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Manav Tuli of Chaat
Photograph: Courtesy Chaat

How are new restaurants in Hong Kong surviving the crisis?

We asked these businesses why they decided to open and how they’re currently coping

By
Fontaine Cheng
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In a time when travel restrictions, social distancing and mask-wearing are all part of the new normal, it seems obvious that things would slow down, delay or perhaps even cease to exist. This, however, is definitely not the case in Hong Kong. During this time when the whole world continues to grapple with the outbreak, Hongkongers have remained resilient, and some are even risking it all to open new businesses and restaurants.

From Spanish-Japanese restaurant Andō headed by chef Agustin Balbi, and chef Mingoo Kang’s Korean restaurant Hansik Goo, to the Parisian-style bistro District 8 in Elements Mall, and in the hotels where occupancy rates have dropped to single digits there is Rosewood’s Indian restaurant Chaat, which is going from strength to strength.

Of course, not all restaurants have been doing so well and government data shows significant revenue loss, leading some to permanently close. An indication of this comes from the value of total receipts from Hong Kong’s restaurants which dropped 26 percent, from $28.6 billion to $21.2 billion from April to June 2020, compared to the year before. Meanwhile, a survey conducted by Deliveroo, suggests that more than 50 percent of Hong Kong’s small independent restaurants could also face immediate suspension of business. 

Photograph: Courtesy Andō

To face these challenges, restaurants and their chefs have had no choice but to adjust and tweak their services. “In response to the slew of dining restrictions, we’ve had to adapt very quickly with the launch of our take-home dining experience, At Home by Andō, which commenced mere weeks after we opened,” says Agustin. “We also joined forces with our friends at The Pontiac in an inter-industry collaboration to tackle these dining restrictions.” Other restaurants have been seen to carry out similar initiatives, with collaborations, a whole host of takeaway and delivery options, or home cooking packs, and longer services that run through from lunch to dinner without break. The city’s bars are following suit, with some rebranding as cafe concepts or providing bottled cocktails to takeaway as well.

For new restaurants opening, the situation was strenuous for chefs not based in the city too, with Mingoo Kang of Hansik Goo unable to travel easily. “The travel restrictions meant that I was not able to go to Hong Kong as often as we had expected, and our team had to prepare for the opening in June without me physically present," explains Mingoo. Just as other chefs have, Mingoo also had to adapt. “Although we initially imagined a more casual concept with à la carte menus, we decided to introduce a tasting menu that we can confidently prepare with the best ingredients [available]. The dishes we wanted to introduce in the à la carte format were presented as add-ons, so our original concept could also be maintained,” he adds. 

Photograph: Courtesy District 8/Michael Perini

Over in Kowloon, District 8 opened in Elements Mall in between the second and third waves in May. Woolly Pig HK’s founder and director, Chris Woodyard weighs in on the situation. “With venues under restrictions and being very unsure of what the next few months will hold, it seems a big gamble. Unfortunately delaying the venture was not an option we could access, hence you have to choose to go ahead or walk away from the site,” he states. 

Delay, however, was the choice behind Chaat’s later opening. “From December, the city has been going through some very tense and tough times. Everyone was a bit hesitant to go out. Our initial plan was to open in October 2019, but due to the circumstances in the city, we postponed it to January and then eventually May,” says executive chef Manav Tuli. “In April, we thought everyone in the city had had enough of sitting at home and were possibly looking forward to new openings. We all agreed it was the right time, prayed to god, and jumped in.”

Photograph: Courtesy Hansik Goo

Thankfully, with bans lifted and restrictions slightly relaxed, restaurants have finally been cut a little slack. “We have seen around 10 percent rise in revenue since the 6pm curfew was lifted; however this is still only 50 percent of what we would normally expect, and a long way from the point of breakeven,” states Chris from Wooly Pigs. “The move to tables of four and later, hopefully six, will have a larger impact, so we are staying positive and will keep working hard.”

For a consumer viewpoint, we spoke to local foodie blogger Melissa, or Supertastermel as some people may know her on Instagram, who has already visited a few new restaurants including Andō, Hansik Goo, Korean vegetarian restaurant Soil to Soul, and Vietnamese restaurant Xuan. "Some of the restaurants were actually quite busy and hard to book," says Melissa. "It can be difficult to get a booking unless your schedule is flexible and you can go at off-peak hours."

On why she felt Hongkongers were still willing to go out during this time, Melissa added "I think the reason people are so eager to try new restaurants is a combination of things. People are less scared, they want to support local businesses, and they are also just really feeling the fatigue of being socially distanced, and want to get out."

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Starting September 18, bars (which have been closed since July 15) will reopen and dine-in services will be extended until midnight from the previously scheduled 10pm. But it seems diners have been eager to dine out for some time now, with both Hansik Goo and Chaat fully booked until November, while Andō has been just as busy. “We are very humbled and grateful that the restaurant has been busy during this period,” says Agustin. “It is a difficult time for everyone, but we always try to look for positive signs and keep an eye on the team’s physical and mental wellbeing.” In fact, there are more restaurants slated to open before the end of the year, including Smoke & Barrel, which will also host a BBQ and beer pop-up at The Diplomat.

The ability to adapt and remain strong is something that these restaurants and chefs have all been working hard at. It’s inspiring to see, despite so many bans and setbacks, and something we should all keep trying ourselves.

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