts, with such platforms integral to helping Epi-Q keep going through this difficult time.

A small family-run outfit managed by two sisters with a team of four staff members, the biggest challenge Epi-Q is facing is the fear of customers to eat out. Epi-Q has always held health and safety close to heart, with the restaurant featuring an open kitchen for customers to see just how their food is made. Adapting to the health and safety regulations set out by the authorities, all staff members wear masks and gloves and sanitise tables and chairs within the restaurant between customers.

Commenting on Epi-Q’s outlook, Ismail explained that Epi-Q expects dine-in footfall not to be great for at least a year. While dining in is encouraged, Ismail explained that she understood why customers, particularly those who are parents, are hesitant to venture out.

Staying positive despite challenges

Giovanni’s Presto Pizza opened to great buzz a few years ago and has retained a fiercely loyal customer base ever since, becoming a go-to name for great pizza and expanding to offer pasta and other Italian food as well.

Owner Dimuthu Gamage shared that he and the entire team at Giovanni’s strive to live and work positively, creatively, and productively. Giovanni’s resumed operations as soon as it could, following the curfew, offering a limited menu for delivery through their own delivery service and even managing to expand and beautify their premises during the lockdown by adding in family rooms for small groups while also adjusting appropriately to maintain social distancing.

Giovanni’s Owner Dimuthu Gamage

For the most part, Giovanni’s took things day by day – some days have been very successful while others haven’t – and through it all, the team has been staying positive. The demand for their pizza has stayed more or less constant throughout, and Giovanni’s has always limited the quantity of their production to ensure quality.

Gamage had anticipated an issue with the supply of ingredients when Covid-19 struck Italy (Giovanni’s depends heavily on Italian produce) and ordered in bulk, receiving his shipment before the lockdown and import restrictions were put in place in Sri Lanka. As such, he doesn’t anticipate any issues in being able to supply his customers for the next few months.

He is very thankful for his loyal customer base, and though there has been a drop in sales, Gamage shared that this is quite understandable given the current situation. He and the team at Giovanni’s are very optimistic that things will pick up soon once the immediate danger of the pandemic passes.

No idea what to expect

Laksa Noodle Bar is a quaint establishment on Thimbirigasyaya Road that serves noodles, soup noodles, ramen, and laksa. Chef German Dimaano, the Owner of the restaurant, shared that Laksa Noodle Bar shut down for two months post curfew before reopening for delivery via Uber Eats and PickMe Food.

Laksa Noodle Bar Owner Chef German Dimaano

A big challenge for Laksa Noodle Bar is accommodating health and safety regulations within such a small space; distancing protocol leaves them able to accommodate no more than four people at a time.

Ingredients were also a challenge for Laksa Noodle Bar which imports a lot of their noodles from Malaysia. While Dimaano also makes his own noodles and has been able to work out alternatives using locally available ingredients, it does impact the authenticity of his cuisine, especially with no clear information on when import restrictions are likely to be relaxed.

Commenting on the general outlook post Covid-19, Dimaano explained that he had no idea what to expect. The rest of the world is starting to experience second waves, but so far Sri Lanka is safe, which is a blessing to Dimaano. A lot will depend on how the Government handles the reopening of foreign borders, he pointed out.

Predicting trends, a challenge

The Bread Company, at seven years old, is the oldest small food business in the area. Co-owner Prashan Butani shared that the lockdown, while unexpected, opened up an unexpected avenue of business with regard to bread. While previously selling retail, The Bread Company was overwhelmed with orders for bread during the lockdown, needing to make up to 500 loaves a day. With his staff on leave and locked out of Colombo by the curfew, Butani became a one-man operation, baking, packing, and delivering bread sometimes to locations as far as Angoda on request.

Bread Company Co-Owner Prashan Butani

Eventually, through a serendipitous connection with the Red Cross, Butani was able to get some of his staff carefully brought back to Colombo to help him with operations and get some of his other menu items up and running again, with the staff members taking extra care with health and safety.

A big challenge for The Bread Company is predicting trends; keen to avoid wastage, there is no precedent on how to accurately gauge demand. Some weeks are bad and others are phenomenally good, while there was also a variation in between. A key component of The Bread Company is mothers and working parents on the school run in the mornings, and with schools closed, it’s hard to tell what the new normal is going to be since a large portion of their market is not yet leaving the house regularly as they used to.

In terms of ingredients, The Bread Company has had both good and bad experiences; some suppliers have voluntarily extended large periods of credit to help customers in difficult times, while others have responded by more than doubling their prices.

Commenting on delivery platforms like Uber Eats, PickMe Food, and Eatts, Butani explained that while commissions are substantial and deliveries were booming, there is still an overall drop in deliveries because not everyone is still locked in, and with groceries now delivering ingredients and people being more used to eating at home, there is going to be a relative drop in delivery sales. It is important for platforms to recognise this when setting delivery targets that could end up hurting partners, he added.

Butani also commented that the Colombo City Restaurant Collective (CCRC) is working on negotiating a review of commissions charged by delivery platforms but has not yet made any official progress. His key outlook to the future is staying strong and doing everything possible to be better in this uncertain time.

Looking to the future

A key theme in how the future will unfold is how the reopening of our international borders will take place and how effectively strategies and protocols are followed to avoid a second wave.

For the most part, the little food hub of Colombo 5’s Thimbirigasyaya Road is making it through the current post-lockdown period. While uncertainty reigns supreme and the coming months will be crucial, these personality-packed eateries are looking to stay strong and get through it all with optimistic outlooks to the future.