More than four to a table: Businesses rejoice but customers still wary of crowds at eateries

Ng, owner of the Tai Tao Steamboat restaurant, speaks to Malay Mail during an interview in Menjalara, Kepong June 20, 2020. — Picture by Firdaus Latif
Ng, owner of the Tai Tao Steamboat restaurant, speaks to Malay Mail during an interview in Menjalara, Kepong June 20, 2020. — Picture by Firdaus Latif

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KUALA LUMPUR, June 22 — Even as restaurants are finally allowed to operate at full capacity — no more just four customers to a table — there are those who have yet to venture outside their homes for a meal.

Still, a good number of Malaysians are taking this opportunity to restore normalcy to their daily routine by dining out at their favourite spots. 

Malay Mail visited a few locations within the Klang Valley that used to see huge crowds before the Covid-19 shutdown in March. 

From malls and shops in Bangsar, Solaris Dutamas and Segambut to usually packed steamboat restaurants in Bandar Menjalara, Kepong, operators of eateries at these places all spoke of the unsurprising yet significant drops in revenue and customer count while remaining optimistic about the future as regulations are relaxed. 

For Ng, owner of the Tai Tao Steamboat restaurant in Bandar Menjalara, the nod for more than four to a table was good news. After all, steamboat meals are meant for big groups, not solo diners.

Having been in business for 15 years, he said the dine-in standard operating procedures (SOPs) undoubtedly affected his business; at least 20 tables had to be removed from his restaurant in order to adhere to social distancing rules. 

“In the beginning, I chose not to re-open because there were so many regulations to follow; plus when I resumed operations, there were some customers who refused to put down their particulars for contract tracing purposes. 

“Thankfully the space is big enough, so even after removing 20 tables, I can still afford to have some customers,” he told Malay Mail, adding he was only doing 60 per cent of the business compared to before. 

But just 24 hours after the announcement to allow more than four people to a table, Ng said business has picked up as more people decided to bring their families out to eat. 

“Yes, there has been a difference from [Friday] because steamboat is normally eaten in a group,” he said when met at his restaurant which was about three-quarters full. 

But a walk around the area where Ng’s restaurant is situated showed at least half of other eateries — independent cafes and those serving niche cuisines — shut. It was also obvious that open-air restaurants were more popular as compared to air-conditioned ones. 

Most of the busy ones were either steamboat or Chinese seafood restaurants, as well as mamaks. 

Customers are pictured dining at the Sri Nirwana Maju banana leaf restaurant in Bangsar June 20, 2020. ― Picture by Miera Zulyana
Customers are pictured dining at the Sri Nirwana Maju banana leaf restaurant in Bangsar June 20, 2020. ― Picture by Miera Zulyana

In Bangsar, owner of the popular Si Nirwana Maju banana leaf restaurant M. Amutha Devi said their high customer turnover meant contact tracing was simply impossible if social distancing was not observed. 

This, she said, forced them to limit seating three customers per table despite regulations allowing for more as smaller numbers meant lower risks.

She added that customers themselves urged the establishment to continue restricting the number of diners to only three per table. 

“Some of my customers are not comfortable to be seated next to a group larger than three persons. I have to respect that,” she told Malay Mail, adding that large crowds would also be difficult to manage while adhering to SOPs. 

Despite the strict rules, a long line of hungry customers could be seen trailing outside the shop, all of whom can be seen observing social distancing rules.

Across the road in Bangsar Village II, supervisor of the Paradise Dynasty restaurant Rabin Ningleku said despite offering tables that fit 10, the biggest group it has served since regulations were relaxed was a group of six. 

“I think people are still cautious, so they too prefer not to dine at restaurants in big numbers,” he told Malay Mail, adding how business, fortunately, has started to pick up in the last few days. 

A worker sanitises a table at the Marmalade Cafe in Bangsar Village June 20, 2020. ― Picture by Miera Zulyana
A worker sanitises a table at the Marmalade Cafe in Bangsar Village June 20, 2020. ― Picture by Miera Zulyana

Marmalade Cafe, located in the same mall, also decided to cap the number of customers to groups of four per table. 

“We don’t feel convinced yet at the moment as the country is not totally free from Covid-19 yet. 

