Relying on their loyal customer base and encouraging takeaways, well-known snack corners in the city struggle to make their ends meet
Every year, Nikhil Haldar, a street side vendor who sells traditional Bengali jhal muri in Visakhapatnam, is excited about Durga Puja. Not only is it a festive season for the 57-year-old native of Hooghly but also a time when he can pocket extra income by setting up a stall outside Waltair Kali Bari, one of the oldest pujas in the city. But this year, he is unsure as his stall has been closed for over six months now due to the pandemic and the puja celebrations in the city are expected to be subdued.
“I solely depended on my jhal muri stall for livelihood, with the pandemic and no puja celebrations thia year it is a double blow to my income. I came to Visakhapatnam in the 1980s in search of employment along with my brother. The city gave me a chance to earn with dignity but now I am unsure of the business as people are wary to eat from roadside eateries,” says Nikhil who has been surviving on his savings and borrowings from this brother for the past several months. He plans to start setting up his stall from the last week of October as all this while he was scared to step out due to the virus. “I have been hearing about how expensive the treatment for the virus is so I am worried about stepping out. But I have exhausted all my resources so I have no other choice now,” he says.
The recent video of an elderly couple who run Baba Ka Dhaba in Delhi has put in spotlight the kind of struggle roadside eateries are facing due to the pandemic. Several of Visakhapatnam’s well-known streetside eateries which have been popular among the residents for their delicacies are now struggling to make their ends meet.
P Ratnakumari has been selling punugulus near the LIC building for almost three decades now. Before the pandemic hit, her business was running in full swing with over 10 workers helping her at the two makeshift stalls which received over 500 customers every day. “When we had to close for over three months, I had to let go of four of my employees as I could not continue paying their wages. We opened the stalls in June first week, and had parcels only until August. But slowly the business has started picking up; we have fewer walk-ins and more takeaways. In the initial days, we had just 10 or 12 customers but that has now increased to over 250 per day,” she says.
It is the loyal customer base who have a fan of her punugulus that are helping her sail through the difficult times. “No one wants to experiment with their food in the current scenario, so the customers we see are the families that have been coming to us for years. We are trying to do our bit during the pandemic by keeping a track of our employee’s health conditions, marking blocks on the road for social distancing and ensuring that the staff wears masks all the time. I am looking forward to the rains because that is usually the time when the demand for piping hot punugulus shoots up,” adds Ratnakumari.
When Cyclone HudHud hit Visakhapatnam in 2014, A Kondandara Rao thought it was the rock bottom for his business as he had to keep his stall SKML Time Pass Point, that sells traditional variants of bhajji and muri mixture, closed for almost 15 days. But as the city recovered from the aftermath so did his business. “But this time it is different, people are scared to eat outside. So just to assure them I strike a conversation and then explain how cautious I am with my food, and how well I sanitise the cart before and after the use each day. I am also careful with the washing of vegetables that I use. I do not allow anyone in the four-feet radius of my cart. Mostly, I encourage people to prefer takeaways as it would be safer for them and for me,” says Kondandara who has been setting up his stall at Jagdamba Junction for the past 28 years.
He reopened his stall in mid-June after shutting it for almost two and a half months. “Initial few weeks were really hard as there were barely three or four customers. But this has now improved as I cater to over 150 customers everyday. This is just 25% of what our normal business is, but it is better than not making any money at all,” he says.