Shanghai restaurant owners and chefs share outlooks on the coronavirus

The city’s F&B community is struggling. Here’s how to help

Photograph: Yang Xiaozhe (Daisy Fei at Sichuan Citizen)
Shanghai is a city synonymous with unshakeable energy, bustling movement, stark contrasts and no shortage of delicious things to eat and drink. The novel coronavirus outbreak (COVID-19) has slowed the China we know and love to an almost unrecognisable pace, and many of us who call China home are left trying to make sense of how the situation will impact our personal and professional lives.

The outbreak is first and foremost a public health crisis, but the magnitude of its commercial impact is yet to be determined. In a city that so many of us delight in eating and drinking our way through, food and beverage is an industry that will be one of those hardest hit by the quarantine mentality and consumer anxiety that will keep people off the streets and out of crowded spaces. It’s also an industry that already requires Herculean strength and a true love of craft to get by, driven on fumes of passion and persistence. What can we do when times are so daunting, for a scene that we treasure and lean on so heavily when the times are good?

We spoke with six operators across the scene to take the pulse, paint the picture and – we hope – inspire diners across Shanghai to give back to the spaces that give us so much.

How is the coronavirus outbreak affecting your business?

Nat Alexander (Founder at Homeslice Pizza) We had closed two of our stores for Chinese New Year, but ended up having to close all of them for a further ten days, reopening for delivery only last week. We didn't have enough staff to open all of them. Several of our staff were unable to leave their homes, so we only had about one-third able to work. Even when the rest of the staff can come back to Shanghai, they can't work for 14 days. We are unable to offer in-store business, except to customers coming to collect orders, so that has a big effect. Commissions on delivery always eat into profits, but only doing delivery will mean a bigger hit.

Photograph: Yang Xiaozhe (Nat Alexander)

Austin Hu (Chef and owner at Heritage by Madison; chef-partner at Union Trading Company) Considering we’re essentially at a standstill, it’s absolutely killed our business. We had anticipated February being a bit on the slow side so had arranged for a few big catering gigs and a series of promotions at the restaurant to drive business but are currently in the midst of rethinking everything.

Danyi Gao (Chef and owner at Bun Cha Cha; chef and co-owner at Shake) Not good, not good at all. My restaurant and bar are both closed at the moment, we are literally stuck! If we open we will be facing number one: a no-customer situation, with no cash flow due to everyone staying at home in isolation. And number two: the possibility of my staff getting infected by the coronavirus. However, if we don't open the business we will still need to pay rental and staffing costs. And without actual income (cash flow) my businesses will not survive.

Photograph: courtesy Danyi Gao

Photograph: courtesy Bun Cha Cha

Given your professional position and experience in this industry, what’s your outlook on how this outbreak will impact the restaurant and bar scene in Shanghai?

Michelle Garnaut (Founder at M on the Bund & Glam) I feel the most for people who are not well established; that’s so disconcerting. If you don't have a strong cash flow, that’s a hard position to be in. Be careful with your money, try to minimise your costs, don't present a big menu and try to push your landlords for a reduction. Make sure you’re offering good value for money. Everyone will be desperate to get out and have stories to tell – everyone needs to share human experiences. We found last time when things resurged [after SARS], a month or two later, we had a bigger and more profitable year in 2003 than we did in 2002, so that is quite interesting.

Eddy Yang (Co-Founder at Chameleon) The actual impact has not been shown yet. But the real fact is that, most likely, customers have also suffered during the same period. Ninety-nine percent of businesses in every industry are losing money, too. How much money will they spend after this?

Daisy Fei (Co-founder at Sichuan Citizen and Senator Saloon) I believe that given the isolation measures and general awareness are at an extremely high level, the spread rate should decline very soon. Optimistically speaking, for the F&B industry it might take three months for all situations to get back to normal.

Photograph: Yang Xiaozhe (Daisy Fei)

Alexander February is always a bad month, but this is going to be really bad. And probably into March and April too, which is when we would usually be looking for the post-winter upturn to start. Short term, it will be very hard for all operators, especially for those whose core business is based on in-store diners. Even for those who are lucky to have a delivery business to fall back on, there are many new regulations to work with which add a burden to operations. Medium-term, I feel confident that this will be brought under control and people will go out and live normally once more. All going well, a restaurateur should have three to four months' working capital set aside (to cover fixed costs in the case of an unexpected event). We’re definitely going to be eating into this, and I’m sure others will be.

'Restaurants are dependent on the mood of diners, and under most normal circumstances there’s some kind of salvation since people always need to eat'

Hu Simply put, it will be brutal. Restaurants are dependent on the mood of diners, and under most normal circumstances there’s some kind of salvation since people always need to eat. When times are good, the high end and luxurious benefit as all the big spenders splash their cash around. When times are less good, the casual segment thrives as people want affordable food that offers comfort and reassurance. In times like this though, when some are even fearful of delivery guys, everyone starts cooking at home, which, under normal circumstances, is something I’m super happy to support. But a public restaurant depends on lots of people coming by on a regular basis, and in the case of a good, busy restaurant – shoulder-to-shoulder, crammed into seats eating and drinking – that is a situation that’s pretty hard to sell these days.

Gao Without the government and landlords' financial support, a lot of F&B venues will be gone before the coronavirus situation gets better, especially those that weren't doing so well. Cash flow is the key to keeping an F&B business alive.

