“We will not be able to bounce back if we have to shut down”: How one Chinese restaurant is coping with coronavirus

“We will not be able to bounce back if we have to shut down”: How one Chinese restaurant is coping with coronavirus

Mei Wang, Jeanette Liu, Joanna Liu and Michael Liu Photo courtesy of Yueh Tung Restuarant

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Our family-owned Hakka restaurant has been around for almost 35 years. When our father had a stroke a few years ago, we left other professions to help. Yueh Tung Restaurant survived the SARS epidemic. It’s been a gem in our city. We didn’t want it to shut down.

But the last few months have been bad. In January and February, before Toronto went into full panic mode and the coronavirus was mostly still in China, a lot of people already didn’t want to step foot into Chinese businesses. Someone messaged us over Instagram to say that they wouldn’t come to our restaurant because we import food from China. We do not. We can’t import perishable food from China—it would spoil.

We saw a 20 to 30 per cent dip in sales at that time. It started to pick up a few weeks ago and we were getting to full capacity again. But when the World Health Organization called it a pandemic last week, that was the turning point. We saw a 60 to 70 per cent drop in sales. The traffic we would normally see during a lunch rush on a slow day was what we saw over the course of a whole day. The pandemic announcement has impacted the whole industry now, not just Chinese restaurants.

Right now, we’re trying to get enough business just to cover our rent. In downtown Toronto, rent can cost upwards of $25,000 per month. We were trying not to cut staff, but in doing so we’ve had to cut way back on working hours. Our prices are already low—they can’t go any lower. Everybody expects Chinese food to be cheap. In order to sustain ourselves, we rely on numbers: we rely on people ordering takeout, and people coming in to fill the seats.

So we are taking extra precautions and enforcing policies, procedures and protocols as it relates to the virus. We have dramatically increased the frequency and scope of cleaning and we’ve asked our employees not to come into work if they are feeling unwell. We’ve determined set schedules for cleaning our point-of-sale machines, our Visa machines—everything that is touched. Right now, we do it in a three-hour cycle, but we’re considering moving it up to every two hours. Everything is being cleaned, including vents.

If we have to shut down, we won’t be able to survive financially. Our staff won’t be able to feed their families. Our vendors won’t be able to sustain themselves. Rather than shut down, we need to ask: how can we take extra precautions? While sales are still down, the proportions have shifted to 65 per cent takeout or delivery. Normally, it’s about 30 to 35 per cent. So we’re ramping up our takeout and delivery services via Uber Eats, DoorDash and MealPal. We are in talks with our entire team now to see how they feel about creating our own delivery system so we can reach out to as many of our loyal customers across the GTA, since our third-party delivery vendors only cater to customers within a four-kilometre radius of our restaurant.

If asked to do so by the government, we will close our doors. But we hope the government will provide financial aid to small businesses like ours, since we will not be able to bounce back if we have to shut down while continuing to pay all our expenses in full. If relief doesn’t come, it’s hard to say whether or not we’ll be able to take this hit.

Prior to the pandemic, we were seeing a lot of Chinese restaurants shut down because children were not taking over the family business. A lot of businesses shut down during SARS. It’s only a matter of time before we see which ones will be able to sustain themselves during this pandemic. I think we’ll find within the next six months to a year that a lot of restaurants and other businesses that were important to the city—many that people in this city have grown to love—will not be around anymore.

—As told to Jonathan Forani