Special Report: Metro Vancouver restaurants fear lifting restrictions won’t win back customers
Unlike some of their non-Chinese counterparts, Chinese restaurants in the Metro Vancouver area have not seen a significant increase in activity due to the lulls between the COVID waves in late 2020 and early 2021. And they now fear the damage caused to their industry does not continue even after the breaker. instituted at the end of March is lifted to allow the catering service again.
âHonestly, even before [the circuit-breaker in] In March, the dining allowance didn’t do much for us, âsaid James Liu, whose Marina Bay restaurant on Alexandra Road in Richmond has been a local institution for years. âPeople are still afraid to dine out. And the limit of having six people at a table doesn’t go well with our business model. “
Liu estimates an overall decline in activity of between 70% and 80% since the start of 2020, and a pre-COVID staff of up to 40 people has been reduced to âsingle digitsâ to cut costs and wait until the end of the pandemic.
Marina Bay is not alone in her experience.
William Tse, director of the BC Asian Restaurant CafÃ© Owners Association, said up to 15% of the restaurants in the group have closed permanently or changed owners since the start of the pandemic.
Tse said he was pessimistic that business will quickly return to Chinese restaurants when the breaker is pulled.
âWhat we want is for everyone to hang in there, get vaccinated and eliminate new cases and epidemics as best they can. Anything less than that won’t make a difference for us because even if we can reopen dinner, the same issues that hurt our business will still be there.
The impact of COVID-19 on Chinese restaurants began even before the official closure in March 2020. That’s because Chinese community groups canceled Lunar New Year banquets and celebrations from January, when the epidemic started in Wuhan, China.
The lull in business continued as the Chinese-Canadian community refrained from eating together in February and March, prompting Tse and his group to show up at a press conference asking people to stop avoiding Chinese restaurants. It was almost a full month before all restaurants were forced to close their doors to dine with customers in mid-March 2020.
The fact that Chinese restaurants had experienced a dramatic slowdown in business two months earlier meant that it was harder for owners to show the government their losses year after year to qualify for emergency aid benefits. And when dinner returned a few months later, Chinese restaurants saw what they would likely see again when British Columbia lifted the breaker: Patrons have not returned in numbers comparable to those at non-Chinese establishments.
Among the reasons for this difference are Chinese diners’ aversion to al fresco dining, their penchant for extended family dinners spanning more than one household, and a culture of fear surrounding viruses in recent years.
“How many Chinese restaurants that you know have a patio?” Tse asked. âThe biggest difference for Chinese cuisine is that it is an event. Parents who do not live with their children and grandchildren can all meet once a week or once a monthâ¦ These groups have at least 10 people. No one has a family dinner with only six people. “
Many restaurants, Tse added, have first ventured into delivery platforms like Uber Eats and DoorDash.
The results, however, have been mixed; restaurants derive a smaller portion of the profit from these platforms compared to on-site dining, and it is impossible to replicate the family experience of a large Chinese dinner when households have been invited to invite family members .
One of the lucky ones was local chef Matthew Murtagh-Wu. His Dumpling King business, which provides handmade dumplings for customers to cook at home, has benefited from not having the rent and labor costs of a traditional restaurant. But Murtagh-Wu said he feels the same pressure as many Chinese restaurants: a reluctance on the part of older Chinese Canadians, the staunch consumer group of Chinese food, to do anything that even hints at a possible exposure to COVID-19.
âThere is a cultural fear of eating out right now, which the Chinese-Canadian community is hyper sensitive to,â Murtagh-Wu said. âThey lived through SARS and several other episodes of disruption caused by the disease over the past decades. So it’s hard to get that fear out of the back of their minds.
Tse said members of government and the community should be aware that the Chinese cuisine of Metro Vancouver enjoys an excellent reputation internationally – to the point that tourists often cite dinner as one of the main reasons to visit during normal hours. He added that, given the scale of Chinese catering, restaurants support a wide range of agri-food producers and suppliers, as well as many support service jobs that are now at risk of not returning after COVID.
âThere has to be a consistent message from the government that it is safe to go out to eat,â Murtagh-Wu said. âThere also has to be a longer period of time that people don’t get COVID. Going out to eat is not sexy when you’re afraid of dying … and people’s eating habits and thought processes [are] is going to be the hardest thing to change. “