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Chinese restaurants fear patrons won’t return after pandemic

Special Report: Metro eateries concerned that lifting restrictions won’t be enough to win back clientele
Marina Bay restaurant in Richmond, where a parking lot typically filled with diners’ cars sits mostly empty. | Chuck Chiang

Unlike some of their non-Chinese counterparts, Metro Vancouver Chinese restaurants experienced no significant business uptick provided by the lulls between COVID waves in late 2020 and early 2021. And they now fear that the damage to their industry may continue even after the circuit-breaker instituted in late March is lifted to allow dine-in service again.

“Honestly, even before [the circuit-breaker in] March, the allowance for dine-in didn’t do much for us,” said James Liu, whose Marina Bay Restaurant overlooking Alexandra Road in Richmond has been a local institution for years. “People 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 business decline of between 70% and 80% since the start of 2020, and a pre-COVID staff of up to 40 has been cut to “single-digits” to reduce costs and wait out the pandemic.

Marina Bay isn’t alone in its experience.

William Tse, director of the BC Asian Restaurant Café Owners Association, said as many as 15% of the group’s member restaurants have closed permanently or changed ownership since the pandemic started.

Tse said he is pessimistic that business will quickly return to Chinese restaurants when the circuit-breaker is removed.

“What we want is just for everyone to hang in there, get vaccinated and eliminate new cases and outbreaks the best we can. Nothing short of that is going to make a difference for us, because even if we can open dine-in again, the same issues hurting our business will still be there.”

COVID-19’s impact on Chinese restaurants began even before the official shutdown in March 2020. That’s because Chinese community groups cancelled banquets and Lunar New Year celebrations starting in January, when the outbreak began in Wuhan, China.

The lull in business continued as the Chinese-Canadian community stayed away from dining out collectively into February and March, causing Tse and his group to appear at a news conference pleading for people to stop avoiding Chinese restaurants. This was almost a full month before all restaurants were forced to close their doors to dine-in customers in mid-March 2020.

That Chinese restaurants saw dramatic business downturns two months earlier meant it was more complicated for owners to show government their losses year over year to qualify for emergency support benefits. And when dine-in returned a few months later, Chinese restaurants saw what they will likely see again when B.C. lifts the circuit-breaker: customers did not return in numbers comparable to those at non-Chinese establishments.

Among the reasons for the difference are Chinese diners’ aversion to outdoor dining, their penchant for extended family dinners covering more than one household and a culture of fear around viruses in recent years.

“How many Chinese restaurants you know have a patio?” Tse asked. “The biggest difference for Chinese dining is that it’s an event. Parents who don’t live with their children and grandchildren can all get together once a week or once a month.… These groups are at least 10 people in size. Nobody has a family dinner with only six people.”

Many restaurants, Tse added, ventured into delivery platforms like Uber Eats and DoorDash for the first time.

The results, however, have been mixed; restaurants get a smaller portion of the profits from such platforms versus dine-in, and it is impossible to replicate the family-dining experience of a large Chinese dinner when households were told to invite family members over.

Local chef Matthew Murtagh-Wu has been one of the luckier ones. His Dumpling King business, which delivers hand-made dumplings to customers for them to cook at home, benefited by not having the rent and labour costs of a traditional restaurant. But Murtagh-Wu said he feels the same pressure that many Chinese restaurants face: a reluctance from older Chinese-Canadians, the stalwart consumer demographic for Chinese dining, to do anything that may even hint at possible exposure to COVID-19.

“There’s a cultural fear of eating out right now, which the Chinese-Canadian community is hyper-sensitive to,” Murtagh-Wu said. “They lived through SARS and several other bouts of disruptions created by disease in the last few decades. So it’s hard to remove that fear from the back of their minds.”

Tse said people in government and the community need to be aware that Metro Vancouver’s Chinese cuisine enjoys a pristine reputation internationally – to the point where tourists often cite dining as one of the main reasons for visiting during normal times. He added that, given the scale of Chinese dining, the restaurants support a wide range of agrifood producers and suppliers, as well as many support-services jobs that may all now be at risk of not returning post-COVID.

“There needs to be consistent messaging from the government that it is safe to go out to eat,” Murtagh-Wu said. “There also needs to be a longer time period where people aren’t catching COVID. Going out to eat isn’t sexy when you are worried about dying.… And the habits and thought processes of people about dining [are] going to be the hardest to change.”