Hong Kong restaurant scene back to (almost) full glory, but owners worry over new pressures

Asia's Tech News Daily

third, fourth waves, number one on Asia’s 50 Best, anti-government protests, Singapore is a perfect example, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, here

Eighteen months ago in April 2020, during Hong Kong’s second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, I put a temporary hiatus on restaurant reviews. The food and beverage scene – normally so dynamic – had come to an almost complete standstill, with very few new establishments opening.

Back then, restrictions were quite relaxed compared to those implemented later: restaurants were able to remain open, although at half capacity, and with tables spaced 1.5 metres (5ft) apart. Still, restaurants were going out of business, and one new place that I tried to review shut its doors within three days of my visit.

Stricter measures were implemented during the third and fourth waves of the coronavirus: at various times only two diners were allowed per table (which especially affected those serving Chinese food), restaurants had to close between 6pm and 5am (so there goes the more profitable dinner business), and there was a very brief prohibition on dining in – only takeaway was allowed.

But now, Hongkongers are eating out with a vengeance. We can’t travel, so we eat out, instead. Some restaurants are almost impossible to get into.

third, fourth waves, number one on Asia’s 50 Best, anti-government protests, Singapore is a perfect example, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, here

Bibi & Baba in Wan Chai opened during the pandemic. Photo: JIA Group

Want to eat at The Chairman, which is number 10 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, and number one on Asia’s 50 Best? Unless someone cancels so a table opens up, you’ll probably have to wait at least until April 2022.

Godenya, the tiny restaurant in Central that pairs sake with exquisite Japanese food? It’s booked out through February 2022, and when it releases seats for March, they’ll be snapped up within a few hours. Restaurants such as Batard, Hansik Goo, Whey, Ando and Mono are just as popular.

In April 2020, Alan Lo and several other restaurateurs started #SaveHKFnB to help restaurants and bars that were not represented in the Legislative Council by the traditional catering functional constituency. Lo is one of the co-founders of the Classified Group, which manages a number of restaurants, and is now senior adviser at the hospitality group JIA, which his wife, Yenn Wong, established in 2010.

“#SaveHKFnB started out with around 30 operators and that grew to about 150 operators representing more than 1,000 restaurants and bars,” Lo says. “We needed help financially and we needed it quickly.

“It was two-pronged, first to ensure that the staff were still paid and still had their jobs, and that business owners could survive or weather through the crisis. We also wanted to appeal to landlords to help out. On the government front, we successfully fought for rounds of subsidies, but the landlord side was not as successful.”

third, fourth waves, number one on Asia’s 50 Best, anti-government protests, Singapore is a perfect example, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, here

Alan Lo, co-founder of the Classified Group, and his wife Yenn Wong, founder and CEO of the JIA Group. Photo: SCMP

Lo says that business started improving this year in late February, after the fourth wave ended.

“The situation is so fluid and right now, things are stable. It’s super hard to get into some restaurants. Hong Kong is largely an enclosed economy – the borders are closed so we are relying heavily on local clientele. There’s very little events business. It’s tough – restaurants that traditionally relied on overseas business are still suffering.”

Just a couple of months into the pandemic, Syed Asim Hussain, co-founder of Black Sheep Restaurants, released the group’s “SOP: Covid-19 Playbook”, a “standard operating procedure” to help other Hong Kong food and beverage establishments. It ended up going global and, although it was targeted at the food and beverage industry, it was used by other businesses, such as those in fashion and aviation.

third, fourth waves, number one on Asia’s 50 Best, anti-government protests, Singapore is a perfect example, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, here

Syed Asim Hussain, co-founder of Black Sheep Restaurants. Photo: Black Sheep Restaurants

It laid out practices that we now take for granted, but which, back in early 2020, were new, such as requiring that masks be worn by staff and customers, having hand sanitisers and wipes available, and making guests fill out health declaration forms before entering the premises.

“I’ve always said that good restaurateurs are like jazz musicians – we have to improvise,” Hussein says.

“It’s been like this for the past two years – we haven’t had time to panic. In December 2019, when things were slowing down with the social unrest [caused by the anti-government protests] we were hoping [the next months] would see quiet stability and an uptick in business.

third, fourth waves, number one on Asia’s 50 Best, anti-government protests, Singapore is a perfect example, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, here

Black Sheep opened The Last Resort during the pandemic. Photo: Black Sheep Restaurants

Black Sheep, which has established restaurants such as New Punjab Club, Belon, Hotal Colombo and Ho Lee Fook, actually expanded during the pandemic to include Crown Super Deluxe (teppanyaki), “dive bar” Last Resort and a new outlet of La Vache, which specialises in steak frites.

“I’m quite optimistic of the future of our city and the future of hospitality,” Hussain says. “Restaurants are a lot busier and we’re lucky to be in a place like Hong Kong where dining out and eating with friends is so important.

