Shutters come down for Iran’s cafés and restaurants

Bourse and Bazaar | Khosro Kalbasi: While Iran’s economy has struggled over the last two years, the country experienced a boom in new restaurant and café openings, especially in the bustling capital, Tehran. Even in times of financial hardship, a foodie culture has seen Iranians of all walks of life enthusiastically patronize new restaurants, cafés, and fast-food joints. 

But the COVID-19 outbreak, which has now led to the infection of more than 15,000 Iranians according to official figures, has brought the shutters down at establishments across the country, leaving the owners to wonder if they will ever open again.

“Many businesses will not be able to survive this crisis if it lasts for a month or two. Even if they survive, the crisis will lead to layoffs and a sharp surge in prices,” said Shahram Rajabi, owner of Sakura Sushi Restaurant, which is located in Ava Center, a mall in the upscale Aqdasiyeh neighborhood of Tehran.

Rajabi owns two other food businesses in Ava Center—a bakery and a café. In total, he employs 70 people—it is not clear how much longer he can afford to keep them on the payroll. “Only the bakery is still open. Sales have dropped 80 percent, but we have kept the doors open. The café and restaurant’s employees are all on paid leave.”

Nowruz—a two-week period during with Iranians celebrate the new year—is fast approaching. Before Iran found itself in the midst of a public health crisis, bakeries were already working around the clock to prepare the confections and treats that Iranians traditionally enjoy during the holiday. But this year there is little cause for celebration.

“With the fear of coronavirus hanging over everything, no one is in the mood to celebrate. People aren’t buying ready-made confectionaries. These businesses will be forced to dump what they had baked. All that money and effort will go to waste,” Rajabi said. “The pandemic is taking a harsh toll on businesses and is pushing many to the verge of bankruptcy. I don’t know how long we can survive,” he added.

Social Media Outreach

Behzad Mosayyebi is the owner of Café Hedayat in Shiraz, where he employs around 25 people. He too is struggling to keep his business afloat.

“A week after news broke about COVID-19 spreading in Iran, our sales plummeted by 70 percent. Initially, we tried to keep business going but a week into the outbreak, with sales nose-diving we were forced to shutter the café,” Mosayyebi said.

Currently, his employees are on paid leave. “Employees are the most valuable assets of any business. We have invested in training our staff. But if the situation does not improve in a month or so we’ll be forced to let our staff go.”

Mosayyebi acknowledged that even after the epidemic is over, the café might need to hike prices to cover its losses—but he hopes his customers will remain loyal even if they go weeks or months without visiting.

In order to keep his clientele engaged, Mosayyebi has launched a campaign on Instagram, which features his employees and social media influencers offering easy recipes and cooking tutorials for everything from dal to pasta.

Other restaurants have also launched similar campaigns. Vitrin Kitchen, a trendy eatery located in Tehran’s A.S.P Towers, recently closed in light of the spread of COVID-19. Vitrin’s chef, Armin Milani, has self-quarantined at home. But from his kitchen, he continues to keep the restaurant’s Instagram active by posting pictures of his latest creations, accompanied by short reflections on being in isolation. His posts reach over 60,000 followers.

Some restaurants, especially fast-food chains, have endeavored to remain open despite the outbreak. These establishments have turned to social media to reassure buyers that they are doing their best to keep their food “COVID-19 Free.” Popular burger joint Burgerator has posted a video on Instagram that shows the body temperature of its staff being checked and explains how “every surface is sanitized.” The video ends with a tag line, “We care for you.”

Famous fast-food chain Barooj is sending out text messages to customers announcing a new offer: “half-cooked” pizza. Customers are meant to finish cooking the pizza in their home oven. The text message explains that “high temperature kills coronavirus.” One of the oldest delivery pizza shops in Tehran, Dar-be-Dar, has likewise started selling par-baked pizza.

Perseverance

Just a few days after Iran announced its first confirmed case of COVID-19, employees at Yerma House café off Karimkhan Street in downtown Tehran, were geared-up with latex gloves and face masks.

Located in a chic pre-Islamic Revolution building, Yerma House is part gallery and part café. A large self-portrait by Frida Kahlo dominates the space and the aroma of freshly roasted coffee and spices usually waft through the air.

Startled by the staff’s appearance, a customer asked “what was the hassle for.” The cashier, her headscarf fashioned as a turban, replied, “We are just trying to keep you safe, love.” Later the same day, the manager decided to shutdown the café until further notice.

Yerma’s manager, Neda Hengami, is worried. “The COVID-19 outbreak hit us hard. Right now I am trying to help people get through the crisis and pass time while social distancing by conducting a writing contest.”

Hengami feels a responsibility to sustain the business and find a way to keep paying her employees as they face difficult times. She said that she is considering setting up a take-away-only service. “But I’m not certain whether it’d work. We can’t do much, can we?”

At the end of the interview she recalled a passage from Strait is the Gate, a novel written at the turn of the 20th century by André Gide. “I read the book ages ago,” she explained. “There is a section where Gide describes a Bible sermon.” Hengami proceeded to quote from memory:  “Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat. Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”

“The passage has stuck with me over the years. It has helped me through the hard times,” she said.