What It’s Like to Eat Out Right Now
Editor’s Note: This article is part of Uncharted, a series about the world we’re leaving behind, and the one being remade by the pandemic.
HONG KONG—On a recent Friday night, a masked, affable hostess at Hong Kong’s Buenos Aires Polo Club was eager to show patrons to their tables. But before they stepped into the Argentinian steak house, they needed to answer a few questions.
“Have you been outside of Hong Kong?”
“Experienced any symptoms commonly associated with the coronavirus?”
“Have you come into ‘direct contact with or the immediate vicinity of anyone’ carrying the coronavirus or who has been outside the city within the last 14 days?”
The health declaration, handed to diners on a hefty but stylish clipboard, comes along with a second temperature check. (The first is done at the main entrance to the tower that houses the restaurant, a requirement to get in.) Only then does the routine of a night out return, briefly, to the familiar “Right this way” and “Enjoy your meal.” Inside, tucked into tufted leather booths surrounded by polo memorabilia and perched on high seats at the marble bar, guests slide their face masks into small paper bags. Tiny bottles of hand sanitizer marked with the restaurant’s logo, a galloping horse ridden by two men, one grasping a mallet, are delivered table side.
“It’s a lot,” Syed Asim Hussain, the co-founder of Black Sheep Restaurants, which runs the Buenos Aires Polo Club, told us. The group also has two dozen other spots, all but one in Hong Kong. “It really also kills the ambience of the restaurant.” On his phone are pictures of Black Sheep’s izakaya-style outlet, where clear dividers have been added to the dining bar to separate groups of guests. “I hate that. That looks incredibly ugly, but we have no choice,” he said.
As much as Hussain dislikes these changes, though, they are—for now and the foreseeable future—a necessity to keep diners and workers safe amid the pandemic.
Globally, the food and beverage industry has been nearly leveled by the coronavirus, which has forced tens of millions to stay away from dining establishments. In large cities and small towns alike, restaurants have shifted to takeout in an effort to stay afloat, but it hasn’t been enough to sustain many. Buzzy, award-winning outlets have folded alongside long-standing neighborhood favorites, leaving huge numbers of staff unemployed.
As some places in Europe and the United States begin the precarious balancing act of reopening their economies while attempting to keep the virus at bay, establishments that have managed to survive are facing new restrictions and risks of both the financial and public-health varieties. The measures adopted by restaurants here in Hong Kong—temperature checks for diners, dividers between tables, reduced seating capacity, time limits for eating, pared-down menus, and support for employees—could provide a look at what restaurant-goers and owners elsewhere will soon experience. “Things are now sort of slowly coming back to where they need to be,” Hussain told us. “I’m deliberately not saying ‘normal.’ Any restaurateur anywhere in the world waiting for things to return to normal is going to be waiting a long time.”
Hong Kong serves, too, as a warning of how deeply the food and beverage industry will be altered by the pandemic. Even though the city has largely contained the virus—only four people have died and fewer than 30 remain in the hospital—and avoided the type of strict lockdown measures imposed in other countries, restaurants here are reeling. And fending off the virus, Hong Kong has learned, is a lonely achievement: Haphazardly dismissing travel restrictions and coronavirus-related health regulations could quickly unravel its success, posing a problem for dining establishments dependent on out-of-town visitors. Tommy Cheung, a lawmaker who represents the catering industry in the city’s legislative council, forecasts that 40 percent of Hong Kong’s restaurants will be permanently closed by the fall. Hussain was only slightly more optimistic. “A third of the industry is just going to get decimated,” he said.
Black Sheep experienced a scare in the early days of the outbreak, even with strict protocols in place, when a guest from overseas who visited the Buenos Aires Polo Club tested positive for COVID-19, forcing it to temporarily close. Looking to share its experience, the group took the internal guidelines it created for staff and expanded them into a coronavirus playbook for others in the industry. The document ranges from basics, such as proper mask-wearing technique, to the implementation of a buddy system for workers who may have difficulty communicating at the hospital because of language barriers, and tips on forming WhatsApp groups to share information between venues. (The latter idea was sparked when a group of guests, turned away from one restaurant after admitting that they had recently traveled, attempted to enter another location.) The guide has been downloaded more than 2,000 times, Hussain said, attracting attention from the likes of the chef Thomas Keller. It was recently translated into Japanese by Ohashi Naotaka, who owns Tokyo’s Tirpse, a highly lauded contemporary French restaurant.
Hussain’s restaurants also tweaked service, at one point offering a discounted set menu, while strictly enforcing time slots for diners, both of which helped to keep up turnover when Hong Kong’s government limited the number of guests to four per table (the limit has since been increased to eight) and social-distancing measures were put into place. But Hussain also found that people were not keen to linger as long as they were before. Even with these measures, there were two consecutive days when he had zero revenue, and overall demand fell at least 50 percent during the height of the pandemic, a level at which, Hussain said, surviving becomes “very difficult.”
