The venerable party caterer is struggling for restrictions on social gatherings to keep coronavirus at bay
Life has returned to a version for normalcy for most. But not for Fakruddin Biryani, synonymous with hearty social celebrations.
The brunt from the pandemic has been particularly brutal for the venerable caterer that has gone on to become a national treasure, so much that its survival has now become a matter of question.
The 54-year-old company, whose main business comes from catering for weddings and other large social gatherings, has shuttered four of its nine branches as the orders started thinning soon after the country announced its first confirmed cases of Covid-19 on March 8 last year.
Two weeks later, the orders stopped entirely as the government announced the countrywide general shutdown on March 26 to slow down the coronavirus juggernaut.
While the shutdown was lifted on May 30, Fakruddin, which was used to preparing food for 10,000 people a day, did not resume operations until December, and has found it to be tough-sailing since then.
“Things were never this bad,” said Fakrudding Biryani’s Manager Abdur Razzak, who has been with the company since 1970.
December is typically the peak sales period for Fakruddin as it is the wedding season.
So much that it struggles to meet the gush of orders for its fragrant, slow-cooked rice dish. But not this year.
Although wedding ceremonies are taking place amid the pandemic, the volume of orders Fakruddin is receiving is too meagre to foot its overhead costs, which includes the wage bill for its currently 75-man-strong kitchen staff.
These days, the caterer gets one or two orders a week and that too for small volume. Before the pandemic, it got three orders a day between December and February.
“The weddings these days are for 80-100 people. Before, we had to cater for 500-700 and more for each wedding,” said Abdul Khaleque Fakruddin, managing director of Fakruddin Biryani.
The company has brought down the price of a plate of biryani from Tk 650 to Tk 580-600 and is even offering a certain number of chicken roasts or bowls of mutton curry for free to lure in customers to place large orders.
But the deal has failed to work its magic in an environment where the fear of the lethal pathogen, which has so far claimed 8,041 lives, is still prevailing and social gatherings are kept to as little as possible.
“The situation is very bad. Forget making money, we are dipping into our reserves to keep the company running,” said Fakruddin, the son of Haji Mohammad Rafique, who along with his brother turned the catering business left behind by their father chef Fakruddin Munshi into the culinary empire that it is today, with branches in Singapore and London.
Rafique passed away in September last year at the age of 72.
In December, the company had to put in additional Tk 7 lakh to meet its expenses.
“I don’t know how much we would need to chip in with this month. I don’t know how we will get out of this situation,” said Khaleque, who along with his three brothers is now steering the company left behind by their father and grandfather.
If life does not return to normal this year, Khaleque thinks they would have to fold the business altogether.
“We will have to close the remaining five branches too if things don’t turn around this year. We can’t measure our loss in any way or any percentage. Our survival is in question.”
Khaleque went on to appeal to the government to come forward with help for the ailing sector, which is possibly the worst-hit of the pandemic.
“Thousands of people have become unemployed. If the government bails us out as it did for the export-oriented sectors, we can survive.”
Fakruddin has let go of its 45 of its kitchen staff members.
“Once we are back on our feet, we will contribute to the national coffer as we have done all this while,” Khaleque added.