Hong Kong’s Kitty Chan focused on takeout to help her restaurant survive the pandemic, but has opened a second shop as demand for cheap boxed meals surges in a city enduring economic woes.
Small shops selling cheap two-dish meal boxes have sprung up across one of the world’s least affordable cities, cropping up in working-class and white-collar areas alike as people tighten their belts.
“Covid restrictions were a catalyst,” he told AFP at his restaurant in Kowloon, one of the world’s most populous city districts, as a line of hungry patrons snaked through the streets.
“There are multiple factors in this city that make us so many people’s kitchens.”
Hong Kong took an economic hit in 2019 when months of pro-democracy protests kept visitors away and helped push the city into a prolonged recession.
Over 2.5 years of strict covid controls have again pushed the Asian finance hub into negative growth.
Hong Kong Finance Minister Paul Chan warned Thursday that there is a “very high chance” the city will end the year in a full-blown recession while the fiscal deficit is expected to balloon to HK$100 billion ($12.7 billion), double initial estimates.
Andy Kwan, director of the ACE Center for Business and Economic Research think tank, said the meal box boom is similar to the rise of dollar stores during the “(2008) financial crisis.”
“People spend less when the economy is not good and confidence is low,” he told AFP.
Chan’s restaurants are selling 2,000 to 3,000 boxes of food a day for about HK$48 ($6).
Meal boxes go for anything from HK$25 to HK$80, depending on ingredients and store location, and many include a drink or soup.
To compete in what is now a crowded market, Chan tries to serve the kind of food you’d get at a sit-down restaurant — mostly wok-fried Cantonese dishes like black-pepper beef short ribs, steamed fish and razor clams.
His strategy attracted mostly white-collar clients.
“The two-dish meal box is a very interesting entry point for observing our economy,” said Fred Koo, an economist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Ku said that while the two-dish restaurant had long been a feature of the city, “consumer perceptions have changed and these food boxes are no longer a symbol of relatively low incomes”.
China and Hong Kong have largely escaped the inflation seen around the world.
But food in particular has become more expensive — Chan estimates that her grocery purchases are up about 20 percent this year.
Mailbox restaurants are also popular with Hong Kongers who refuse to vaccinate themselves against Covid.
The city uses a QR code system that denies unvaccinated people entry to most public premises.
Retired Grace, who gave only her first name, described herself as a “denied person” because she had only received one vaccination shot.
“At first I thought why not try (the food box) since I had to get take-away,” the 68-year-old told AFP. “But now I find it quite interesting… like eating at a buffet.”
A Facebook group for sharing restaurant tips started by social activist Andrew Wong has grown to 87,000 members.
“When I opened the group in late 2021, we found 110 to 120 such restaurants and so far in 2022 we have found 150 new spots,” he told AFP.
Another crowd-sourced map lists more than 440 two-dish restaurants across Hong Kong, up from about 330 in May.
Wong said the boom was fueled by Covid restrictions and a drop in tourist numbers over the past three years.
Before the protests and pandemic, Hong Kong saw about 65 million tourists a year, 78 percent of which came from mainland China.
This has slowed as China’s border is effectively closed and international arrivals still face mandatory hotel quarantine on arrival.
City leader John Lee has promised to reopen the city and hinted at further Covid relaxations in the coming weeks.
But Hong Kong’s international access lags far behind rivals such as Singapore, London and Tokyo.
“People are wondering whether there are policies to stabilize the economy and whether the government is motivated enough to bring about change,” said Kwan, director of the think-tank.
“Meanwhile, people are cutting back on day-to-day spending so that they can spend more if the worst happens”.