What measures should operators be considering to protect staff and customers, and what are some extra precautions diners can take?

Hu Regular handwashing, wiping down of work surfaces with a diluted bleach solution. We’ve simply made it more of a point to be obvious about such practices, when normally we try and wipe and sanitise a bit under the radar as to not interrupt the dining experience. We’ve also added multiple temperature checks for our staff to make sure everyone is good whilst working, sanitisation options for our diners.

For diners the same holds true. We can’t really expect people to wear masks while eating but we encourage everyone to practise the same tenets of hygiene our mothers enforced: a good handwash before eating, no spitting at the table, coughing into a napkin if you must. If you’re truly worried about crowds, come during off peak hours, early or later, and trust that we will all be disinfecting all surfaces on a regular basis.

Photograph: courtesy Heritage by Madison (Austin Hu)

Photograph: Yang Xiaozhe (Heritage by Madison)

Alexander The FDA and government guidelines make a lot of sense and go a long way to minimising the risk to staff and customers. The most important thing we can all do is practise good hygiene and health practices ourselves and not assume that others will do it for us. All of our staff will be wearing masks and gloves in this period, and [initially] we will only be offering whole pizzas (including a new smaller size) as they have a higher internal temperature than slices and hold it for longer. I don’t think customers should do anything more than what should be normal hygiene practices – if you eat, you should always wash your hands before you do. And don’t go out to eat with a sick person.

Fei Restaurant staff and customers alike need to practise frequent hand washing and avoid touching their face which is by far the most important precaution.

'Be understanding and cut everybody a little bit of slack'

Garnaut From a restaurant view, make sure what you’re doing you’re really sure of – that you’re using good ingredients and that ingredients are well treated. This [virus] is not transmitted through food, but of course can be transmitted through people’s hands. Don’t skimp on cleaning staff or products right now. Everybody is wearing plastic gloves for me – that is more important than the mask. Masks are really hard to come by right now, I think the whole world should be sending masks to China. You got to keep everybody’s spirits up, be understanding and cut everybody a little bit of slack. Tempers are going to be frayed, people are going to be locked up in the house.

Yang Masks, gloves and daily body temperature checks for each staff member who is on duty. Disinfection every time. Refuse to serve unmasked guests to protect other consumers and staff. Report any unusual situations to management or police (if it’s necessary).

How can diners in the city support the food and beverage industry during this time?

Gao Diners must have hygiene self-protection before they enter any food and beverage venues – that's one way of supporting the industry. And of course, the only other way is to order more food from restaurants [rather than cook at home].

'Patronage is still the ultimate form of support'

Hu Patronage is still the ultimate form of support, we need revenue to pay our staff, pay rent, pay suppliers. Profits in the restaurant business are already razor thin and sad as it is to say, an extended downturn will result in numerous closures across the city. Don’t be surprised if this year’s list of closures is big, we’re simply not built to survive in these circumstances. Even if your favourite restaurant doesn’t offer delivery I’m sure if you call them directly and ask if some arrangements can be made. Instead of cooking for your little gathering of friends, consider asking if a restaurant that you like would do a small catering. I daresay most will say yes.

Garnaut Go and support places. Wash your hands, wash your hands. Be supportive and understanding, if that wine or something on the menu is not available. That doesn't mean you have to tolerate standards that you think are unacceptable but it does mean that everybody has had a hard time. Everyone needs to be patient and supportive, understand that everyone has gone through a lot – not just them and their family. Find a bit of kindness. Don’t be too judgmental.

Photograph: courtesy M on the Bund (Michelle Garnaut)

Photograph: Yang Xiaozhe (Glam)

Yang For the time being, it would be better if you book your table before arriving. We might need to ask a few questions, and go through some cleaning processes with you. Please don’t get mad; we have to do all of these only because we are responsible for everyone now. After this situation is gone, please come to say hi to the [venues that make it].

We’re all feeling a little rough around the edges right now. What’s your favourite comfort food?

Alexander Pizza, of course. And maybe a nice cottage pie.

Fei Despite all the worries from outside the world, this long holiday brings a perfect opportunity for home cooking. My ultimate comfort foods are Shanghai homestyle meatballs with Napa cabbage, mapo tofu… and a bowl of steamed rice is a must.

Hu I have so many, but in times like this it’s good to cook something that’s a little too mafan to cook on a regular basis. I made lasagna last night. I spent four hours making a gorgeous ragu, a proper béchamel with grated cheese ends and nutmeg, only to mess it up because I’ve never used those newfangled no-blanch lasagna sheets. Ah well, you live and learn.

Gao At the moment, my favourite comfort food is definitely my mother's home cooking which is traditional Ningbo food.

Yang Noodles and Japanese-style beef curry. Easy for me, easy for the kids.

Photograph: Yang Xiaozhe (Eddy Yang)

Photograph: Yang Xiaozhe (Chameleon)

Garnaut My comfort food is boiled eggs – I love soft boiled eggs with toast and butter and salt and pepper. The other thing I love on eggs is a tiny bit of vinegar and really good olive oil. I want to go home, put on my old tracky pants and get out a really good book, if i'm feeling extravagant maybe have a glass of wine.

Clara Davis is a co-founder at Taste Collective, a Shanghai-based creative food and beverage agency that develops experiential campaigns, produces pop-ups and flips a mean burger. Keep up with its latest projects by adding WeChat ID ‘TasteCollective’ or visiting its website.

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