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In China, a Glimpse at the Future of Restaurants

As life returns to normal in Beijing, quarantines, temperature checks, and social distancing remain the norm at restaurants 

Two women sit on barstools wearing face masks at a small restaurant or bar
Diners begin to eat out again in Beijing, as China recorded its first day with no new domestic cases of the coronavirus last week
Kevin Frayer / Stringer / Getty Images

Please, allow me to be the first to tell you that there is, in fact, life after the novel coronavirus. In Beijing, after almost two months of fear, quarantines, and emergency measures, a sense of normalcy is slowly starting to return to the Chinese capital. Even as new infections grow rapidly around the world, China marked a new first last Thursday by reporting no new domestic cases of COVID-19. Yes, most residential compounds are still closed to outsiders, entering many of the city’s smaller alleyways requires a residency card and temperature check, and anyone returning to the city from abroad is now required to undergo quarantine in an official facility for two weeks. But overall, Beijing is no longer the ghost town it used to be. Today you’ll find groups sitting outside in public spaces and customers lining up to get into the Apple store. You could almost convince yourself everything was back to normal — until you looked at the city’s restaurants.

Beijing’s food scene remains severely affected by the impact of COVID-19. Even with new cases down, the government has maintained strict limits on dining establishments and customers remain skittish about sharing space and food. While everything from hardware stores to massage parlors have reopened in the past two weeks, many restaurants remain shuttered. Those that have managed to stay open have had to change how they do business. If Beijing, in its reawakening, offers a peek at the future for everyone, we can predict a long road ahead for the restaurants of the world.

“There’s definitely been an increase [in customers] every week,” says Ignace Lecleir, owner of Beijing’s Temple Restaurant Group. Temple is known for running successful fine dining operations like TRB Forbidden City, but of the group’s four restaurants, only the most casual one, TRB Hulu, managed to stay open throughout the crisis. The all-day spot first began offering delivery in January after the initial emergency measures were declared, and even with dining rooms reopened and a growing number of people eating out again, Lecleir says that about 70 percent of the business is now from deliveries, while only 30 percent comes from in-person sales.

There are also continued regulations on occupancy, which limits the number of people Hulu can seat at any given time. “We had to remove half the tables,” Lecleir says. “There’s been talk of only one person per table, but it seems at the moment we are allowed to have three people…”

If he sounds unsure, it’s because he is — there’s been an overall lack of consistency and clarity in the way the local government disseminates orders to the food industry in Beijing. “Sometimes we have officials who adjust the way we do some things, but actually nothing has been written on paper, so it’s really more verbal announcements,” says Lecleir. The city government in Beijing never actually ordered all restaurants to close in the first place. When the crisis first hit, the majority of restaurants were closed anyway due to the Chinese New Year holiday, during which time most businesses normally shut down for one or two weeks. The holiday period was extended by 10 days to manage the outbreak, but even after it ended, many restaurants chose not to reopen due to a lack of customers. Others were unable to do so because of neighborhood-level restrictions or a lack of staff.

Nathan Zhang runs Cravings to Longfusi, a restaurant serving dishes from China’s southwest Yunnan province that’s had to stay closed because the area in which it’s located is closed off from public access. “They don’t allow anyone to come in, so basically I don’t have customers,” Zhang says. The restaurant has relied on deliveries but still has to deal with a confusing mix of regulations.

In the absence of a set restaurant ban, the government in Beijing released a set of official guidelines that have continually changed over time. The extent of these guidelines is determined at a local level by neighborhood committees and district officials, which can result in wildly different rules being enforced depending on which restaurant you step into. The bar Jing A, for example, makes customers register their temperatures and doesn’t allow them to sit more than two to a table, while a cafe a few blocks away lets customers freely enter and sit in groups. Other restaurants have been getting around limits on large groups by spreading people across adjacent tables. “Everyone has a different request, you’ve got to fill out the forms three times every day, or sometimes they change their policy, so it’s really tiresome,” Zhang says. “And I don’t think that these people totally have the same regulations, so that makes things more difficult.”

“Not many people are coming to eat,” said the server at Yiqingyuan Lanzhou Beef Noodles on a recent visit. “Even delivery isn’t doing too well. People are too worried.” Getting any customers to confidently eat restaurant food again remains one of the industry’s biggest obstacles. Diners are spooked. In response, many delivery orders now often include cards listing the names and temperatures of all the staff involved in preparing your food. Others, like the dim sum chain Jin Ding Xuan, send notes detailing the restaurant’s disinfection procedures. On the delivery app Meituan, the cartoon delivery man used to track the progress of your order now covers his face with a mask.

Continued social distancing measures are meant to allay fears, too. The popular bubble tea chain Heytea is famous for its long lines, but today customers scan a QR code on the door that launches an illustrated guide to the shop’s safety procedures. From there, customers can order drinks and get notified when they can return to pick them up at the doorway. Closer to Beijing’s old alleyways, the staff at Gulou Mantou Shop now sends its steamed buns down a small slide rather than hand them to customers, and asks customers to use mobile payments only.

Mobile payments is one aspect of the lasting technological impact of COVID-19. While many restaurants in Beijing already accepted mobile-pay, many more — especially older traditional businesses — often existed without a digital presence at all. But “I think being offline now is basically impossible,” says Zhang Yipeng, one of the owners of the small local cafe chain Big Small Coffee. Even before COVID-19, a growing middle class and omnipresent mobile payment systems had spurred a delivery boom in China’s large cities. Zhang estimated that about 15 to 20 percent of her cafe’s sales came from deliveries before. That’s grown slightly to 20 to 30 percent, less than for a restaurant like TRB Hulu, but significant for a cafe originally envisioned as a social space. “The effect this will have in the future is that most stores will consider merging offline with online,” says Zhang, “and everyone will try to diversify their sources of income.”

But for Catilin Ichim, co-owner of the high-end Sichuan restaurant Transit, a key dilemma has been how to still sell food for delivery without removing the sheen from luxury dining. Ichim’s solution was to create a sub-brand with (somewhat) lower prices, selling partially prepared meal sets and spicy chile sauce. “Obviously we cannot go really down [in price] because it’s still a high quality product,” says Ichim, “but yeah, you have to go down. You’re not offering them any type of extra service, you’re not bringing any type of luxury experience that they usually get, so the same prices will not make it.”

From fine dining restaurants to small mom and pop noodle shops, nobody has managed to make up for the overall loss of income caused by COVID-19 with delivery, nor have all the new visible safety measures been enough to get customer volume back to pre-virus levels. This doesn’t bode well for the future of restaurants around the world as, over the next few months, more cities hopefully mitigate the spread of the virus and begin to ease up on quarantines and other restrictions.

“Whether or not there’s an outbreak situation, people will become more cautious about their spending after this,” says Big Small Coffee’s Zhang Yipeng. “I’m not very optimistic about spending, even as the epidemic passes.”