by Jainarayan Tiwari –
In Dombivli, Sayali Parab finally opened her poli – bhaji restaurant. Then, a scant 15 days later, disaster struck. The Maharashtra state government said the city must lockdown to break the transmission of a disease that was killing thousands across the world.
It looked like terrible timing, opening a restaurant so close to a government-mandated lockdown. Many restaurants downed their shutters, many for good. Coronavirus, which had quickly assumed pandemic standards, was ravaging the state with dead and still more battling the illness.
But improbably, Parab’s business flourished. Her ‘Aai Poli Bhaji Kendra’ became an essential and affordable eatery for the working-class people amid the pandemic. When Mumbai’s hospitals were full, and the pandemic seemed unstoppable, Aai Poli Bhaji Kendra sold an average of 40-50 plates a day.
The so-called Poli Bhaji Kendras are eateries situated in the suburbs of Mumbai that serves homemade Maharashtrian food at a reasonable price (around Rs 30-50). It is frequented by Labourers, nurses, and students. Bachelors are assured of good, reasonably priced food that tastes of home-cooked meals.
“We were worried that we had just started our new business, but luckily, we survived because, we were situated in nearby society and they allowed us to keep the Kendra on because the watchmen were working, and they requested us not to let anyone near the shop, instead they can call us what all food items they needed, including tea and snacks to the watchmen and my husband used to do the delivery,” said Mrs Parab.
According to The Hindu Business Line, Mumbai has 87 000 restaurants. “Over 40 percent of restaurants and hotels in the state have been permanently closed,” Sherry Bhatia, president, the Hotel and Restaurant Association of Western India (HRAWI).
“Everyone is aware of how the hotel and restaurants struggled during the early lockdown. Even though there is specific relief in the hotels, they aren’t satisfied due to the timing restrictions. But, when it comes to the Poli Bhaji Kendra, they aren’t struggling that much, and most of them also said that ‘we are getting a satisfactory amount of customers and mostly seeing 2-3 new faces everyday,” said Mrs Parab.
An order of thali in the Poli Bhaji Kendra consists of Poli (chapati), rice, dal, dry bhaji and a sweet dish. When asked how he managed to run the Kendra throughout the lockdown, owner Rajesh Parab said, “We started our new business on March 5 2020, and 15 days into the lockdown, we were shocked that what will happen next?”
When every fast food stall around had to shut, Aai poli-bhaji Kendra was approached by the nearby society. They allowed her to keep the Kendra on, as many of the staff members and the watchmen were working (these are the regular customers of the Kendra). “My husband started to deliver food at hospitals, the nearby housing societies, and also to the home quarantined covid patients.
Not everyone was so lucky. Only a few streets away, Neelam Pisal, was struggling to keep her business intact. “In March we had to close down because of the restrictions, but in August 2020, we had some decent sales of snacks, but poli bhaji’s sale has been restricted,” said Pisal.
Bhagwan Raut, a waiter at Shri Samarth Poli Bhaji Kendra (Dombivli), said, “In March 2020 we had to close, but since September 2020, we are back in business. We have prohibited seating, and we are only providing parcel services till 10 PM and people working in the nearby areas come for lunch and snacks, and for dinner, mostly the people who stay near come to get poli bhajis.”
The frontline workers in hospitals, especially the doctors and the nurses, also prefer Poli Bhaji. After talking to the owner of ‘Shri Sai Poli Bhaaji Kendra’ in MIDC, Mrs Devika Patil said, “Obviously, like few other kendras, we were also out of business from March 2020 to August 2020, but since September, we took time to settle because it was like restarting a new business. But, we realised that not only us but the restaurants are also struggling, and some of our previous regular customers started coming and most of them were nurses and the ward boys from the nearby hospitals.”
Mrs Patil also said, “My husband and my son along with a helper have managed this pretty well and have served many employees who come from the nearby corporate companies. Currently, we are on a track where we can stay happy because people trust us and we also expect we will get some more customers.”
The owners said that there are no fixed customers because currently everyone is at home, so they prepare their food. But, still, some people prefer ‘Poli’s’ (Chapati) that we deliver at their place.