Cover Hong Kong's dine-in restrictions have frequently changed over the past week (photo: courtesy)

Chefs and restaurateurs tell us how the Hong Kong government’s frequently changing social distancing measures have impacted them, and what they hope is the light at the end of the tunnel

For more than a year, Hong Kong’s restaurant and bar industry has seen challenge after challenge, with the situation fluctuating month after month. Mass unemployment and staff furloughs, negotiations with landlords and increasingly tight restrictions cutting into their bottom lines have become the unfortunate new reality for many of those in the hospitality business. As Hong Kong surpasses its 3,000th Covid-19 case this week, risks and government-decreed restrictions remain, culminating in a full dine-in ban that was implemented on 29 July but quickly reversed on 30 July, leaving many confused and angry. 

We spoke to several of those in the business to gauge their responses to the situation, from long-established restaurateurs to chefs who have only recently launched new restaurants and ventures in an incredibly challenging environment.

See also: Visualising The Impact Of Coronavirus On Hong Kong's F&B Industry

Vicky Cheng, VEA

The executive chef of fine dining French-Chinese restaurant VEA is facing a new reality—for a restaurant that used to only operate tasting menus in the evenings, the dine-in ban has had a significant impact on his plans. For the first time two weeks ago, VEA opened to serve lunch.

"We’ve never done takeaway, because we’ve been fortunate enough to have a strong support network of guests who have readily adapted to the rules,” says Cheng. “They’ve tremendously supported us over lunch that lasted only two weekends.”

Despite the announcement that breakfast and lunch dine-ins would be allowed again from 31 July, Cheng is closing the restaurant for at least a week for his staff's safety and well-being while he ponders his next move. “Moving forward, I am thinking of doing a takeaway menu, which we’ve never done before. We didn’t exactly want to do it before because we were absolutely sure that the quality of the food would suffer, and so I am now putting our heads together to think about foods that will keep even after travelling.”

Cheng hopes to launch something later next month, pending government regulations. “Give us one week to think, to rest and recuperate, and to do things rightfully and mindfully for the upcoming few days, weeks and months,” he says. “I hope that we all stay safe and all get to see each other soon.”

VEA30/F The Wellington, 198 Wellington Street, +852 2711 8639

Gigi Ng, Ser Wong Fun

The fourth generation owner of the traditional Chinese restaurant on Cochrane Street is fighting to keep her family’s business alive. Earlier this year, she admitted to us that she hadn’t taken a salary for more than a year in order to save her staff; yet, with the end nowhere in sight, she’s still choosing to remain optimistic.

“At first I thought, maybe it will be easier for us to close temporarily and not do any business at all, but we had a good think about it and decided to stay on and keep pushing,” she says. Wong made quick decisions, signing up to a delivery service and calling on friends to act as a fleet of drivers. “Hearing guests’ feedback after their ordering made me realise how wonderful social media can help push the business, especially when they share their feedback with their friends, recommending them to order from us. It touches my heart that more people are coming together to be supportive, which make the dire situation and the restrictions easier to deal with.”

For Wong, seeing the opportunities for growth have helped her navigate the choppy waters. “We can use this pandemic situation as a form of challenge to test our new concepts, seeing how we think on our feet and come up with solutions to tackle the dine-in ban and temporary restrictions. The pandemic situation has pushed me a little to try to market the brand a little bit more.”

See also: How Hong Kong's Bars And Restaurants Are Banding Together To Adapt During The Coronavirus Pandemic

On that note, Wong is still looking ahead in terms of how she can create more longevity for the brand. “There needs to be a lot of thought that goes into the future. It takes much to polish the traditional Hong Kong brand and revitalize it to be more inclusive to a younger or even a wider audience that has never known about you before,” she says. “I think in time we can see that we, as Hongkongers, are very much holding our forts and hanging in there, and that this pandemic is really giving us a chance to show what we are made of and withstand the challenge.”

Ser Wong Fun, 30 Cochrane Street, +852 2543 1032

Yenn Wong, JIA Group

For the founder of JIA Group, the last 12 months have been devastating. Early on during the pandemic, the restaurant group launched JIA Everywhere to address the need for takeaway business, but Wong is sceptical that this will be a long term strategy for survival.

“I think this whole dine-in ban is just trying to kill us, to make it blunt,” she says. It has been an exhausting ride. For the past six months, the team have done their best to keep on top of hygiene—not only for the safety of their guests, but for their own staff’s sake. “We have a lot of regulations within our own business because we are also afraid, and we want to take care of our staff and customers.”

“[The industry] seems to be paying for the loopholes of the so-called exemptions [to quarantine and testing], because the economy has to continue moving. But we seem to be paying for the mistakes that the government has made.” Wong points out that a shutdown without support is tantamount to killing the industry: “The biggest cost is rental and salaries. We all have to remember that the rentals we are paying are based on a very robust economy. It’s based on when there are a lot of international events, parties, socialising, and tourists—now we have none of those. It’s just impossible for anyone to even try to make ends meet.”

To get through this, she believes that the only way is for the industry, the landlords and the government to work together as a team. “Hong Kong has always been known to be a food paradise, and we really should preserve that.” Referring to the recent closure of iconic tofu factory Kung Wo in Sham Shui Po, she says that it would be tragic to see more local gems close as a result of the pandemic and unforgiving overheads. “I hope we can all survive but I do think we need to work together.”

JIA Group restaurants include: MONO, Louise, and Duddell's

Stephanie Wong, Roots

The chef of independent restaurant Roots in the Star Street precinct, Wong has been through the ups and downs of navigating life as a first-time restaurant owner.

