Simeran Baidwan, the owner of 22-year-old Little India Restaurant and Bar, is no longer focused on making a profit. In the face of COVID-19 pandemic dine-in restaurant closures, all he cares about now is providing employment for his staff. “The biggest thing for us is keeping our employees,” Baidwan says. “A lot of them are immigrants who send money to their families back home.”
The restaurant has two locations—on East 6th Avenue near Cherry Creek and on South Downing Street near the University of Denver’s main campus—and between them employs about 45 people, including immigrants from India, Bangladesh, Mexico, West Bengal, Pakistan, Ethiopia, and Nigeria. When the mandated sit-down dining closures began, Little India lost about 80 percent of its incoming revenue, but Baidwan was determined not to lay off any of his staff or even cut their hours. He was too afraid that the pay reduction would negatively affect the staffs’ family members in their native countries.
Instead, Baidwan reduced all hourly wages by a couple of dollars and altered some roles to focus more on delivery food and cleaning and sanitizing every inch of the restaurant multiple times a day. “I think if we keep paying our employees and our bills and maintain the status quo, we can get through this rut,” he says.
Little India has also ramped up its takeout program, offering perks like free delivery, a free cocktail with every entrée purchase, and two-for-one bottles of wine. Baidwan hopes that the deals, only available to those who order on the website or by directly calling the restaurant, incentivize his customers. He also hopes they refrain from using third-party delivery apps, which charge exorbitant fees that customers don’t see; Little India still works with GrubHub, Postmates, and other delivery companies, but only because he feels he has no other choice. “Any revenue is better than nothing,” Baidwan says.
The Baidwan family did receive a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan for each of Little India’s locations in late April and early May, but Baidwan has also had to draw on his personal savings and a home equity line of credit to cover rent and payroll. Those savings, now depleted, also went to advertising (disclaimer: Little India advertises in 5280), email marketing, and website maintenance—anything that might boost the business. “We have to adapt to what’s going on,” Baidwan says. “We understand that the revenue isn’t there right now. But it will be—because the community is still there to support us.”
Some of that community support has come from St. Joseph and Denver Health hospitals and UCHealth at University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, where Little India has delivered about 150 meals for frontline healthcare workers weekly since the beginning of April. To express their gratitude, staff members at those hospitals have ordered Little India takeout, which Baidwan says has helped with his overall sales.
The restaurant’s efforts to give back extend beyond the healthcare community: When a manager at the Costco Business Center in Denver reached out to Baidwan with a tight budget for feeding its 75 overnight and early-morning employees, Little India opened its kitchen at 4 a.m. on three separate occasions to prepare the meals, delivering the food at 6 and 11 a.m. for the Costco staff.
As for reopening for dine-in service, Baidwan is cautiously optimistic, but he and his staff have questions and concerns: Will Little India be able to set up tables in its parking lot to seat more customers while complying with new social distancing guidelines? Does revenue earned from a limited capacity restaurant outweigh the benefits of investing in a more robust takeout program? How does the staff deal with asymptomatic customers who are potentially infected with the virus? “There are so many moving parts,” Baidwan says. “I think time will tell, and organizations like EatDenver, the Colorado Restaurant Association, and the health department will guide us.”
Finalized health and safety guidelines, along with a timeline for reopening for dine-in service, will hopefully be released on May 25 by Governor Jared Polis. Until then, Little India will continue doing serving vegetable biryani, chicken tikka masala, and other delicious specialties because the fate of its business—and its employees—depends upon it.