Coronavirus: feast-in-a-bowl poon choi takes off as Hong Kong’s restaurants scramble to grow delivery orders

Cannix Yau
·5-min read

At her French restaurant in Central, Vivienne Mak brings out a big metal bowl covered with golden puff pastry. People are always delighted when they tear into the pastry to find lobster, abalone, tiger prawns and mussels layered in a fragrant lobster bisque.

Mak, owner of Fast Gourmet, calls the dish a French-accented version of poon choi, the traditional Cantonese festive casserole featuring a variety of ingredients considered auspicious, all layered in a warm, flavoursome gravy.

It was her attempt to add something new to the menu at a time when business was plummeting amid the ongoing evening ban on dining in at restaurants caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

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The French-style poon choi sells for HK$1,288 (US$166) and serves six.

“We just want to survive. Every day I only think about how we can survive the next day,” Mak said. “As a fine-dining restaurant, many of our dishes are not suitable for delivery, so we came up with this delivery-friendly French-style poon choi.”

Fast Gourmet’s poon choi is served under a dome of puff pastry. Photo: Jonathan Wong
Fast Gourmet’s poon choi is served under a dome of puff pastry. Photo: Jonathan Wong

She is among Hong Kong’s many desperate restaurant owners who have begun whipping up their own versions of poon choi as they seek ways to raise their takings during the Covid-19 pandemic.

From Chinese to Western and Japanese restaurants, big and small, the city’s eateries have begun offering the feast-in-a-bowl as a substitute for holding a family banquet in a restaurant.

Prices range from a few hundred dollars to as much as HK$6,888 for a set for six.

In Tai Po, several restaurants, including Japanese and noodle eateries, have banded together to form an alliance offering poon choi deliveries priced from HK$998 to HK$1,888 per set. By getting together, they have been able to save on production and transport costs, and reach new customers.

Hong Kong’s more than 16,000 restaurants and bars are reeling from multiple rounds of social-distancing measures introduced to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

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Strict measures in place since December have restricted restaurants to allowing two customers per table, with dine-in service banned after 6pm. Bars and pubs have had to close altogether.

Simon Wong Ka-wo, president of the Hong Kong Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades, said poon choi had become the hottest delivery dish.

“We see a growing demand, as this dish is ideal for serving the whole family,” he said. “Since they can’t dine out at night due to the social-distancing rules, poon choi serves as the best alternative.”

Wong said Hong Kong’s food and drink sector had been forced to get creative with their menus or risk going bankrupt.

“Unable to do dine-in business at night, all restaurants are having a hard time. They just hope to get some delivery business so their staff have some work to do,” he said.

He estimated that about 3,000 food and drink establishments were on the brink of closing down, and the sector expects to lose about HK$7 billion this month.

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Hong Kong restaurant earnings posted a record decline last year, dropping 29.4 per cent to HK$79.4 billion (US$10.24 billion) from HK$112.5 billion in 2019.

Restaurant owner Mak, who said she experienced losses of as much as HK$200,000 a month during the early stages of the pandemic, said business picked up after she introduced her takeaway poon choi last month.

“The profit margin is not much, but at least this new dish has kept our staff busy. We’ve also had very good responses from our customers. I am happy as long as we don’t have to shut the shop,” she said.

Samson Tse, marketing manager of delivery platform Dim Order, noted that many restaurants had to resort to gimmicks to boost delivery orders.

“Hotpot outlets can’t do deliveries, so they’ve changed to offering a delivery of hotpot ingredients or poon choi,” he said. “Some steakhouses have begun offering packaged, marinated meat with a grill set to attract delivery orders.”

Chef Bentley Mok of Happy Together Hotpot in Kowloon City shows off his restaurant’s version of poon choi. Photo: Edmond So
Chef Bentley Mok of Happy Together Hotpot in Kowloon City shows off his restaurant’s version of poon choi. Photo: Edmond So

He noticed that people were prepared to spend more during the festive season, ordering meals that cost around HK$1,000 per set or more.

Restaurant owners told him the increased delivery orders made up for only about 20 to 30 per cent of revenue lost because of the evening dine-in ban.

“Many say they just hope to have some income to pay the staff and keep them in their jobs,” he said.

Joe Chan, owner of Fine restaurant and lounge in Causeway Bay, which serves Chiuchow cuisine, closed dine-in operations entirely in December to save costs. He started offering Chiuchow-style poon choi for delivery, priced at HK$1,288 for six.

During Christmas, he offered a dice tumbler set and a bottle of red wine with the set meal to attract customers.

“So far, the response has been quite good. We’ve sold several hundred sets, bringing in over HK$100,000, but it only makes up a tiny percentage of our income,” he said.

Fish-shaped sticky rice cakes offered by Happy Together Hotpot as an accompaniment to its poon choi. Photo: Edmond So
Fish-shaped sticky rice cakes offered by Happy Together Hotpot as an accompaniment to its poon choi. Photo: Edmond So

Only three of his 10 staff are working, while the rest are on unpaid leave.

Despite the difficulties, he and his investors have not contemplated closing down. “We think as long as we can survive this critical period, we’ll be able to turn around,” he said.

Kathy Wong, owner of Happy Together Hot Pot in Kowloon City, said she rolled out its poon choi at HK$980 to HK$2,688 per set since last October after the hotpot business took a roughly 90 per cent dive.

She added a festive dessert of glutinous rice balls to accompany the poon choi, and managed to sell about 200 sets each month.

“We need to cope with a monthly rent of more than HK$100,000 and it’s not easy. But we just want to hold on for as long as we can,” she said.

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