LONDON: During Ramadan last year, the pandemic took a heavy toll on the famed Arab restaurants and food stores in west London.
This year, however, a combination of shrewd business decisions and the gradual easing of COVID-19 restrictions has contributed to a sharp increase in trade for many and brought hope that the worst of the pandemic might be over.
“People can’t practice Ramadan as usual but we tried to make it in a different and safer way...and this year, we are more prepared and organized,” Khaled Alghorani, the manager of Dimashqi, a Syrian supermarket in Shepherd’s Bush, told Arab News.
The store is extremely popular; it stocks standard food items alongside delicacies from the Middle East, making it a favored Syrian spot. Like other business owners in the area, however, Alghorani has had to adapt the services he provides in response to the realities of the pandemic.
“We have new special offers and we introduced an online service, so customers can place orders for groceries, halal meats and desserts and we can deliver anywhere in the UK in chilled packages so they receive the food as fresh as it is in the supermarket,” said Alghorani.
The holy month, which began on April 13, has been somewhat of a blessing, he added. Shelves are restocked daily after iftar so customers can shop with ease during the day while adhering to preventative measures. Popular items include soups, drinks, sweets, dates, apricot paste (Qamar Al-Din) and maarouk, a traditional brioche-like bread filled with dates that is only made during Ramadan.
“Because of the pandemic we had a shortage of some products and we had delays as well, but by the end we managed to get most of the stock for Ramadan,” said Alghorani.
The supermarket shares its space with Ayam Zaman, one of the top Syrian and Middle Eastern restaurants in the city. It has managed to remain open throughout the pandemic but has had to restrict its services and is not offering as wide a variety of special Ramadan dishes as it usually does.
“People prefer to dine in a restaurant than sitting at home, especially on Eid. But unfortunately because of the lockdown, which is going to end on May 17, we are going to continue with takeaway orders only, with new offers on desserts,” said Alghorani.
“Before COVID-19, Ramadan used to be the busiest time; we had better services, better sales and the restaurant wouldn’t have any reservations (available) — we were fully booked, because people like to sit and break their fast together.”
The restaurant also normally supplies iftar for office employees during Ramadan but because the majority of staff is still working from home, that service has taken a huge hit and the restaurant is instead relying on private functions.
The UK’s third national lockdown was partially lifted on April 12; non-essential shops were allowed to reopen, outdoor dining is permitted at restaurants and cafes, and up to 15 people from three households can meet and socialize outdoors.
“The lockdown (eased) and the weather was good, so people were happy and I think everybody’s in the mood to go outside, do shopping and even eat outside,” Moussa Merhi, general manager of the Naama restaurant and butcher’s shop in Shepherd’s Bush, told Arab News.
He said business is picking up and this year is much better than last. People appear calmer, less scared of the disease and are spending money but no longer panic buying, he added.
He said Naama is not focusing on iftar as it normally does during Ramadan because most people are eating at home, but that the restaurant is receiving a surprising amount of delivery orders. Like Ayam Zaman, Naama is still restricting its service to takeaways and deliveries, to protect the health of its staff.
The well-established restaurant, which opened in 2003, specializes in Lebanese cuisine. One of its specialties is a whole lamb on a bed of rice, garnished with toasted nuts.
“People are now gathering a lot. It’s not like last year,” said Merhi. “This year it’s different — people are holding iftars (and) I am receiving big orders for large amounts of money. I think they had enough from the last lockdown.
“It’s a blessed month and it’s to do with the environment and providing good service to people who are fasting. It’s good for business, don’t get me wrong, but the main concept is to help people and I think everybody is trying and helping in their own way.”
Bosses at cafe and bakery Pistachio and Honey also said that they are finding business easier this Ramadan compared with last year.
“People got to know more about the coronavirus, they got to know more about how to socialize and how to social distance,” director Anas Sheekh Aly told Arab News.
Aside from being scared to leave their houses last year, people were also scared to eat sugar, he said, due to the uncertainty about the disease and the limited information that was available.
A year on and many people have received a vaccine or caught the virus and recovered, Aly said, and the lockdown is also less strict. However the economic effects of the pandemic mean that a lot of people have less money to spend on non-essentials and are put off by high prices, he added, which has affected his business.
Sweets and desserts are a major part of the Ramadan table, and certain varieties are only made during the holy month, particularly qatayef, awama (luqaimat), namoura, madlouka, maghshousha and halawet el-jibn. The bakery makes all of these from scratch, along with its flagship product: qishta (a type of clotted cream). Aly has acquired the only license in the UK to make qishta from raw cow’s milk in the traditional, authentic way.
“It’s quite a hard process but this helps us get the real taste coming from our countries,” said Aly. “But our prices are very cost-effective, our sweets are healthy — we use less sugar, pure butter ghee and pure flour — and we are using all of the finest ingredients.”
The area around the cafe is always fragrant with the scent of fresh-baked kanafeh, which it makes from scratch using akawi, baladi and Nabulsi cheese to get the authentic taste, unlike some other bakeries that use mozzarella.
Originally from Syria, Aly opened the first branch of his business on March 25 last year, a day before the first lockdown was imposed. By the time the restrictions eased and he could reopen, most of his stock had expired. Although he suffered heavy losses as additional lockdowns were imposed, he managed to weather the storm and opened his second, larger branch: like the first, in Acton — a few months ago.
“Ramadan is a month of blessing and you don’t even know how livelihood will come to you,” said Aly. “For business it’s very good; even if you don’t do anything you will get business in Ramadan.” But he added that the true spirit of the month is felt in one’s heart and we should appreciate what we have.
“There are refugees all over the world that don’t have food or water to drink,” he said. “It gets you to feel more about them, it gets you to feel more about people who are starving and thirsty, and so you do more religion and you appreciate what you have more — and this is what we teach our kids as well when we get them to fast.”