The interview was transcribed and adapted into an article by Kleida Sharra and Tapasya Das
Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world. This interview was done in collaboration with Epoka University.
In this interview, we meet Besa, the manager of Golden Taste, which is a halal restaurant in Tirana, Albania. Their clients are mostly from the Muslim community and from nearby tax office workers. We talked about the restaurant’s experience during the lockdown. Some of the mentioned challenges were: no clients to serve since most of them were working from home, and there was no need for them to order or eat at restaurants. The prohibition of events also affected it, because during Ramadan month people were gathering every night. Because of the 2 meters distance of tables, the capacity was almost halved. During the pandemic, they took the time to come up with new solutions. They changed their menu from basic restaurant meals, into business meal menu. After the lockdown, people were trying not to spend too much. They really liked this kind of menu, it was warm, tasty and most importantly, affordable.
Let us find out a bit more about your business.
Besa: First of all, thank you for inviting me to this interview. I am the manager of a family business which is owned by my uncle. It is a halal restaurant, located in the centre of Albania. The building is owned by the Muslim Community of Albania and therefore it was in our contractual agreement that this building was meant to be used only as a halal restaurant. It was the only limitation from the beginning. We have been operating as a restaurant for 2 years and we also offer coffee service, the bar service. As a halal restaurant, it does not serve alcohol and this was a huge limitation from the start regarding restaurant revenue since as we all know, a considerable amount from the revenue of restaurants is due to alcoholic beverages.
My business has 6 employees for the time being. We had to make some cut downs during the lockdown, in order to afford the cost, because as I mentioned, since it is in the centre of the city, the rental costs are very high. It is around 500 m2; most of it is indoors, which was another huge limitation during the coronavirus period.
What about your clients? What is your target market?
Besa: Our main scope being a halal restaurant was to have clients from the Muslim community, who had, let’s say, some sensitivity towards halal food, those who only consume that. But after operating for a while, we found out that most of our customers are from the localities nearby, either businesses that operate in the proximity or so on. So our main customers were from the offices nearby, which are the Agency of National Education development etc. These were unexpected customers, who do not only come for a coffee but consume their business lunch (meeting) in our restaurant.
So coming to the pandemic, and I mean it was a painful period for all small businesses out there and not only. Now let me ask about your business’ lockdown experience. What did you do on the business front during the lockdown?
Besa: Albania was always impacted a lot from Europe and especially Italy. The way the lockdown came to Albania was after some cases that presumably came from Italy and when we were seeing the lockdown in Italy, we kind of had this expectation that it was about to come at any moment. All the businesses had some kind of idea that it will come and it came with some pre-measurements, like the distance between the tables, the waiters had to wear masks and so on and so forth. Similar procedures were applied throughout all of Europe, but the moment that the lockdown was established, it was mid-March and it was unexpected, we didn’t have enough time to readjust ourselves. At the moment that the lockdown happened, we had to make immediate cuts to our staff, to give them options if they had to look for somewhere else. It was very hard to fire employees at such a difficult time but not doing so, would mean to fail as a business. Even employees understood, we were a very new business and we had our struggles pre-lockdown. It only made things much harder. During the lockdown period, the government provided the workers something that was called “the work pay”, since we had to stay home. But people who were double employed, or appeared to work somewhere else, they could not profit. For example, the waiters who worked in two shifts in two different places couldn’t profit from this benefit. During the lockdown, we could not find other options to operate. Here the delivery process is done through apps, which are not as well developed as other apps in other countries of Europe and worldwide. They are pretty much new and are mainly being used for fast foods, pizzas and so on. The food that we provide to our customers is mainly cooked, and putting it as the delivery option would make it pretty much expensive and it is not the right service for our kind of food. The food would be waiting in the worst traffic that Tirana has seen in the last years, so this was not a good solution for us. Unlike in other countries, like France that we know off, we did not have this option of having clients to come and take the meal and as I mentioned, most of our clients were people who were working, during the lockdown most of these people were either working from home or not working at all.
You said before lockdown, you were mainly serving restaurant’s menu then you did this strategy because you saw you had to change something. You converted your menu a bit into the menu, so people will eat fresh, warm food directly.
Besa: Exactly. So, we did this, we tried to adapt and since most of our clients come for their business lunch, we created this business lunch menu where people can come and see what food they want to pick and they get much faster serving. We have 4–5 dishes, something that was not done before, it was just an after-lockdown strategy where they come and see the food they like and in this way, they even spent less time in the restaurant. They had the sensibility not to stay too much in public places, they get the fresh food they used to eat like always and it is a win-win situation pretty much for everyone.
What about the cost? Have you had any cost regarding this issue? I mean, from the sanitizing staff and the cleaning supplies? Since we have to be more cautious about this part, there are clients now who are doubting whether to drink in a glass, maybe they’d prefer to eat or drink in plastic dishes because they think it is cleaner or safer for them to consume from. Has this happened in your restaurant?
Besa: It was an extra cost of course. It added some kind of a cost, but it was kind of negligible because when the lockdown happened, the number of customers went down drastically. People were very scared to come to our restaurant, especially immediately after the lockdown, they were very hesitant to come. Therefore, the amount of money that we spent for sanitisers or for plastic glasses was pretty much negligible. But, even most of the clients didn’t have the sensibility to drink their macchiato from plastic cups, so I would say that was negligible. The real difficulty here was the lack of them, which was what caused the business issues, like not being able to handle the bills or the wages. The costs due to lockdown were not that big, in our case.
