Jamie’s Italian to shut restaurants in Hong Kong, Taipei this week as coronavirus outbreak adds to protests in keeping diners away

Louise Moon

Jamie’s Italian, the chain of upmarket eateries started by the British celebrity chef and restaurateur Jamie Oliver, said it would shut its two Hong Kong franchises and Taipei restaurant by the end of this week.

The chain’s Taipei restaurant at the Shin Kong Mitsukoshi Xinyi Place shopping centre will cease operating on February 27 and the two Hong Kong franchises in Causeway Bay and Harbour City will shut on February 28 .

The three outlets, which opened with the Causeway Bay flagship in 2014 over three consecutive years, had been facing a “challenging period,” especially in the second half of 2019, when mainland Chinese tourists and shoppers stayed away from Hong Kong during the anti-government protests, according to a statement by Big Cat Group, which owns the restaurant franchise.

Business in Hong Kong “experienced a major drop” due to the protests, with fourth-quarter sales shrinking by 20 to 35 per cent from a year ago, Big Cat said in an interview with South China Morning Post. The outbreak of the coronavirus, which deterred even city residents from eating out or gathering in public places, worsened the situation.

Jamie Oliver at Jamie's Italian in Causeway Bay on 24 March 2015. Photo: SCMP/HANDOUT

The outbreak, which has sickened more than 80,000 people and killed 2,763 patients globally, has afflicted 85 people in Hong Kong at last count, with two deaths. Thirty one people caught the coronavirus in Taiwan, with one fatality.

To contain the virus’ spread, Hong Kong’s government has extended school holidays, and instructed civil servants to work from home. That prompted businesses to follow, causing millions of people to be homebound.

Tourists, especially the big spenders from mainland China, also stayed away from the city, with daily visitor arrivals plunging to 3,000 in February, compared with 100,000 in January and 200,000 last year, according to government data. As a result consumption took a nosedive at restaurants, cafes, shopping centres and retail stores.

A view of Jamie's Italian in Causeway Bay on 29 August 2014. Photo: SCMP

“These events, combined with the fact that Hong Kong remains one of the highest [cost] rental markets in the world, have created what could be described as “the perfect storm”,” Big Cat said. “Taiwan has also been heavily impacted by coronavirus given the risk to exports, as well as the constraints on inbound travel impacting overall consumer sentiment.”

Nearly 100 staff in the three restaurants will be laid off, and they will be compensated with their February salaries, outstanding leave pay, notice pay and severance pay, the company said, without divulging financial figures.

The closures in Hong Kong and Taipei follow the cessation of business in May 2019 when the Jamie Oliver Restaurant Group shut 22 of its restaurants in the UK with the loss of 1,000 jobs. Overseas branches and franchises were unaffected at that time.

Big Cat, headed by entrepreneur William Lyon, is also a partner of the upmarket British department store Fortnum & Mason, including supporting the opening of its first overseas flagship store in Tsim Sha Tsui last December.

“I’m deeply saddened that our restaurants in Hong Kong have had to cease trading,” Lyon said in an emailed statement. “Our absolute priority was to ensured that all affected staff were paid in full. We do not forecast a marked improvement over the next few months and have therefore made the difficult decision to close all three restaurants with immediate effect.

“Despite the support from our Causeway Bay landlord, our other landlords have not been supportive enough during this period. We’d like to thank our fantastic staff and the thousands of customers we’ve had the pleasure of serving over the past few years.”

The flagship restaurant at Tang Lung Street in Causeway Bay occupies 12,155 square feet, with the capacity for 200 seats. Big Cat declined to comment on its rental arrangement with its landlord at Soundwill Plaza II.

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