A quick look at data and trends over the last year has put the new reality of the restaurant and bar industry into stark relief
Hong Kong, like many cities around the world, has been struggling with the collateral damage from COVID-19—the novel coronavirus that has struck globally, with a domino effect that has resulted in dwindling tourism, tightening social distancing measures, and an entirely different appetite driven by the uncertainty of the future. It’s a tragedy for this tiny metropolis, which was—as data and on-the-ground intel informed us—was poised to rebound from months of anti-government protests and societal unrest at the end of 2019. We take a look at what’s been happening as mass public behaviour takes its toll on an industry dependent on the health—literally and figuratively—of its city.
2019: A Slow Free-Fall
Long before the virus seized the city, Hong Kong was working through a tipping point of its own. From June to December, anti-government protests and tense stand-offs between supporters and detractors became a regular occurrence—as did flashpoints of violence, resulting in districts becoming, effectively, no-go zones at various times of the week. Areas from Sheung Wan to Causeway Bay on the island, and the Yau Tsim Mong districts in Kowloon, were most heavily impacted with frequent clashes. Restaurateurs and business owners in these areas reported significant drop in custom as citizens opted to dine further away from areas of conflict, or stayed home.
Hong Kong’s Census and Statistics Department’s quarterly report on restaurant receipts and purchases is seen as a barometer for the industry’s health, taking into account activity spread across five categories (Chinese restaurants, non-Chinese restaurants, bars, fast food and miscellaneous F&B venues). The latest report on 2019, released February 2020, paints an alarming picture as “the provisional estimate of the volume of total restaurant receipts decreased by 16.0% in the fourth quarter of 2019 compared with a year earlier”. Chinese restaurants suffered the most, decreasing by 19.2% in value compared to 15.2% of non-Chinese restaurants.
While the mood seemed to lift closer to Christmas and New Year, the industry was already down on its luck—an unfortunate position given what was to come in 2020.
Who's Dining Out, Anyway?
Hong Kong is a city of food nerds, always searching for the next best place to dine. According to Google Trends, "best restaurants in Hong Kong" is one of the most popular search terms for the city—and looking back at the data over the past year is revealing a dramatic drop in priorities. Given the tumultuous atmosphere during the later half of 2019, the search never quite resumed the popularity it had at the beginning of the year. Things fell to an all-time low that year in November 2019, coinciding with the traumatic scenes of the university sieges that occurred in the middle of that month; yet by December, the interest returned.
January is usually a quiet time for restaurants—coupled with the initial cases of COVID-19 that were confirmed in the city from January 23, 2020, the public's interest in the best places to dine in around town plummeted to an unprecedented low.
Staying In Is The New Going Out
Two major players in the food delivery sector, Food Panda and Deliveroo, have both been aggressively promoting their services throughout 2019. While restaurants and bars collectively struggled with unpredictability throughout 2019, searches for both platforms have been consistently on the up. On January 28, 2020, the Hong Kong government announced that most civil servants would work from home (prompting many private companies to do the same); shortly after, on February 2, 2020, Hong Kong's first locally transmitted case of coronavirus was confirmed. By mid-February, interest in food delivery services nearly doubled on Google; as of April, it is at its highest level of popularity yet in terms of search volume.
After the second wave of outbreaks in Hong Kong in early March, Deliveroo notes that it saw a 4-fold increase in in-bound enquiries from restaurants and doubled their orders in the first quarter of 2020 compared to Q4 of 2019. "Over 1,500 new restaurants have joined Deliveroo since January, driving a 200%+ leap over just eight weeks," confirmed a spokesperson for the company. Dinner orders used to be more popular than lunch on the platform by 30-40%, but in recent weeks the company has seen lunch orders overtake dinner by 20%—indicating that more diners working from home are looking for ordering options.
As more people are encouraged to stay at home and practice social distancing, and with more restaurants either closing temporarily or pivoting to delivery and take-out only, it's the expected trajectory.
The Rise Of The Home Cook
By March, as it became clear that staying at home and social distancing was the most responsible thing to do, searches for at-home projects started to pick up. All around the internet (and the world), people tried their hands at everything from making Dalgona coffee to sourcing yeast to make their own sourdough loaves. In April, with bars closed in Hong Kong for two weeks, searches for "home bar" skyrocketed from a popularity rating of virtually zero to 87 (out of 100) on Google Trends.
"Recipes" are clearly on the up, which can be no bad thing—if we are fortunate enough at this time to be safe at home, having the ability to reconnect with our food and kitchens. Don't forget to support the restaurants and bars you love in the meantime through any means necessary—many, apart from offering delivery and takeout, are also selling gift cards or merchandise that can go some way to support them through these unprecedented hardships.