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Downtown Indian restaurant struggles against the odds to keep doors open during the pandemic

Downtown Indian restaurant struggles against the odds to keep doors open during the pandemic

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Many restaurants are struggling during the coronavirus pandemic.

A few are actually doing well – including pizza delivery – but most have been hurt to varying degrees. More than a few have shut their doors for good.

And then there are those that are hanging on for dear life, their business a mere shadow of what it used to be. You expect them to close any day, and yet they don't.

One of those is Mystic Ginger, right in the heart of downtown at 285. W. Fourth St.

Hasan Furuque and partner Abdullah Alkafi, longtime friends and IT consultants, opened the business in the summer of 2018.

Furuque, a native of Bangladesh, had lived in Winston-Salem more than 10 years. He had never run a restaurant before, but Alkafi, his silent partner based in New York, had.

When the pandemic struck in March 2020, Mystic Ginger was less than two years old. Furuque ended up accepting a job in New York. Because of the pandemic, he visits Winston-Salem only every few months.

As a result, his friend Naznin Nasrin, also a native of Bangladesh, took over running the day-to-day business and became a partner.

Like Furuque, she had never run a restaurant. But she had been helping him at Mystic Ginger since the beginning. And she has a love of food she inherited from her mother and grandmothers. “Indian people, I think they are born chefs,” she said. “Both my grandmothers were wonderful cooks.”

Restaurants that have been surviving during the pandemic have done so for a variety of reasons. Takeout-friendly restaurants have been kept reasonably busy. The same that goes for those that offer delivery or have a drive-thru window. Spacious outdoor dining has helped many restaurants.

Others that have been able to keep paying bills are those long-established restaurants that have an extremely loyal clientele.

Mystic Ginger has none of those things. And it shows.

“Yesterday, we had two people. Today we had zero,” Nasrin said one day last week. “Nobody wants to come and sit in the dining room.”

Mystic Ginger has received generally positive online reviews of its food. But it has received some low ratings for its service.

People have complained of inattentive staff and long waits to get food.

Some of these are old complaints – but on the Internet, restaurant complaints are eternal.

Nasrin acknowledges that the restaurant is not perfect. Late this summer, she found out that the staff members weren't answering the phone at lunchtime. She realized that only when she discovered a mountain of messages on the restaurant’s voicemail – dozens of lost orders but, more important, dozens of customers who probably would never return.

“I think we lost a lot of people because no one was answering the phone,” Nasrin said.

Like most downtown businesses, Mystic Ginger doesn’t have a dedicated parking lot. It lost lunch business when downtown workers started working at home.

Nasrin hears a lot about people who don’t want to come downtown. She said she did see a noticeable increase in business the weekends this summer when the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership organized The Streatery, in which streets were closed and restaurants could set up extra tables in the street.

But that ended with cold weather. She can squeeze a few tables onto the sidewalk in front of her restaurant, but that doesn’t work when it’s cold or rainy. There’s really no way for her to enclose or heat the space the way some restaurants have done.

Before the pandemic, she said, business was good. The restaurant wasn’t particularly profitable because of debts that needed to be paid off, she said, but it was doing well. “Dinner was super busy. It was good,” Nasrin said.

Now she is surviving on takeout business on the weekends, and hoping for more government aid – or, preferably, customers.

“Seriously, some days we have one table. Or zero tables. No one wants to come sit inside,” he said. “We are surviving on online orders and phone calls, but that’s mostly Friday and Saturday.”

She said she is trying everything she can think of. She took out some inexpensive ads on Facebook. She reworked the menu. She cut down staff to three people, plus herself and occasionally her two sons and one son’s girlfriend.

She gives out her personal cell number in case anyone wants to place an order during off times. “We’re closed Monday now, but I tell people, ‘Call me and I’ll come in and cook for you.’”

Similarly, she tells customers that if they don’t see it on the menu, just tell her, and she’ll make anything she knows how to cook by request.

She worries that her storefront looks dark and unoccupied to passers-by, so she’s thinking of adding more lights – maybe even flashing ones to catch people’s attention.

She got one PPP loan last year but will have to pay it back. She and Furuque are hoping to get a small-business grant and a second PPP forgivable loan this year.

She’s running out of options. “I don’t know what else to do. I think people just want something cheaper, faster,” she said.

But still she doesn’t close. Aside from four days this summer when the weight of her situation began to overwhelm her, Nasrin keeps coming to work, opening the doors and cooking food.

“I thought so many times of shutting down, especially the last few months,” she said. “My brain has been storming, trying to make a decision.

"But I’m a positive person. Instead of crying on my pillow at home, I come in here. Maybe one or two people will come eat. And that will give me hope.”

336-727-7394

@mhastingswsj

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