The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak’s impact on London restaurants and hospitality is showing no signs of relenting, with U.K. cases rising to 319 this morning as the virus continues to spread.
So too does its economic impact — with London’s Chinese restaurants continuing to bear the brunt of the panic: a reported 50 percent drop in trade and a huge slump in footfall, with many regulars opting to stay indoors. The effect has been apparent since as early as the first week of February, as the line between racist assumptions and legitimate fears continues to blur indiscriminately.
Big Hospitality reported this morning that three restaurants in Chinatown in central London have temporarily closed, or brought forward planned renovations. A spokesperson for the landlord — Shaftesbury — did not immediately confirm or respond to Eater London’s request for comment on businesses affected since the outbreak.
However, businesses on the estate have felt the impact since the start of the year. “This time is generally quiet for us anyway but it’s definitely made worse because people are staying away from Chinatown,” says Sammie Le, baker and owner of dessert bar Yolkin in Chinatown. “I could literally go under any day and that’s the heartbreaking reality.”
Yesterday, speaking to Joe and echoing his comments from February, Jinli general manager Martin Ma said: “Since the first coronavirus case in the U.K., we had immediate cancellations. We’ve lost £15,000 a week.” Jinli is one of the restaurants reported to have closed citing “internal maintenance” yesterday. It says it will reopen in early April.
Many long-run family owned businesses and independent restaurants whose margins are already tight — Chinatown London is an area which has undergone significant change, in part from an increase in rents, redevelopment, and a concerted effort to broaden its appeal to a greater demographic pool — could sink; doubled with a severe loss of customers in Chinatown businesses, a number have indicated they are on the verge on entering administration.
In the past week, Eater understands Lucky Dog on Brick Lane in east London was empty bar one table during a midweek lunchtime. Staff said that delivery orders had increased but few were visiting the restaurant in person. That they and other Chinese restaurants were being singled out seemed to be a source of great confusion for the staff. Elsewhere, sources told Eater that during a weekday lunch, there were only about seven customers on the ground floor in Wong Kei, which was extremely unusual.
Over the weekend, popular Chongqing noodle specialist Liu Xiaomian announced it would be closing its two outposts — in Holborn and Marylebone — for two weeks “for maintenance.”
“It’s not just Chinese restaurants and businesses doing badly. Think about the suppliers and producers like us, there’s a knock-on effect because cafes, restaurants and hotels are taking fewer orders from us,” explains Wai-Keung owner of Lo’s Noodle Factory. “Unless things start to pick up, I’d give the majority of businesses in Chinatown about two to three months before they go under.”
In the midst of the downturn, there have been substantial and atypical disruptions, affecting different sectors: not only have businesses told Eater that restaurant bookings have decreased (in part due to travel restrictions), big events are being cancelled or rescheduled to a date later in the year.
“There were cancellations across the 16 restaurants last week due to travel plans being abandoned,” a high-profile source inside a multi-Michelin-starred London restaurant group said. “Over 390 cancellations with less than ten hours notice because of COVID-19 restricting travel.” For the group, overall, this is incidental, given capacity. But such a tranche of cancellations is extremely unusual.
The society-wide panic induced by the novel coronavirus may have hit businesses hard, but it’s not just Chinatowns in the U.K. that have seen a dramatic drop in income: Chinatown businesses across the world are suffering. Amid the fears, many are generally eating out less and panic-buying toilet roll, hand sanitiser, and face masks in case of a two-week self-isolation at home. Supermarkets, meanwhile, have announced that they have begun to ration key goods.
This leaves the industry concerned about what the future might hold; many are already struggling to keep afloat especially with such high overheads. Two separate London restaurateurs have told Eater that they fear it is going to get much worse before it gets better, predicting that the worst will happen in the next two months. “You can feel it starting. Let’s see how this week pans out,” one said.
Today, in recognition of the impact on the industry, UK Hospitality, the body which represents bars, hotels, and restaurants across the country, asked the government to provide VAT relief and a reduction in business rates to ease the inevitable impact on those which it predicts will be adversely affected — if they haven’t already experienced a downturn.
David Tang, first vice president of London Chinatown Chinese Association, had made a similar call in a video for the Huffington Post, “Businesses aren’t able to pay rent, so what we are thinking of is to file a petition with the local government to see whether if they’re able to defer the rate or suspend the rate until the virus is eradicated.”
Aside from the scaremongering headlines and associative prejudices around Chinese eating culture which have played a part in businesses plummeting, there’s also been a spike in race-hate attacks, xenophobic messages and discrimination against those of East and Southeast Asian descent.
“Recently, a group of boys came into my shop to buy ice cream and started to throw racial slurs,” Le explains. “It’s obvious these like minded ignorant fools are using this outbreak as an open pass to be racist.”
Le’s case is by no means an isolated incident. Last week, Jonathan Mok, a 23-year-old from Singapore, told BBC that he was beaten up while walking down Oxford Street in central London. The group of men who attacked Mok told him “I don’t want your coronavirus in my country.”
Those with a public profile have sought to lend their support: Observer restaurant critic Jay Rayner dedicated a review in support for Chinatown as an “act of solidarity” and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn tweeted a photograph of himself in front of the gates of Chinatown, in a bid to dampen paranoia and misinformation surrounding around the novel coronavirus outbreak.
But with the coronavirus spreading globally, with cases spiking in Italy, Iran, and the U.S., London restaurants specialising in the cuisines of those nations are not feeling anything like the same impact as those serving Chinese food. There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that customers are at a greater risk of infection at a Chinese restaurant than at, for an example, an Italian restaurant in London.
“People just need to chill. Love each other, have a Tsingtao because a Corona beer is a no-no right now at their favourite Chinese restaurants and wash their hands regularly,” Yolkin’s Sammie Le said.
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