China has been at the top of the headlines at the heart of the global COVID-19 outbreak. After two months in lockdown, the once steadily growing customer base for the food service industry has almost completely dried up. As China’s outbreak starts to show signs of subsiding, and lockdown restrictions are being eased, we asked if there has been a surge in customers dining out after spending so long locked away at home. We checked in with Hunter McGregor, key Mountain River partner in China, to learn about the situation on the ground and hear if there has been a recovery to the market. Although Shanghai didn’t experience the full lockdown that Wuhan did, the partial lockdown restrictions have had a major impact on business. Like here in New Zealand, restaurants, bars, and shops have all been closed. Lately, there has been an easing of restrictions but Hunter says “they’re relaxed to a point but there are still plenty of restrictions in place to make sure it doesn’t kick off again.”
As for the restaurant trade, he says it’s ‘non-existent’ and that ‘plenty of places are re-opening but no one is eating out.’ As an example, he talks about a customer who works in a high-profile restaurant in Shanghai’s historic Bund district. “Pre-virus, they would’ve had on average 240 people per night. Now, on weekend nights, they have about 40 per night. This is a big change and it’s uncertain what’s going to happen in the coming months.”
In terms of selling directly to consumers, there will be challenges as China implements its ban on the sale of ‘wild meat’, leaving a sense of uncertainty. “They have commented in the media that venison is on the list. This is a bit of a challenge as nothing is really clear at the moment but we don’t think/hope the sale of venison will be banned. The Chinese government is talking about a banned list of animals but it hasn’t been released yet. If it is on the list, it’ll include co-products and Velvet, which is a massive challenge for the industry. Logically, NZ venison should be fine but we just don't know. We have not been told officially we can’t sell NZ venison, so we'll just get on with it ”, says Hunter. In short, the industry will be holding its breath to see what concrete food regulations the Chinese government announces as restrictions are eased off. The good news, as Hunter states, is “more and more places are re-opening, people are heading out, and the weather is getting warmer. So things are heading in the right direction”. The very fact that people are heading back to work is encouraging in itself and the government has been pushing for this to happen. “To be fair, the government has done a great job moving millions of people around the country to get them back to work”, he says.
On a personal level, Hunter notes the management of the crisis by the Chinese government has been very good. “At no point during the whole time did we feel unsafe in Shanghai. We were worried and concerned, but felt OK where we were”. It seems this has been the Chinese government’s mantra throughout this crisis; prioritising human safety. And though the food service business has suffered through the restrictions over the last few months, Hunter is hopeful there is a light at the end of the tunnel and things will pick up again. As he put it, “it’s like starting our business again but this time we know what we’re doing”.