“Hong Kong’s culture is our dining scene, and eating out is like second nature to all of us,” she says. “It represents the vibrancy of Hong Kong. The ban on dine-in has basically killed most business and also consumer’s sentiments. Takeout is just not the same despite all the options available.”

Both new and old businesses are suffering equally, she adds, because the waves of infections just keep coming. "Yes, we survived the first round, but it’s a marathon needing constant cash. We’re all operating on constraints restricting us from making the cashflow.”

As to how things need to change for the industry, Wong points to one crucial element: “I think one big key in helping are landlords providing relief on rent, especially when restrictions are in place. There’s no chance that any business can continue paying rent when they’re facing 70-80 per cent drops in sales and not especially after many businesses have already bled out in the first wave.”

Roots Eatery7 Sun Street, Wan Chai,  +852 2623 9983

Syed Asim Hussain, Black Sheep Restaurants

The co-founder of Black Sheep Restaurants has had a lot on his plate, between opening Crown Super Deluxe during the pandemic to continuously working on the group’s Covid-19 playbook that has been utilised by the hospitality industry around the world. The group, undeterred, have more projects planned despite the challenges.

Early on, the group made good use of their in-house delivery app to get their restaurants’ food to customers’ doors despite the growing restrictions. With the latest tightening of the rules, Hussain admits that delivery—in the long run—is not going to be enough to cover payroll, given that it only accounts for 5 per cent of their total sales.

“We are a hospitality team, the magic that we create within the four walls of our restaurants and the stories that we tell cannot be recreated in a brown bag delivered to your doorstep,” he adds. “Even with an increase in delivery due to the dine-in ban and opening all day delivery services at some of our restaurants, I can only see this reaching the 10 to 12 per cent mark and that does not even cover half of our payroll.” Luckily, the team have not yet made any redundancies and hope to keep it that way.

See also: How Hong Kong's F&B Community Is Supporting Each Other In The Time Of Coronavirus

One difficult decision he has had to make was temporarily shutting their newest project, Crown Super Deluxe. “[The restaurant] was something we have been dreaming of doing for a very long time. We were not going to let the pandemic get in the way of something we truly wanted to express from a creative standpoint or prevent us from sharing something that we are passionate about with our guests and our community. We understand first-hand how difficult and frustrating it is to open and have to shut your doors and no longer offer that escape to your guests.”

Keeping the people in their communities safe is currently the top priority, but Hussain points out that there is only so much they can do from their side. “To continue to persevere, we need financial support from the government; without it, there is a high chance that so much of what makes Hong Kong the city that it is may not make it through this.”

Black Sheep Restaurants operates delivery service GO.

Barry Quek, Return of Lemak

The Singaporean chef bade farewell to his award-winning restaurant, Beet, earlier in April but quickly found his feet again by launching his South-East Asian comfort food kiosk in the Basehall food court. With fewer workers heading into the office and the food hall unable to accommodate dine-ins, he’s seeing new challenges ahead.

“Prior to [the third wave], we saw a drop of 50 per cent in revenue. With the new dine-in ban, we wouldn’t be surprised to see a further 10-20 per cent drop,” Quek says. “There are new restrictions every week and people are definitely avoiding crowded areas.”

Not knowing how long the situation will go on for, the key will be to adapt and change, he continues. “There’s been a negative impact on businesses for sure, with people unable to dine in groups. The food we serve at Return of Lemak is very convenient for takeaway, but we’ve seen a massive drop in guests since the third wave.”

Quek’s concern also extends to his fellow chefs in the business. “We have a friend [Tiffany Lo] who has just opened up new restaurant Jean May in Wan Chai, and she’s concerned that because her place is so new people don’t even know about them and the takeaway that she can offer,” he says. In times like this, it’s never been more important to band together and support each other—especially those whose voices need to be amplified.

Return of LemakBasehall Food Court, Jardine House, 1 Connaught Place

Agustin Balbi, Ando

Previously the chef of Haku, Balbi recently partnered with JIA Group’s Yenn Wong to launch his own restaurant in the heart of Central. While the restaurant managed to open two weeks before the third wave hit—though only one week for dinner service—many of their plans have since been disrupted.

“It’s a very difficult time for all of us in the hospitality service as our only income comes from guests visiting our restaurants,” Balbi says. “If course the closure affects all of us 100 per cent, but we understand and hope that it will be for the greater good. After all, health is the most important thing we have. We hope it will not last to the point that it will really start to damage some restaurants.”

Balbi is betting that despite the ban, Hongkongers will not lose their confidence in dining in the future. “It is part of the culture. Everyone loves to go eat and visit restaurants, and I will say that people are actually waiting to be able to go out again already.

See also: Ando Chef Agustin Balbi's Secret Ingredient Ups The Umami Ante

“It is quite difficult, but we don’t lose the spirit and confidence we built in this short time, we keep pushing further using this time to work on new recipes and ideas, always moving forward. Of course it is affecting the dining scene full on, but which area of our lives are not affected by this? Our side is looking to the glass half full. Now is when more positivity, kindness and passion is needed the most, it is nothing else we can do at this right moment. Thankfully we have guests and people who really love what we do and order takeaway from us and support us which is rare considering the amount of time we been open, that little gesture of kindness make us happy in this dark days.

“We try to support colleges too, messaging them and sharing positivity and strength so they know we are in this together and can count on us. I am very proud of the people I work with now even more. They are quite special to me and more in times like this, they are family. One of the keys is to stay together in this and push forward with as much positivity as we can and find new activities and ideas to keep the restaurant on its feet. Hopefully we will come out of this stronger and more united as a community.”

Ando, 1F Somptueux Central, 52 Wellington Street