Hit heavily by Covid-19, caterers clueless on their future course of action

From the traditional way of preparing food by dhoti-clad cooks at one’s own home premises, as seen in old Malayalam films, to the extensive use of modern kitchen gadgets housed in the custom-built state-of-art complexes for catering to large numbers of guests, catering has come a long way.

Over the years, they have fed millions at parties, weddings and other large gatherings. However, now these caterers are running from pillar to post to get even small orders, ranging from 50 to 100 people. Perhaps, few other business activities in Kerala in the lockdown period are as heavily hit as catering sector and those directly and indirectly linked to the culinary field.

“No less than 300,000 people employed one way or the other with the catering and related activities, are rendered jobless these days, rued Secretary, All Kerala Caterers Association General Secretary, Sunu Kumar, “At this juncture, we have absolutely no clue as to how to deal with the ongoing situation arising from the developments in the wake of Covid pandemic,’ said Kumar while expressing their body’s helplessness.

The catering association official pointed out that their forum has more than 2,400 companies serving the catering industry and no less than 150,000 are directly employed by the member companies. There are firms having more than 100-150 employees and even more in many districts of Kerala. The caterers also provide jobs to additional part timers during busy seasons. Besides. the association member companies, there are large numbers of other companies who are not part of the association, we have learnt.

Inquiries with caterers’ representatives spread all over Kerala found annual businesses worth anywhere between Rs 50 billion and Rs 75 billion (Rs 5,000 crore and Rs 7,500 crore) have come to a virtual nought in the wake of social distancing rules put in place by the government. This figure includes the price of the essentials and expected loss in other segments such as event management, transport and hall rents. “At the prevailing levels of the spreading of the pandemic, we don’t expect a sudden change in the present business scenario and its effect may last sometime until the next summer,’’ said a visibly-shaken Kumar.

Economic developments in and around Kochi has seen the birth of nearly 200 catering firms in the immediate neighbourhoods of the city and other towns of Ernakulam district and in  Thrissur, considered to be the district housing maximum number of caterers. Thrissur reportedly has almost 500 firms these days. “Besides those who are members of the caterers association there are several others who were eking out a living from this industry,” said Sunu Kumar

Thiruvananathapuram, Kollam, Kottayam and Alappuzha too have a large number of catering firms who have been in the business for 10 or more years. “In the place of serving 1500 to 2000 plates per party and sometimes catering to two or three such parties the same day, we are struggling to get orders for 50 and 100 persons these days,” said Vijay (not the real name), who runs a well-known catering company in Kottayam district. The entrepreneur said both the owners and employees of several small and medium establishments are in a really pitiable condition and they are now facing an uncertain future.

A dharna taken out by caterers association in Thiruvananathapuram last year

Apart from the wholesale suppliers and distributors of foodstuffs, those relying mainly on catering companies for their day to day activities like makers of porotta, chappathi, and appam too are finding the going tough these days. With the nationwide lockdown declared on March 23 everything turned upside down for the caterers. April, May and June are often considered busy marriage seasons and caterers are usually flooded with orders during the three months.

Except for the month-long Holy Ramadan (for Muslims), the period between Ash Wednesday and Easter (for Christians), and the 40 days prior to the auspicious Chingam (for Hindus) weddings are held throughout the year across the state . “However, with the lockdown in place, most of the caterers missed the whole three months without even a single major function,” said representative of a Kochi-based catering. He said prior to the Covid scare most of the established companies used to have business for about 185 days a year.

Industry sources also said that there are a number of smaller companies that supply helpers, mainly college-going youngsters, as bearers for parties across Kerala. “Those youths used to get some money for their day to day expenses from these part-time duties with catering firms. However, the latest situation has rendered them jobless and penny-less these days,” said Sunu Kumar.

Another association official said their industry may not generate as much tax revenues to the Government exchequer unlike the business from the BEVCO outlets and bar hotels. “But the authorities cannot forget that many businesses that support the catering industry are major revenues earners for the State.”

It has been given to understand that a number of care homes sheltering poorer sections among the aged people who were relying on the food supply from both the caterers and even hosts of marriage ceremonies, are now in an uncomfortable situation with the ban on large gatherings. Sometime ago, when officials of a shelter home in Pathanamthitta’s Malappally made a plea for food supply there owing to a shortage of voluntary contributions from benefactors in the wake of COVID scare, Chief Minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, immediately intervened and came to their rescue. The decision from the Chief Minister came immediately after the issue was brought to his attention by legislator Mathew T Thomas. Similar appeals for assistance are also reportedly coming from some other parts of Kerala.

While some of the major caterers in some parts of Kerala are just carrying out their day to day operations by providing parcels and home delivery against calls, it is far from enough to meet their daily expenses. “While I used to have 10 to 15 well attended wedding and other parties during peak seasons,  and sometimes even more, since the third week of March, I have not catered to a single party with 100 persons,’ said a Kochi-based caterer.

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