They are a kind of oasis en route to a faraway district, offering a breather with restrooms, washbasins, and food for passengers and drivers to recharge your batteries. That's your highway diner for you.
But these highway eateries or diners are struggling to survive following a series of lockdowns, repeated virus curbs on long-haul movements, and a drastic fall in long distance passengers which has dealt them a mighty blow. Now a fragile consumer confidence in dining at highway eateries has put them on the slow lane of recovery from the virus.
Take for example Chondu Hotel and Restaurant on the country's major transportation artery, the Dhaka-Chattogram Highway, which on any regular day before the pandemic would sell 4,000 kg of beef to passengers travelling by long-haul buses and cars. Their daily beef sales has now plummeted to less than 200 kg.
The eatery owner, meanwhile, has had to sell 59 of his 70 cows at his cattle farm to survive the pandemic blues.
"Our monthly sales were Tk2 crore on an average with a profit of more than Tk2 lakh. But I am struggling to pay staff salaries now," said Iqbal Ahmed, owner of the highway eatery that started 40 years ago in Cumilla's Paduar Bazar, to The Business Standard.
With 65 employees, the restaurant needs Tk10 lakh per month for staff salaries and operational costs. Iqbal said he did not terminate any staff as an austerity measure to counteract the pandemic business slump.
However, other workers at more than 200 restaurants on the Cumilla stretch of the highway are not as lucky as their colleagues at Chondu as other highway eateries laid off half to three fourth of their pre-pandemic staff.
With an unprecedented turn of events since the Covid-19 outbreak in Bangladesh last year, a series of lockdowns upended highway restaurant businesses. Although the lockdown is now lifted, fragile customer confidence and people going on fewer long distance journeys, has set the recovery of these businesses on a slow lane.
Ripon Ahmed, owner of Hotel Noorjahan on the Dhaka-Chattogram highway, said a number of bus operators on the route have either cancelled their stoppages, or they themselves are not getting enough passengers.
"People are not making trips unless there is an urgent need to do so," said Ripon, who had to downsize his restaurant workforce to 84 from 350.
Most of the eatery staff who have been fired are from other regions as the owners now try to keep their businesses afloat with local employees.
"In numbers, my losses amount to Tk10 crore. But the terrible experience of having to let go of skilled workers cannot be cannot be gauged by money and numbers alone," said the eatery owner sounding depressed.
Established in the 90s, Noorjahan earned a name for sweetmeats alongside regular meals, but now it is struggling to survive.
According to the Cumilla highway restaurant owners association, highway eateries in Cumilla have laid off around 6,000 staff with 30% of the eateries still shuttered, and losses amounting to at least Tk5,000 crore so far.
The Cumilla stretch of the Dhaka-Chattogram Highway is around 104 km – a route taken by southeast and northeast bound vehicles. Highway restaurant owners say if long-haul transportation is suspended, their businesses are completely off, since the eateries mostly depend on highway traffic and are not close to residential areas that could provide some customers.
This means takeaway services or online sales cannot keep them alive if virus driven movement restrictions are in place. These restaurants typically either pay bus operators monthly or provide bus drivers and staff with free meals, cash, mobile recharges and gifts for stopping there.
Hatikumrul eatery hub in the soup too
Sheikh Golam Rahman has been a manager at Aristocrat restaurant on the Sirajganj-Bogura highway for more than 20 years. He said he never ever saw such a slump in business.
Normally, he said, on any average day hundreds of passengers would scramble in for lunch at the Aristocrat that started 20 years ago.
But there were only four customers on Saturday afternoon at the eatery. "We are hardly making the operating costs, let alone profit," said Rahman.
He said the Aristocrat did not terminate any of its 100 employees, but the eatery adopted staff salary cuts.
Vehicles from the capital to northern and northwestern districts take the Bangabandhu Bridge on the River Jamuna, and usually take a break at Sirajganj's Hatikumrul.
According to the bridge authority counts, 25,000 vehicles cross the river every day on average.
Ashraful Alam Selim, manager of highway diner Food Village in Hatikumrul, said the owner has laid off half its staff of 1,500. Their salaries have been halved too.
"Business is yet to improve though the lockdown has been lifted. People are hardly making long trips, and most passengers travelling do not want to dine out either," he added.
What do the owners and authorities say?
Mohammad Ali, president of Cumilla district bus owners association, said, "Our passengers have dropped by 60% on some routes. Despite contracts with highway eateries, many buses now do not stop as passengers are unwilling to dine out."
MA Muqit Tipu, president of Cumilla restaurant owners association, said they are trying to avail government stimulus for survival.
Nasir Uddin, general secretary of Cumilla highway restaurant owners association, said many of them will not be able to resume their businesses ever, unless the government chips in with supportive measures as furniture fell into disrepair and got ruined at many eateries during the lockdown.
Md Kamrul Hasan, deputy commissioner of Cumilla, said if the associations submit applications seeking government help, he will notify the concerned ministry in this regard.
There is no association of northern region highway eateries, except a district-level body in Bogura.
Nahiduzzaman Nishad, general secretary of the Bogura hotel-motel owners association, said "The government should lend equal support to all business sectors in this pandemic. The owners had to fire workers only to survive. There should be joint public-private efforts for restaurant workers."