Hong Kong’s struggling restaurants were cautious to restock their kitchens and reluctant to roll out deeper discounts despite the resumption of evening dine-in services on Friday as operators said the relaxation of social-distancing measures offered them only little help.
After dine-in services were banned from 6pm to 5am for nearly 1½ months amid the third wave of Covid-19 infections, restaurants will be allowed to serve guests until 9pm from Friday.
Even though some eateries hope to see a small rebound, many restaurant owners – who have lost millions of dollars in the pandemic – feel a mere three-hour extension in service will not be able to get them back on their feet, especially with other restrictions still in force.
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As part of measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus, restaurants are allowed to run at half capacity and serve no more than two per table.
If we offer big discounts, we won’t be able to make up for the loss of revenue incurred over the past one-and-a-half months
David Leung, chairman, Seafood Delight Group
David Leung Chi-wai, chairman of Seafood Delight Group, said his 12 restaurants had cancelled stock orders for expensive seafood items such as fresh lobsters and crabs to cut costs and had shifted focus to serve set menus for lunch and dinner.
Leung forecast customers would spend about HK$150 (US$19) per head if they ate in his outlets but he found it hard to estimate exactly how many people would dine out.
“I have a few restaurants in Sha Tin and Kwun Tong, which had community outbreaks of coronavirus earlier in July. So maybe residents will still be afraid to eat out,” he said.
Still, he had reservations about attracting customers with further price cuts.
“If we offer big discounts, we won’t be able to make up for the loss of revenue incurred over the past 1½ months,” he said.
To combat the pandemic, the government on July 15 closed bars, pubs, clubhouses and other catering premises used for the sale or supply of alcohol, and banned evening dine-in services at eateries from 6pm to 5am.
If the pandemic is under control by mid-September, hopefully, we can expect the government to allow four people per table again
Simon Wong, president, Hong Kong Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades
Since July 29, public gatherings have been limited to two people, from four previously. Dining at restaurants had also been banned entirely, but was reversed after a day as many workers were forced to eat their lunch outside amid uncomfortable conditions.
On Thursday night, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department issued a list of guidelines for restaurant operations, with eateries urged to assign workers to specific roles such as delivering food or cleaning tables. If this was not implemented, the department said workers should wash their hands or change their gloves after each task.
The department also suggested that customers should not share tables with strangers, and if this happened, there should be partitions between diners.
Leung said some Chinese restaurants like his had already adopted a specific division of labour among staff, but he admitted it would be difficult for small local cafes known as cha chaan tengs which had fewer workers.
“There is no problem not sharing tables with strangers ... It’s very rare that guests will share a table with a stranger these days. We can only serve at most two people, how can this happen?” he said.
Simon Wong Ka-wo, president of the Hong Kong Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades, said businesses in the catering sector would pick up slowly in the next two weeks as both restaurant operators and diners were adopting a wait-and-see approach on the pandemic situation.
Wong said restaurants might only be willing to offer a 20 to 30 per cent discount on their menus, compared to half-price deals given in June, because they had to cover for their losses and could not afford to give more.
He said the catering sector suffered an estimated revenue loss of HK$5 billion in July and HK$6.5 billion in August.
“If the pandemic is under control by mid-September, hopefully, we can expect the government to allow four people per table again,” he said, adding that it could boost business by 20 per cent month on month.
He believed fast-food chains and cha chaan tengs, which typically served two to four per table, would pick up business faster than Chinese-style banquet halls and family eateries.
To prepare for welcoming guests in the evening, Thai restaurant boss Sae Ngow Vasunt said he would brief his colleagues again on cleaning procedures and special seating arrangements.
He predicted his takings would drop by about 30 per cent compared with a normal Friday, an improvement from the 60 to 80 per cent slump he suffered when diners were only allowed to order takeaway meals in the evening.
We only hope to safeguard jobs and make more money to pay our rents. We don’t expect much
Sae Ngow Vasunt, Thai restaurant boss
But with dine-in services ending at 9pm, he said he could only serve up to two batches of customers at night.
“I hope business will be a lot better. Perhaps, people have developed fatigue. So, there could be a rebound,” Sae Ngow said.
“We only hope to safeguard jobs and make more money to pay our rents. We don’t expect much.”
Kristine Sage, brand manager at Holy Eats, a restaurant and bar in Central’s Soho district, also hoped for an uptick.
“We expect it to be packed on Friday, just because many people are eager to go out … The hardest part will be [to remind] people that they need to leave by 9pm,” she said.
But Ma Ming-hei, who owns a cha chaan teng in Lok Fu said he did not order more ingredients even though the rules were eased.
He predicted his income would only grow by 10 to 20 per cent because no more than two persons were allowed per table and groups of diners also had to be at least 1.5 metres apart if there were no partitions between them.
“Basically, people can only sit at eight to 10 tables. The ban is set to kick in at 9pm, even if I can serve one or two more waves of customers, I can only get around 30. Then how can it help?”
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