“Even though there are strict quarantine rules, businesses are able to sustain themselves. But challenges remain. I keep saying to my team that we have to be ready for another wave. We have to be dogged, resilient and agile. We can’t afford to think it’s completely over. We can’t afford to let our guard down.”

[Chef] Mingoo Kang planned on coming [from Seoul] more but with the quarantine it was impossible. We had to do it all through Zoom – including tastings

Elizabeth Chu, chairwoman, ZS Hospitality, on opening Hansik Goo

Black Sheep wasn’t the only group that expanded during the pandemic: both the JIA Group and ZS Hospitality Group also opened restaurants that have proved immensely popular.

“People ask me why I opened so many restaurants during the pandemic,” says Yenn Wong, founder and CEO of the JIA Group, which over the past year opened establishments such as Ando, Bibi & Baba and, most recently, Estro. “With some fine-dining restaurants and chef/partner arrangements, it’s not whether the timing is right just for us – there’s discussion and negotiation with the chefs and we all have to work together.

“Because of lack of travelling, people are willing to spend to eat – there’s huge growth in that. Restaurants are booked up, and when we look at our customer profile, we see that people are opting for the longer menu and are willing to spend on good wines.

“We only open our restaurants for bookings two months in advance – we cap it. And when we open the bookings, some restaurants are booked out in five minutes. You can email your request to be on the wait list, and with some restaurants, there are 200 to 500 people asking to be put on the list.

“People are requesting tables for August or September of next year. But people all want to eat at the same restaurants – for us it’s Louise, Ando and Mono – it’s mostly fine dining. Not all our restaurants are equally popular.”

third, fourth waves, number one on Asia’s 50 Best, anti-government protests, Singapore is a perfect example, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, here

Interior of JIA Group’s Ando. Photo: JIA Group

For Elizabeth Chu, chairwoman of ZS Hospitality, opening Hansik Goo, the group’s modern Korean restaurant by Mingoo Kang, chef of the two-Michelin-star Mingles in Seoul, was a steep learning curve because much of the planning was done remotely.

“[At the start of the pandemic] we had only Miss Lee and Ying Jee Club,” she says. “Hansik Goo opened at an interesting time, when Covid was at its peak, and we had to do distant communication.

“Mingoo Kang planned on coming [from Seoul] more but with the quarantine it was impossible. We had to do it all through Zoom – including tastings. It was challenging because we had never collaborated that way before. But we’d had the ball rolling – from the time we first started chatting with Mingoo to opening, it was more than a year.

“We originally planned to open in March 2020 – we recruited staff, the restaurant was almost completed, we had to pay rent. We couldn’t not open, but we could delay to July.”

third, fourth waves, number one on Asia’s 50 Best, anti-government protests, Singapore is a perfect example, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, here

Elizabeth Chu with Mingoo Kang of Hansik Goo. Photo: ZS Hospitality

third, fourth waves, number one on Asia’s 50 Best, anti-government protests, Singapore is a perfect example, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, here

Hansik Goo’s Korean beef duo. Photo: ZS Hospitality

All the restaurateurs agree that business has improved – but they worry how long it will last.

“I am very cautious of the situation, very cautious of the environment,” Wong says. “I tell my staff that every day, we are 10 days away from a full lockdown – it can change at any moment. Singapore is a perfect example.”

Hussain says that things aren’t as rosy as they look. “Things are back, yes, dining rooms are busy. But we’ve never had to work harder for a dollar. Guest expectations are sky high and everyone wants to come at the end of the week at 8pm, and we can’t accommodate all of them.

“There are a lot of pressures – the cost of produce and protein is significantly higher than it was. We have done one round of [price raising] after two years but we can’t pass all the costs on to guests. We try to absorb as much as we can.

“Our margins are razor thin and becoming even thinner. The economics of the business have become even more challenging – when we talk to our friends in London and New York they tell us similar stories.”

third, fourth waves, number one on Asia’s 50 Best, anti-government protests, Singapore is a perfect example, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, here

Bibi & Baba’s laksa. Photo: JIA Group

He’s also worried about restaurant workers. “Even though business has come back and we’re quietly optimistic of the future of hospitality in Hong Kong, our people on the front lines are languishing – there’s psychological and emotional costs of what we’ve been through. It’s happening to everyone.

“I am hyper aware of this and want to help our people deal with these anxieties and issues. Even though things are open again and we’re happy things are normalising, there’s a cost of what we had to endure.

“My message is, please be a little kinder to the people taking your order – it’s been a difficult time for everyone everywhere, but especially for those who work on the floor. Service is such an intimate thing – and we do that with strangers. Expectations are so high and we like a challenge but please, be kind.”

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