HI-TECH

Bitcoin accepted here: The tiny family restaurant in India that’s embraced virtual currency

Quartz india
Quartz india

For most Indians new to the concept of cryptocurrencies, the idea of making a transaction in real life using bitcoin seems vaguely illicit. It certainly doesn’t seem like the kind of thing you’d do on a Saturday afternoon, for instance, after devouring a Maharashtrian thali or snacking on a vada pav.

And yet, at the Suryawanshi restaurants in Bengaluru’s Indiranagar and Whitefield neighbourhoods, that’s exactly what you can do, because owner Kailash Suryawanshi accepts bitcoin as a mode of payment, alongside the usual cash, cards, and Paytm.

Suryawanshi, originally from the town of Kolhapur in Maharashtra, moved to the southern city way back in 2004 and worked in the used cars business. Nearly a decade later, after noticing the glaring lack of quality Maharashtrian food available, he launched his first eponymous restaurant in Whitefield, and followed that up with another in Indiranagar in 2015, gradually making a name for himself by serving authentic Kolhapuri thalis, loaded with seafood and meats.

While the two outlets may not be the first offline establishments to transact in bitcoin in India (that honour reportedly belongs to a pizzeria in Mumbai, owned by a bitcoin enthusiast, which began accepting the cryptocurrency in 2013), they are certainly a rare breed. Though you can buy books or even movie tickets online using local bitcoin exchange apps, such as Zebpay, Coinsecure, and Unocoin, the digital currency remains largely unknown outside of a small, tech-savvy community in the country, and that applies to India’s Silicon Valley, too.

Tejas Suryawanshi, Kailash’s son, says his family was introduced to bitcoin in September last year and watched the value of its initial investment grow quickly in just a few months. In November, they decided to start accepting the digital currency at their restaurants to both raise awareness about the technology and increase the value of their investments. To woo tech-savvy Bengaluru locals, they put up stickers saying “bitcoin accepted here.” But so far, they’ve witnessed just one bitcoin transaction.

“There were a lot of people who came and clicked photos (of the sign) but apart from that no transactions,” 23-year-old Suryawanshi told Quartz, adding that one bill worth around Rs500 was paid for using bitcoin a little over a month ago. Now, the bitcoin earned is worth over Rs1,000, he said.

The price of the cryptocurrency has been shooting up in recent months, hitting an all-time high of of nearly $3,000 last week. There’s a lot of different reasons for this, among them Japan’s decision in April to legalise bitcoin as a mode of payment. As a result, interest in the digital currency is growing, even in India, where Zebpay, for instance, said it was adding more than 2,500 new users every day.

Sandeep Goenka, co-founder of Zepbay, estimates that there are between 200,000 and 500,000 people investing in bitcoin in India. But most of them aren’t really using the cryptocurrency for purchases.

“Currently, most people are using (bitcoin) to make some alternate investments,” Goenka said in an email. “According to us, (the) state of bitcoins as a payment mode in India is still a couple of years away.”

That’s in part due to the confusing legal status of digital currencies in the country. While Goenka and others in the industry maintain that bitcoin is legal under the country’s existing laws, the government said in March that the Reserve Bank of India had not authorised the use of virtual currencies, and that they could put individuals at risk of breaching anti-money-laundering and terrorism financing laws.

Since April, the government has been examining the issue, and has even invited comments from the public on whether bitcoin and other digital currencies should be regulated or banned outright. The responses have mostly favoured legalisation. So far, however, digital currencies remain unregulated in India.

Without regulation, there’s no institutional authority to turn to for help if things go wrong. And that explains why many locals are still a little wary of bitcoin.

“Bitcoin is a very risky platform at the moment… nobody has control over it, so you don’t know from where the money is coming and where it is going,” Suryawanshi said. “There’s a fear of being hacked; people don’t think being online is good enough.”

In fact, earlier this month, a report on the website Factor Daily revealed a harrowing story of a Bengaluru techie who lost Rs1.2 lakh ($1,860) in minutes after his Unocoin account was hacked. Since bitcoin users (and hackers) can choose to remain anonymous, and transactions can’t be reversed, it’s not easy to recover the currency once it’s lost.

Nevertheless, for the brave few who stick it out in India, there’s big money to be made, not to mention the promise of at least one offline reward: a delectable plate of authentic Maharashtrian food, and the cachet of saying you paid for it with bitcoin.

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