“So to be on the safe side, we are keeping the maximum number per table at four,” the cafe’s head chef, Jazz, told Malay Mail.

For groups larger than four, he said they would be broken up into separate tables but arrangements would be made to place them closer.

Customers with young children are also advised not to allow them to roam around the cafe to minimise contact with others. 

Over in Desa Sri Hartamas, the number of cars in the parking lot was not reflective of what was seen in eateries, with most of them either empty or half-full, with maybe only one or two about three-quarters full. 

Amirul Marwan, who runs the ‘3 Budak Gemok’ stall within the ‘H’ food court, said his revenue has dropped by around 60 per cent. 

A glance around showed how devastating the pandemic had been to neighbourhood businesses, with only a handful of vendors open within the once-bustling food court.

Amirul Marwan, who runs ‘3 Budak Gemok’ within the ‘H’ foodcourt in Desa Sri Hartamas, speaks to Malay Mail during an interview June 20, 2020. — Picture by Firdaus Latif
Amirul Marwan, who runs ‘3 Budak Gemok’ within the ‘H’ foodcourt in Desa Sri Hartamas, speaks to Malay Mail during an interview June 20, 2020. — Picture by Firdaus Latif

Amirul did express relief at the government’s decision to allow larger groups to dine out and was optimistic his business will pick up, but maybe not soon enough, as he plans to relocate. 

“The number of customers here was dwindling even before the lockdown; my business was able to collect around RM8,000 a day in sales, but now we are looking at RM3,000 a day,” he explained.

The shutdown only accelerated the downturn, and he feels the time has come to go.

Over in the nearby Publika shopping mall, the Wondermilk cafe, which used to host parties, has temporarily removed this service to prevent crowding within its premises. 

The cafe manager said it would maintain the three-to-a-table rule to ensure customers’ safety. 

But how do the diners feel?

Patrons are seen dining at the Tai Tao Steamboat restaurant in Menjalara, Kepong June 20, 2020. — Picture by Firdaus Latif
Patrons are seen dining at the Tai Tao Steamboat restaurant in Menjalara, Kepong June 20, 2020. — Picture by Firdaus Latif

May, a customer at Ng’s steamboat restaurant, told Malay Mail she decided to enjoy a dinner with her family there after learning of the new rules, despite being fearful of the virus still present in the country. 

“I am still worried about it, but social distancing is practiced and we are regulars here, so we decided to come out and enjoy a family dinner,” she explained. 

Muliati Mat Ripin, who was at Sri Nirwana Maju, also said it was the first time she decided to dine out since the various stages of the shutdown were enforced. 

“I feel comfortable, as long as the restaurant owners have safety precautions in place,” she said

However, some Malaysians are against the government’s decision on Friday to allow restaurants to operate at full capacity, saying it could lead to complacency.

Some expressed apprehension towards the decision, having already witnessed restaurants and cafes crowded with customers despite the regulations, with most agreeing that limitations on the number of patrons should remain in place.

“How will we practice social distancing if the restaurant is crowded? On top of that, not all restaurants have the space to accommodate full capacity while observing social distancing,” said Melati Chow, when met in Publika. 

Similarly, Harjatul Aswin said she was more comfortable with restaurants that limit the number of patrons to a table.

She was out in Publika with her two children, a nine-year-old and a toddler, for the first time since the start of the shutdown. 

“I’m glad that we can finally bring them out because they were starting to feel depressed as they have been confined at home for more than three months now.”

Harjatul added that she would remain selective over her choice of shopping malls and restaurants where she could bring her children, adding how she even prepped them about safety measures before they left the house.  

For couple Iffa Natasha, a 23-year-old biomedical student, and professional futsal player Muhammad Aidil, 23, an almost empty foodcourt in Desa Sri Hartamas was what persuaded them to dine out instead of packing their meals. 

“If it was full, I would have avoided this place as we try to avoid crowded places for the time being,” said Aidil. 

“But when we walked in and saw the food court was not full, we thought it would be okay to sit and eat here instead,” added Natasha. 

Both both said that they were still not ready to socialise in public just yet, saying they expect the situation to return to normal only in a year’s time.

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