Take-out won’t take away food sector’s pandemic woes

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The government proves out of touch with the struggles of small and medium-sized restaurants with its anti-epidemic policies.

Photo: Local restaurant in Hong Kong by Michal Osmenda. License.

Relying on revenue from take-out orders seems like an alternative means for businesses in the food service industry to survive the coronavirus outbreak, but the reality is not so simple.

“The epidemic must encourage the business of food delivery services,” says Michael Chan, an organizer at the Catering and Hotel Industries Employees General Union. 

He adds that restaurants have also offered special discounts for takeaway orders in order to attract more business as people commit to remaining home as per social distancing measures.

But surviving such a sudden business model shift is not feasible for many of the small and medium-sized restaurants in Hong Kong, says Cat Hou, chair of the Bartenders & Mixologists Union of Hong Kong.

She argues that for some establishments, such as Korean BBQ and sushi, it is impractical for them to run solely on takeout orders due to hygiene and servicing issues. 

Even for those opening, new regulations have seen them reduce seating to accomodate new distancing rules. As rent can take up to 40 to 60 percent of costs, restaurant owners still bear the brunt of paying this in full without government compensation under the regulation of cutting down restaurant capacity by half – or more in small venues.

“Both employees and employers are suffering due to the drop of business while the cost to run the business remained high,” Hou claims.

This is especially relevant for small and medium-sized restaurants, whose spaces may not be able to accommodate the government regulations on customer limits and distancing tables 1.5 metres away from each other.

“The government just killed most of these restaurants,” Chan laments.

Photo: Typical restaurant in Hong Kong by Wilfredor. License.

Out of touch with reality

Hou criticises the government’s measures for being very “off the ground” and ignorant of the ecology of Hong Kong’s catering industry, thereby causing “a lot of unnecessary problems”.

Chan and Hou both agree that the catering industry is willing to cooperate with the government with its anti-epidemic measures. But more dialogue with SMEs and financial support for employers and employees is needed to prevent these businesses from going under.

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