Most days, despite what the news highlights show, life in Hong Kong is trooping on, and it’s business as usual. People go to work, children go to school and restaurants open their doors welcoming diners. With the complicated issues facing the city, the focus is not on the usual exploratory eating experiences, celebratory dinners or even friendly gatherings over food as it was back before June of this year. The chefs are still cooking, but the diners aren’t turning up in the same numbers.
In a city where many eat out three meals a day, there are a plethora of restaurants to accommodate. But there’s a lot going on in Hong Kong right now, and it’s the local businesses that are feeling the shift in the priorities of the zeitgeist. When customer numbers dwindle, what happens to the restaurants that already exist on a knife edge with the pressures of competitive staffing, high turnover rates, astronomical rents and short leases?
It’s not necessarily directly related, but there were an enormous amount of restaurant closures that occurred over the summer months.
Amongst many closures, we lost modern British wonder Gough’s on Gough, SoHo’s branch of May Chow’s Little Bao, Pirata Group’s Chifa, Swedish gastropub The Flying Elk, Michelin-recommended Akrame, modern Indian Bindaas as well as the sophisticated Daarukhana, two locations of Classified (Sai Ying Pun and Sai Kung), LKF Tower’s Fang Fang, cool-as-a-cucumber Mrs Pound, constantly overflowing Slide on 79, Tea Saloon by AnotherFineDay, two-year-old NYC import Employees Only and Uwe Opocensky’s eponymously monikered fine-dining UWE.
Of course, Hong Kong is a city where restaurants often close often as fast as they open, and these closures can’t all be chalked up to the recent weeks of protests, but there certainly has been a heftier-than-usual volume of eateries that have bitten the dust.
For some people, it’s just another challenge added to the many facing Hong Kong’s tricky F&B industry and has reaffirmed their commitment and love of the city.
Joshua Chu, F&B director for Red Sauce Hospitality, which runs Italian-American faves Fini’s, Franks and Posto Pubblico, says, “As everyone knows, the local hospitality industry has been hit hard. The current challenges to our business model are a significant test of our commitment to quality and our guests. But in no way does it test our commitment to Hong Kong or its people.
In order to continue to deliver the unique experiences our guests recognise us for, we have to innovate in some areas while staying true to tradition in others. For example, sourcing locally from organic farmers, a cornerstone of our brand, is more important now than ever. We must continue to deliver that fresh taste that comes with local produce and support our local community as we have been supported for the past 10 years as we have grown. Guests are going to have to be open-minded and patient with their favourite restaurants as they find their footing and are forced to evolve or face failure during these unprecedented circumstances.”
Restaurants that fall within the selected protest areas are experiencing the worst difficulties, having to close on planned protest days, which normally take place on weekends and public holidays – typically the busiest days of the week.
Malcolm Wood, founder of Maximal Concepts, has popular restaurants dotted around the city, including stalwart eateries like Brickhouse, Limewood and Mott 32, and admits that the restaurant business has been hit hard. He says, “It’s tough times for everyone, from the business owners to the banking sector. It’s been ebbs and flows over the past months, with record declines in numbers and then back to business as usual. In areas like Lan Kwai Fong and SoHo, sales are down between 25 and 50 per cent because of the huge drop in tourist numbers, which those areas rely on. But delivery numbers have gone up, and we’re having record sales at The Pulse [Repulse Bay], where people want to come to escape.
We’re talking about a time when the restaurant business has never been more saturated in this city. It’s super competitive, and with already sky-high rents, if the landlords don’t correct their prices, it will cause more to go out of business. There will be lots more closings to come. With the protests happening on top of this, it’s a very difficult time, especially over the summer months, when most restaurants struggle anyway. There are many trying their hand in this industry that aren’t experienced, and it will weed them out, which could be quite good for the industry. Of course, being part of a group gives you better resilience, and you’ll see the quality operators who have better infrastructure.”
So what can diners do to support their favourite local restaurants during this time? Tracy Wong, owner of Chilli Fagara, says, “We have definitely noticed that things are quieter. At times like these, our customers can support us by sharing positive reviews on platforms like TripAdvisor and Google to help to attract any tourists looking for an authentic Sichuan dining experience. Social media is also a huge help – by sharing their meals on Instagram and Facebook, customers help us to spread the word.”
More than a few restaurant owners we contacted declined to comment, despite having much to say on how business is currently suffering. With the emotions of Hong Kongers so supercharged at the moment, many felt it would be wiser to keep quiet about such a sensitive subject. With business the way it is, no one wants to put a wrong foot forward.
Hong Kong is a city that adapts and evolves quickly, and with strength and resilience, hopefully all our favourite restaurants and bars will be able to weather this storm alongside the residents of the city.
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