'We focus on getting through each day': Old KL eateries dig into savings while waiting out COVID-19 storm
KUALA LUMPUR: Petaling Street, a usually bustling area, was deserted and quiet under the current total lockdown.
Peter Chin, who has been running Restoran Kiew Yee Baru in the same spot since the 1960s, said they would start closing the restaurant by 7.20pm on most nights and not even wait for the 8pm limit set by the government.
“Take a look, there’s nothing going on,” he gestured down Jalan Tun HS Lee.
“It’s even quieter than it was during May 13,” Chin said, referring to the 1969 race riots in Kuala Lumpur and the subsequent curfew to quell the incident.
During the opening hours, Chin’s son-in-law Chong Wan Heng only fired up the stove whenever an order came in, which was few and far between. The restaurant, operating out of an unassuming shop lot, serves "tze char" dishes like Cantonese fried noodles, mincemeat tofu and seafood fried rice.
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Malaysia entered a nationwide lockdown from Jun 1 to contain the spike in COVID-19 cases. Dine-in at restaurants are prohibited and shops can only operate from 8am to 8pm, while work from home is the default arrangement for non-essential sectors.
Only two people per household are allowed to purchase essentials, with movement limited to a 10km radius from their residence.
The lockdown, which has since been extended until Jun 28, has dealt a serious blow to businesses and retailers. Time-honoured eateries that have been serving comforting, nostalgic dishes for decades are among those hit hard by the restrictions, especially when they have yet to jump on the delivery bandwagon.
They were unsure how long they could continue to operate as they are currently surviving on their savings, but their immediate focus is to take things one day at a time.
“Right now, I’m not even thinking about profits. As long as we can break even, cover the cost of our ingredients, our gas, the utilities and workers’ wages, I’m happy already,” Chin said.
"When we were younger, yes we did worry that the restaurant might not survive. But we’re now an established eatery (lao zhao pai) and have such a long history, we can use our savings to help tide things over.
"Right now, there’s not even time to entertain such thoughts about whether we might have to close or not, and we focus on getting through each day," he said.
DIGGING INTO RESERVES TO STAY AFLOAT
For Rosnah Husin, who manages Pak Din Ikan Bakar with her husband Zainuddin Abdullah, the cycle of lockdowns and reopenings in over a year have depleted their businesses’ reserves.
The grilled fish stall, which was founded in 1997, is a popular establishment in central Kuala Lumpur’s Jalan Tanglin area. Before the pandemic, customers came in droves from areas as far as Kajang, Gombak and Subang, Rosnah said.
“The 10km travel limit and people’s fear of being fined have really badly affected us. Because a lot of customers and our regulars don’t just come from the surrounding area," she said.
In its heyday, the stall used up to 10 sacks or 100kg of rice from morning until late afternoon.
These days, they only use two bags of rice, Rosnah said. Customers also just came to buy grilled fish and rice, unlike when they were able to dine in and order more food.
Rosnah said she and her husband have stopped paying themselves salaries, and were just focused on ensuring the stall's survival each week. Half of their workers had left or were let go; the remaining ones were willing to work at half their usual pay.
“Luckily we always put money away for reserves, but as this current lockdown drags on, even the hill has become flat,” Rosnah said, playing on a traditional Malay proverb about slowly accumulating wealth.
When CNA visited their stall on Wednesday (Jun 16), orders were only trickling in slowly. Rosnah was taking orders on the phone and her husband or the workers would wrap the grilled fishes in tin foil and pack them with rice and condiments made of chilli, shallots, sauce and tamarind.
“It is the same with my neighbours here. We’re all just trying to survive, it’s literally surviving on what we can scratch out in the morning,” Rosnah said.
Likewise, Sathya Seelan Vijayakumar, the current proprietor of Sri Ganapathi Mess in Petaling Jaya, said he has to cover part of the outlet's overheads from its reserves these days.
The banana leaf rice restaurant was started by his father some 20 years ago. Fried squid, crab rasam and mutton parathal were among the well-loved dishes.
Sri Ganapathi Mess is situated right opposite a primary school, and had it been a normal lunch hour, traffic would often be a snarl as diners and parents jostle for parking space.
Now, the area was quiet and the eatery was empty. An occasional call or online order would prompt the workers to prepare and pack.
SIGNING UP WITH DELIVERY PLATFORMS
While many restaurants and cafes have signed up with delivery platforms such as Grab and Food Panda, some of these decade-old eateries said they were resisting the idea for practical reasons.
“One, I’m not very conversant with new technology,” said Restoran Kiew Yee Baru's Chin.
“Two, the platforms take commissions for every order, and the profit isn’t very big for the basic dishes, so either I take the loss, or I have to raise prices to cover the costs of labour and ingredients,” he added.
But if he were to raise prices, he would be in danger of losing his customers.
Rosnah said her family’s grilled fish stall had only just signed up with a major food delivery platform and was going through the approval process.
“But I had heard from my other friends in the food business about the commission structure, and for me, my primary concern is I have to take care of my customers first. Items like fish are also seasonal and the prices are not fixed,” she said.
Both establishments have been relying on orders that came in through phone calls.
“Once we’re done with cooking, we call the customer to let them know their order is ready and they can arrange either for a delivery rider, or come themselves to pick it up,” Chin said.
Sathya Seelan's Sri Ganapathi Mess was initially not on any online delivery platform but he saw the need after suffering bad business during last year's lockdown in March.
“After 10 days with no business, I had to shut everything down for a month, register ourselves on the platform, and then reopen for business,” he said.
He acknowledged that business would be much worse without the delivery platforms and takeaways. In this current lockdown, electronic orders and takeaways helped cover 70 to 80 per cent of their overheads.
“More importantly, we can reach our customers who live beyond the 10km or inter-district travel limits during this total lockdown,” Sathya Seelan said.
MISSING THE ATMOSPHERE
It has not been easy seeing their establishments stay quiet during the lockdown.
For Sathya Seelan, the thing he missed the most was the atmosphere.
“Usually, our busiest times are the weekend. But last Saturday for instance, it was 2pm and we talked among ourselves because not many orders were coming in.
“And we were remarking that ‘Hey, usually we would be busy running around the place serving rice, vegetable and curries,’” he described.
“Sales aside, we also miss the interaction with our customers because we have some really long-time regulars, who have been coming here since we started business, or have been dining in for five, 10 years. They sometimes stop and linger over a cup of tea or coffee,” he said.
Packing rice and vegetables into paper boxes was just not the same, he said.
“The whole point of banana leaf rice is the banana leaf. Packing our food into boxes makes us like nasi campur (mixed rice),” he laughed.
Apparently, some customers also miss the experience so much that they made a special request to have their takeout boxes lined with banana leaves, Sathya Seelan said.
By his own calculations, Sathya Seelan said, the business could run on its reserves until the end of July, without having to let go of any of its workers.
“But by August, it becomes a question mark, and then I have to see how we are able to keep this business running,” he said.
Read this story in Bahasa Melayu here.