Steering one MICHELIN-star restaurant in the middle of a global pandemic is no easy feat by any measure. Steering five of them, along with 21 other hospitality venues, requires grit, gumption — and a whole lot of positivity.
Anthony Lau should know. In late 2019, just before the onset of the pandemic, the former executive director of the Hong Kong Tourism Board joined the Lai Sun Group as executive vice president to lead its hotels and catering arm, which includes dining institutions such as three-MICHELIN-star 8 1/2 Otto e Mezzo Bombana Hong Kong and MICHELIN-starred 8 1/2 Otto e Mezzo Bombana Macau, Beefbar, Takumi by Daisuke Mori and Zest by Konishi, Bib Gourmand CIAK - All Day Italian and MICHELIN Plate-rated China Tang (Central) and China Tang (Tsim Sha Tsui). Since then, he and his team have been busy trialing food delivery channels, launching dining promotions and rewriting staff hygiene SOPs across his outlets.
In a one-on-one interview with the MICHELIN Guide in June, the veteran hospitality figure shared his views on how the pandemic has changed consumer tastes, how restaurants can adapt and his predictions for the hospitality industry in the "new normal".
How has the Lai Sun Dining Group been affected by the Covid-19 outbreak?
In general, the catering and restaurant industry in HK has been really extremely challenging for the past year, starting from June last year when the social incidents started and especially for many of the restaurants that are in the zone where the demonstrations and violence are located. It took us maybe 4 to 5 months to stabilise, we saw some light in December and January, and then unfortunately, Covid-19 happened.
When the social distancing regulations kicked in, our business took a hard blow. A restaurant like China Tang is designed for 200 diners, and suddenly we find that we can only serve 90. Then the challenge becomes: how do we keep the team and minimise the damage on their pay? We had to make hard decisions to find a balance to keep the restaurant running but maintain trained staff at the same time. From March till now, we have managed to keep the team intact, we have not let go of anyone, which we are quite proud of. No pay leave is inevitable but we try to minimise it.
And how has the Lai Sun Dining Group adapted to these new circumstances?
For our group, the takeaway business has always meant fast, casual eats in the past. We started to question ourselves, can we do more of the takeaway business but offer it to people who want to have high quality food to take home? And will they pay for it? We did some research and we started to invest and look into the takeaway business because we think there is a market there.
When do you think your business, and business for the Hong Kong restaurant industry in general, will return to normal?
In early July, we recovered 80 per cent of our business, but a return to 100 per cent of our regular operations pre-Covid is going to take time. There are two issues here: the number of covers and the spending patterns of consumers.
It is understandable because of the situation, the high unemployment rate, and the uncertainty of the economy.
Although people love to dine out, they are watching their wallets. So we have to come up with really good offers that people are excited about, in order for us to fight for that market share. That takes a lot of creativity, and the competition is keen, because everybody wants the business back, so there is price-cutting everywhere.
We’re also working with a lot of partners to spread the word for people to take advantage of our partnership, from credit cards companies to banks, insurance companies. Everything helps, there is no one size fits all solution.
We are not a chain like McDonald’s or Maxim’s, where we can do one product and push it out to 200 restaurants. We have 26 venues (24 restaurants and 2 private members' clubs) and 16 brands, so that’s 16 different consumer target groups to cater to — but that’s where the fun is.
“I think the bounce back for the award-winning restaurants, the MICHELIN restaurants, will happen a lot faster.”
I think the bounce back for the award-winning restaurants, the MICHELIN restaurants, will happen a lot faster. Especially with all the offers we have in place, because of our promotions and special dishes. We’re doing extremely good business with 8 ½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana, Beefbar, CIAK and China Tang. Some are almost fully booked everyday. Because of their reputation for first-class food in a first-class ambience with first-class service, once we take our prices down a notch, people will jump at the opportunity.
Do you think consumer tastes have changed permanently?
As restaurant operators, we have to look at economic cycles. We can't expect the same amount of revenue we get when the economy is good compared to during an economic downturn.
Your menus will have to fit that economic cycle. You have to be flexible to create and make changes in terms of your set menus and a la carte menus to give consumers flexibility. That has always been the practice for us at Lai Sun. We monitor the economic situation, feel our customers by taking their comments, and we adapt accordingly.
The most important thing is to be able to think on the pulse.
To maximise your income, you have to look at the weaknesses of your restaurant. Take CIAK, for example, we are not particularly strong with the weekend business, because we are located in the business area, so our challenge is how to bring customers back during the weekends. How to get diners who come for business lunches on the weekdays to want to bring their families back for a meal on the weekends?
What are some dining trends you foresee in the “new normal”?
Precautionary measures taken to ensure the hygiene standards of restaurants, including the requirement for staff to wear masks, and the provision of hand sanitisers, will stay, I believe, because they give people confidence to dine out.
Before SARS, for example, we had only one pair of chopsticks per person on the table, and everyone would put their personal chopsticks into the shared dishes. This is the normal Chinese way to eat at home. Now we always provide two pairs of chopsticks per person. Even when dining at home. For me, we always have a serving spoon or serving chopsticks for every dish or at least two or three on the table. Now it’s a must, people don’t feel comfortable.
The cleanliness of restaurants will be another one of the major changes, especially for premium restaurants like ours. We get our places deep cleaned every other day now. In the past, it was every other week. I expect that more small restaurants will also start to become aware and raise their hygiene standards.
Are there business opportunities that come from these changes?
I think there will be brand new businesses that will emerge because of this, for example, in the certification of the cleanliness of restaurants. Wearing masks and measuring the temperature of customers may not remain after Covid-19 pandemic tapers off but it will continue to apply to restaurant staff. We have to upkeep that standard. It is part and parcel of our promise to our customers.
Secondly, people gradually want to eat more healthily. It does not mean we’ll all go vegetarian but chefs will have to look at incorporating more vegetables, and how to make dishes less oily and less salty. This will be the trend and we will have to monitor and change accordingly.
Lastly, how we retain the high service standards is key. Overall, Hong Kong has good service standards but we need to do much better in order to stand out, especially when we are facing continued improvement in service standards in the region.
Because of the need for business recovery, everybody is taking an extra step these days, but when we are back to normal, please remember these standards.
How quickly do you think Hong Kong’s restaurant industry will recover compared to the rest of Asia?
The government had to make some hard decisions, and people didn't like it, but when we look back, they’ve done the right thing. Hong Kong will bounce back stronger and better. In the medical world, Hong Kong is often used as the golden standard, as residents we are all very conscious. After SARS, we bounced back, and I am sure we will bounce back after this.
But it's not just about Hong Kong. Hong Kong is an open economy. We need others. I hope China will recover. I hope Singapore, Taiwan, Japan and Korea will recover at the same time so that everyone can do more business. That is important. It’s not just about us.