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A restaurant visit still remains an appetizing choice

By Corrie Knight | China Daily Global | Updated: 2020-02-25 08:01
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I visited my family in Scotland back in December. Throughout that week I dreamt of noodles and dumplings. Why? Chinese food is better than British. There, I said it.

So it was a surprise to discover that around 18 Chinese restaurants a week closed in Britain between June 2018-19. I also read in China Daily that family run Chinese restaurants have been consistently closing for at least five years in the United States. Across 20 metropolitan areas there are around 1,200 fewer Chinese restaurants, according to review website Yelp.

One reason is that the industry is a tough one to work in. Long hours, low wages and rising costs have put off younger Chinese from following in their parents' footsteps. Also, tighter immigration laws have caused worker shortages.

Another reason is misinformation over monosodium glutamate. The flavor enhancer was demonized for years by campaigners using false science. They even came up with the term "Chinese restaurant syndrome" and claimed diners suffered a group of symptoms. This has since been exposed as racist hysteria and more restaurants are starting to embrace the additive, but it will take time for the unhealthy image to fade.

Sadly, with the outbreak of coronavirus pneumonia there has been more racism directed at Chinese communities and businesses.

In China, restaurants that have stayed open during the epidemic suffered a massive drop in trade. I hope the others that closed for Spring Festival do reopen soon. Each time that I've visited a restaurant since the outbreak, I've been one of only a handful of customers.

Convenience stores and supermarkets are making the biggest gains. Long before the outbreak, Bianlifeng was among the key businesses feeding the nation, mainly because the long work hours of many people exclude them from frequenting restaurants. China Daily reported that one store near Beijing's Third Ring Road received a third of its trade after 10 pm.

I've long had sympathy with restaurateurs because of the challenges they face. A vivid example took place at a fast-food restaurant close to our Chaoyang offices last summer. I walked past one evening and saw workmen building a wall through the middle of the dining area. It was a surreal sight as customers tried to ignore the construction work. The cooks and servers watched on helplessly. A month later, a second restaurant had opened up in the new space.

In mid-January, I spoke to the owner of Tribe Organic restaurants on the closing night of its flagship Sanlitun branch. She explained that the landlord was raising the rates. Two months earlier, Tribe closed its branch at the WF Central mall in Wangfujing. They plan to stay open at the Solana Lifestyle Shopping Park but are focusing on delivery. She told me about 70 per cent of its customers were ordering from home. I was struck by this.

Here we have a key reason why independent Chinese restaurants in the West are declining: their elderly owners have shunned digitization. It's now proving to be a wise investment in China as many people stay indoors to avoid the coronavirus. Many restaurants in China now offer a delivery service in a bid to keep trading and prevent customers gathering, thereby lowering the risk of infection.

I've never used food apps because I've almost been mown down by delivery scooters on several occasions, but I recognize the convenience of ordering food online.

Me? I'll always prefer the ambience of a restaurant. Now that downtown Beijing is quiet, a solo diner such as myself is guaranteed a table and quick service. The moral of the story is this: go out and visit your favorite restaurants. You never know when they might vanish.

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