The bride and groom, dressed in traditional wedding attire, sat in adjacent chairs. A giant white paper was unrolled over the bench in front of them before green banana leaves arrived. A pinch of salt on the side was the first to land on the giant leaf before tasty dishes followed one after the other...
The scene was not a post-wedding feast at some Kerala town but a mock reception held in protest by the All Kerala Caterers Association (AKCA) on the premises of the Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram earlier this month.
In another incident, a couple got married in front of a Beverage Corporation (Bevco) outlet in Kozhikode in support of the struggling caterers.
Kerala is gradually unlocking in steps but social events involving large crowds remain forbidden. The maximum participation in weddings remains capped at 20 while house warmings, baptisms and birthday parties face similar restrictions making life difficult for caterers. The fuel price hike is not helping either, they say.
Caterers' association president Varghese refuses to mince words while voicing his displeasure at the way Kerala's unlocking is moving. He questions how the government can let Bevco outlets function across the state with ill-disciplined long queues but deny permission to auditoriums and similar businesses.
"The industry won't survive by serving 20 people a day. Many have entered this profession in the last couple of years taking bank loans on their properties, ornaments etc. A lot of middle east-returnees have also invested their life savings in catering. Most of them on the verge of complete collapse," Varghese said.
Things were slowly picking up for the industry at the beginning of 2021. After the national lockdown and months of a blanket ban on social events, there were signs of normalcy returning as up to 100 people were allowed at weddings. Though it was still a far cry from pre-Covid days, five or six such contracts meant the caterers were able to make small profits after paying their chefs, drivers and other employees.
"During marriage seasons, I used to get monthly contracts worth Rs 7 lakh on an average. Following national lockdown in March, we shut shop for many months and there was absolutely no income. By February 2021, we were gradually getting back and business worth Rs 3-4 lakhs was on the cards. People were scared and reluctant, but there were good signs," Kollam-based caterer Krishnakumar Kottathala said.
Parcel culture breaks down
Some like Krishnakumar also experimented with home delivery to stay afloat.
"We used to pick a neighbourhood and travel with packed fried rice and biryani. It was a success as we used to sell about 200 packs per day. This helped me pay my migrant staff members on time and meet other small expenses," he said.
Just when Krishnakumar's tribe thought the worst was past them, the second wave arrives and things were back to square one. Fresh travel restrictions meant transport and sales weren't easy. A trend where families tried handing food packs to guests instead of hosting feasts also died down as the cases started to go up. Some caterers offered to deliver food to people at home but not many were receptive to the idea. In this, the willingness to go the extra mile couldn't help them, Varghese lamented.
There are over 2,000 registered caterers in the state and most of them are certain that they can't survive another year without work.
"January 2021 was far better compared to August 2020 -- the month when we restarted after the first lockdown. Now, it has come down to a situation where we are ready to cook at whatever rate is offered. Negotiation is not an option anymore," said Thrissur-based Marvel caterers.
According to the caterers' association, over two lakh people are dependent on this industry and many of them are forced to do menial jobs as there is hardly any work available. Then there are students and the youth who are hired on daily wages to serve at buffets. All big-scale caterers have regular employees -- mainly cooks and drivers -- who are paid by the assignment. More hands are hired if needed. However, the owners are now forced to shun the salary system and bring all their long-serving workers on a contract basis.
"We are not in a position to give anyone salary. The workers are well aware of the situation. If we get an order or two, the entire return is divided among the workers as their situation is worse than ours. It is all about staying alive now," Varghese said.
"We tried our best to continue the salary system initially. But it became impossible very soon and we were forced to switch to a pay-per-work model since May-end," said Paul of Marvel Caterers, who have employed six permanent staff including drivers and chefs.
AKCA feels that as long as the government insists that no more than 20 people can attend weddings and similar events, things are not going to improve for them. They have reached out with proposals to ensure work without putting Kerala in harm's way.
"Let auditoriums open with 25% occupancy. The government can dictate the time frame, afternoon or evening, we don't mind. People are not going to hang around if asked - they can attend the feast in batches and leave and protocols won't be broken. After all, these are not Bevco outlets," Varghese said.
The association's state leadership decided to start agitating in front of the Secretariat and before Bevco outlets throughout the state after multiple efforts to convince the government failed. They even shot letters to all 140 MLAs of Kerala but no official response from the Cabinet has reached them yet.
Act before it's too late
AKCA leaders warn many families are on the verge of poverty and the government needs to act fast. "This virus is here to stay. It is high time we accept it is not going anywhere and learn to exist. They need to consider us before the next relaxations are decided," Varghese concluded.