What about regarding the events? You said you were a halal restaurant so it means that for the month of Ramadan, you organized plenty of events and you were full. Can you tell us about that? How did it work?
Besa: Ramadan is the only month when we make up for some other months, we are overbooked and we have to always take tables and chairs from other places, like rentals and so on, in order to handle the number of people that come in our restaurant. During this Ramadan, it was not a full lockdown, but we had the time limitation until 8 pm and most of the people who wanted coming for Ramadan, they would not come due to the curfew, since you would have to spend all the 30 minutes in Ramadan, and usually, its dinner goes 4–5 hours because people go more for talking and meeting with friends and family. There are businesses that chose informal ways of spending up to 4–5 hours, by closing the windows and so on and so forth, but we did not do that and it impacted us quite negatively.
Now it has been almost 8–9 months that the lockdown has been lifted. How is your business going now? Are there any improvements?
Besa: After the lockdown period, I’m going to divide it into 3 parts. Immediately afterwards was the period when you could serve on the outside if you had an outdoors environment for your coffee place. The amount of tables that I usually have in my outdoor area is around 8 and I had to increase the number to 12 or 15 sometimes if needed. Yet, we had to respect the 2 m distance from table to table. At the initiating of this opening of lockdown, the number of customers was quite low. I tried to advertise, we were trying to make improvements in advertizing our new business launch. During this time, I can say it was quite bad, we couldn’t even afford our rent, and we had huge difficulties with paying our employees and so on.
At the second stage, if I may call it that, the winter started to come and it was a need to get indoors. Even the government was aware that if these measures were going to continue, they would not be able to afford losing so many businesses in this industry, so at this stage, when people had started to get indoors, it was kind of an improvement as we were able to serve in more tables. At the third stage which is quite recently, is after the virus news came out and the virus was starting to be done in certain countries in Europe, this gave people the idea that finally we have an antivirus and this vaccination will provide us with some degree of safety so there is a solution and we can go to the restaurant. In that week it was obvious that the number of customers coming in was increasing, and there was no longer a hesitation “Oh we can’t go to a restaurant, because it is a public place and we are kind of threatened.” So that was a game-changer in our case.
What about the competitors? Do you have any idea what are the other restaurants or small businesses doing and how are they handling the situation?
Besa: So our competitors, we can say restaurants that are focused on halal food and general restaurants nearby. The latter is mostly focused on business lunch, at least most of them and based on the business activity nearby, they are impacted. A certain restaurant which is quite close to ours has business-centred buildings close by. It appeared that even after lockdown, most of the people were working from home, and therefore they were not going to restaurants. As a result, the number of customers dropped. There is a difference between clients who are just coming to eat and clients, who don’t come to eat, or they choose cheaper dishes or they just come for a coffee to spend their business lunch and take their food from home. So, I can see it from my regular customers that come every day, and they still come every day but if they would take steak every day, they don’t do that anymore. They come two times per week and order chicken, or much cheaper food. This is an indication that everyone is being more cautious with their spending and even the clients who are taking a regular wage, working for national/federal agencies still have the idea that we don’t know how the economy is going, we don’t know if our jobs are secured, so we need to know what is exactly getting out from our pockets and we need to manage our economy better.
So to conclude, what are the 3 things that you need help with, the 3 important things?
Besa: Well, this comes basically from my personal experience, and from talking with other businesses in my proximity and my clients, people I know; the first thing I would say is that businesses had real trouble paying their workers, and especially the country could decrease the amount or try to support businesses with amounts of social payments that need to be made monthly for each worker. As a side note, many of the other restaurants pay their clients in cash; they do not seem as workers. I have never done it; my business will never do it. We are very clean with the country and the policies, but this also enforces that many people are not getting their health care and social care. So it would be great support from the government if they would support for social care at least.
The second point that I would mention is the lockdown work payment. It is a very simple translation, probably the wrong one that the prime minister in Albania did. It was this idea that the workers are going to be paid some money from the government during this lockdown season. This payment was done, my employees received it, but after the lockdown, even though the restaurants could be opened, the business was impacted. We were serving very few tables and the government should have considered this factor; the businesses are going through a lockdown, we still have to pay our employees their full wages, even though we’re not doing business as we used to. So some kind of support similar to this, during the initial stages of the after-lockdown period would be very helpful, in my opinion.
And the third one, this comes from collective ideas of many business owners is that all the businesses need some kind of relief from taxes, at least for a period of 1 year during the lockdown, until they come back to the initial stages, until the business goes on the normal flow and we don’t have these impacts from coronavirus, either it is health-wise or business-wise.
About the Guest
Besa Hoxha has been managing the restaurant owned by her uncle for almost 2 years. She has been in charge of bookkeeping, human resources, and marketing. Their aim is to be the most prominent Halal food restaurant in Albania and as well as to be one of the most recommended places in the next few years. They are proud of the quality of their food and service. Despite the difficulties, hard work will reflect on the community and their clients.
“Golden Taste” is a restaurant located in the centre of Tirana, only a couple of minutes away from Central Square, Opera, and the National Museum. It is one of the few restaurants in town that serve Halal meat and that do not serve alcohol. The environment is cosy and is suitable for both business and family dinners. The restaurant has been operating for 2 years and has an area of around 500m2 and employs 6 full-time workers. The restaurant serves a wide variety of dishes including Albanian traditional cuisine, Italian, and even Middle Eastern. The business has changed its marketing aim from the customers demanding only halal meat to a business-lunch restaurant adopting thereby the needs of the businesses nearby.