Black Sheep, which like other Hong Kong restaurants saw business last year hit by protests that have erupted again, has been buttressed by the group’s past success, including a string of awards, most notably Michelin stars for two restaurants. It has avoided laying off any employees, though executives have had their pay cut—Hussain hasn’t taken a salary since February. Recently the group launched a promotion in which the proceeds from a special delivery dinner covered days of unpaid leave for staff members such as dishwashers and cleaners. To pull this off, it needed to rely on preexisting customers and a few calls to friends. Hussain cited the promotion as an example of what restaurants would need to do to weather the times. Good food and hospitality, he said, “are not going to be enough going forward.”
Hong Kong’s government has offered financial assistance to the city’s restaurants to help them survive. Elsewhere, the level of help varies. In Germany, where restaurants in the state of Bavaria have been told they can reopen this month, the government announced tax breaks totaling 5 billion euros, or about $5.5 billion. Certain restaurants in France will have access to grants of up to 10,000 euros. In Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, newly reopened restaurants and bars have been invited to set up shop in public squares, plazas, and streets. By turning the city into an “open-air café,” Mayor Remigijus Šimašius told us, businesses are able to serve more customers while also complying with social-distancing rules. So far, about 400 businesses have taken up the offer. The initiative has inspired other cities, including Berkeley and San Jose in Northern California, to consider doing the same.
Britain’s restaurant industry remains in enforced dormancy. Apart from those operating as solely to-go establishments, most have seen their staffs furloughed, their storefronts boarded up, and their chances of reopening postponed until July at the earliest.
For many British restaurateurs—like others around the world—the uncertainty isn’t simply about when their businesses will return, but what their industry will look like when it does. Some fear that the types of social-distancing measures seen in Hong Kong could prove devastating—especially in major city centers, where rents are notoriously high. “Most London restaurants are necessarily fairly squashed dining environments,” Ed Brunet, a co-founder of the Le Bab restaurant group, told us. Of Le Bab’s four locations in the British capital, Brunet said only one would be able to accommodate distancing requirements. The others would see their operating capacity cut by nearly half, which, from a commercial standpoint, “is pretty damn awful,” Brunet said.
The financial realities for restaurants are brutal, particularly in big cities such as Hong Kong, London, and New York. Costs are high and operating margins thin. Under lockdown, many British restaurants have been able to hit pause on costs such as staff wages (which have been temporarily covered by the government’s furlough scheme) and rent (which some restaurants have had to defer). But this assistance isn’t going to last forever, and should restaurants return to normal operating costs without the capacity or foot traffic to pay for it, they risk running out of business. “If we don’t get help, there’s going to be a hell of a lot of blood on the floor,” Brunet said.
The assistance isn’t just necessary for the industry and its workers—3.3 million in Britain alone—it’s also a way of preserving a community’s social fabric. “If you go to a small town in England, they’ve probably lost their High Street; they’ve probably lost their post office; they’ve probably lost the local library,” Will Beckett, the co-founder and the CEO of the British steak-house chain Hawksmoor, told us. “What they have left for community is the local pub or local restaurant. Those are the only things left in terms of public spaces that tie the country together.”
The types of safety measures being implemented in Hong Kong, such as physical barriers and temperature checks, might make patrons feel safer, Beckett said, but they could also cause them to view dining out as a public-health risk. “I think it would take an extremely long time for public confidence in restaurants to recover from that,” he added.
At Shing Kee Noodles, a restaurant that has been operating in the Sha Tin district of Hong Kong since 1956, Cheung Man-keung has seen what can happen when customer confidence vanishes. After a cluster of COVID-19 cases was linked to a hot-pot restaurant in a different neighborhood in late January, the reaction rippled across the city. Cheung’s establishment would normally have seen from 100 to 150 customers a night eating the dish. After the outbreak, orders fell to about 10 or 12. While business has started to return, a portion of his restaurant remains closed, and distancing regulations mean that his large tables, often shared by as many as a dozen diners, can seat only a few at a time.
Cheung, the third generation of his family to run Shing Kee, has stopped paying himself and has so far avoided having to lay off any of his staff. Like other restaurant owners, he feared that closing would not just put his staff, including numerous family members, out of a job, but also be a blow to the larger community. For years he has provided free meals and haircuts to eldery residents in the housing estate where the restaurant is located, as well as an oral history of the area to anyone who asks. During the pandemic, he’s helped distribute care packages filled with sanitizer, soap, and wipes. “We are tied to the community,” he told us. “We have been losing money for months, but I can’t imagine what would happen if we have to close. I cannot abandon the people we serve.”
Asked whether in his decades in the dining industry he had seen anything like the pandemic, Cheung said no. Even measuring the 2003 SARS outbreak against the current crisis was, he said, “a firefly compared to the moon.”
Timothy McLaughlin reported from Hong Kong, and Yasmeen Serhan from London. Rachel Cheung provided additional reporting from Hong Kong.