Why restaurants are closing

It’s a Mexican stand-off, with business owners, residents’ associations, and police and fire safety officials holding a gun to one another’s head. But the unnamed villains, business insiders say, are building owners who flout all rules with impunity

Some of Bengaluru’s most popular hangouts have shut down in the last six months. According to industry insiders, many more will follow.

After The Humming Tree, Take 5, bFlat and The Smoke Co, seven-year-old Monkey Bar (part of the Olive group of restaurants) is closing down on November 24. 

The main reason is that the buildings had no occupancy certificate — which means they did not conform to the plans their owners had submitted to the BBMP.

With no occupancy certificate, restaurants are not eligible for a public entertainment licence, which means they can’t play music. Customers are not so warm towards places without music. 

Manu Chandra, chef-partner, Monkey Bar, says, “We are always supportive of the authorities and the interests of everyone in a city and try and work closely with the laws as they exist. Retroactive decision-making, post all clearances and investment and effort, is a huge setback and ends up punishing so many legitimate businesses.”

He says rules that ought to have been rationalised years ago are used by the authorities as mechanisms to arm-twist businesses. 

The back story

A few months ago, the Bengaluru police began enforcing rules under the License and Controlling Places of Public Entertainment Order of 2005. They had paid no attention to it earlier.

Restaurants and pubs cannot play live music without a licence. The rules were extended to cover recorded music earlier this year. 

Since then, the cops are asking every establishment to submit a variety of documents to procure an entertainment licence. After the Supreme Court upheld the licensing rule, establishments require two documents — an occupancy certificate (OC) from the BBMP, and a no-objection certificate (NOC) from the fire department. 

The rules are old, but the enforcement is new. Buildings violating municipal by-laws have existed and thrived for decades, with no let or hindrance. Corrupt BBMP officials, who ought to have stopped their construction, routinely turn a blind eye to them. 

This has led to a lack of checks. Owners collect rent on buildings violating the law, while tenants are unable to submit documents required for licences. Bribery thrives. 

Business challenges

It was in 2017, after a restaurant caught fire in the Kamala Mills area in Mumbai and 14 died, that the authorities in Bengaluru woke up to the fire safety rules. Every establishment was required to get a fire safety NOC. 

“But that means you need to pull down the entire building and rebuild it again. It’s not our responsibility as we don’t own the building,” says Krishna (name changed), a restaurant owner who has recently exited the business. 

The Indiranagar Residents Welfare Association has filed a PIL against restaurants and pubs, saying it wants the area de-commercialised. That escalated the matter.  

Take 5: Jazz venue that helped many musicians fell silent 

Viraj Suvarna, owner of Take 5, a jazz-bar that shut down in 2018, says, “When we started out, we were the only jazz bar in the city. Many artistes became big stars because of the platform we provided. But when the government laid down new rules, it was impossible to acquire documents. So the music stopped and people stopped coming too. We had to shut down.” 

He ran five other establishments in Indiranagar which also closed down. “Renovating a building calls for more than Rs 2 crore,” he says, suggesting it is not viable. 

Restaurateurs say building owners and government officials are responsible for their gloomy prospects.

bFlat: Upbeat for 12 years

bFlat, in Indiranagar, was a live-music place that closed its doors in October 2019. Sunil Shetty, partner of Bflat, says he couldn’t acquire the public entertainment licence from the police, and the fire department cut off the power supply. The place ran on a generator for three months. 

“We were functioning for 12 years and no municipal law was a problem. Suddenly everything from having a terrace business to playing live music became a problem, and we had to stop the business,” he says. 

The building owner should have looked into this matter, but the Shetty just got an assurance that he could return when the building was fixed. “Let’s be honest, that’s just not going to happen,” he says. 

Boisterous crowds

One of the main reasons the Indiranagar Resident Welfare Association filed a PIL was that they couldn’t handle the loud noise and the traffic jams caused by the establishments. 

Some entrepreneurs agree in private they are at fault too. Very often, even if the pubs aren’t playing loud music, the crowds can get loud. 

“When the restaurateurs hang out, you bad-mouth the RWA, but the petitioners aren’t wrong. Drunk customers smash bottles on the road, play loud music in their cars and just stand around the residential area in the middle of the night. You, as proprietor, may not be legally responsible as to what is going on outside your building but it’s the lack of moral responsibility that has led to this problem,” says Krishna. 

Red tape problems

Restaurateurs and building owners aren’t the only ones to be blamed. The government authorities play a nasty game and extort money from both. 

Restaurateurs say the only time a department shows up — and businesses are answerable to many departments — is when they want money. All rules can be flouted as long as the officials are appeased.

Krishna says, “In the two decades I was an entrepreneur, I have never seen anyone come to check if we are violating any rules. In fact, we called the fire department personnel once to check if things were fine, but they were not interested.”

A female official went to his restaurant only to demand a bigger bribe. ”Even then, no checking was done,” he recalls. 

Once a year, the business establishments have to renew their licences. Insiders say the officials just name their price, and the business owners have no choice but to pay up.  

Online delivery effect

Ever since the era of online food delivery began, dine outs have taken a major hit. This has also led to many customers demanding discounts. 

A business insider says restaurants give in. “They need the business, but discounting often affects the quality of the food,”  he says.

What’s the way forward?

Make building owners accountable, and ensure they don’t violate municipal and fire-safety regulations.

Provide dedicated spaces for pubs and bars, like in Mumbai and Delhi, away from residential areas.

Encourage restaurateurs only to rent buildings that are legal in all respects. 

Contradictions

Some government laws are contradictory, and that enables the officials to fleece restaurant owners.

“The excise law says that you need to have one entry and one exit, whereas the fire department says you need to have two entries and two exits. What do you do then?” says Viraj of Take 5.

Why are only restaurants targetted?

“How come only bars and restaurants are targeted. Schools, hospitals, residences and other commercial buildings also do not have OC and are functioning. Nobody questions a Manipal Hospital when their basement is used for commercial activities. Fires can happen anywhere,” restauranteurs voice out.

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