As Coronavirus Slams Small Business, a Noodle Shop Fights for Life

The industry survey estimated that the cost to the restaurant and catering industry across the country had already reached $85 billion. It called the epidemic the industry’s Waterloo, after the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815, and warned that enterprises with insufficient cash flow or popularity would likely never reopen.

“Yes,” said Ms. Du, “there will be a lot that can’t survive.”

Pang Mei’s Noodle Shop opened in 2015 in one of Beijing’s distinctive alleyways known as hutongs, offering pungent, chili-soaked noodles in the style of Chongqing, the city in central China. It is an offshoot of a chain from Chongqing owned by a cousin of Ms. Du’s husband, Yuan Jie, and has won a devoted following. (A year after it opened, Eater included it as one of 38 “essential Beijing restaurants.”)

In the last days before the Lunar New Year holiday in January, Ms. Du recalled in an interview, she felt anxious as she worked the register. The first worrisome reports of the coronavirus were emanating from Wuhan, she said, referring to the city now recognized as the center of the outbreak. The regular crowd was “very much at ease, happily slurping noodles.”

“People did not really take it seriously,” Ms. Du, 34, said. That was five weeks ago.

Like most small shops and restaurants in Beijing, the couple planned to close for the holiday and reopen on Feb. 6. But the epidemic, and the government’s efforts to contain it, had ripple effects that disrupted the restaurant’s supply of spices and peppers from Chongqing.

The ones in Beijing are “not as flavorful,” Ms. Du explained. In any case, many of the city’s markets also closed. “We didn’t even have the very basic seasonings.”

By Feb. 14, they had cobbled together a new supply chain. It was enough to offer a reduced menu of ready-to-cook noodles and dumplings for delivery, complete with instructions for people to finish the dish at home. (Noodles, she said, are best eaten immediately after being cooked and would suffer unconscionably from the time it would take to deliver them.)

The crisis has defied conventional wisdom that the epidemic would mean a boon for delivery services. According to the industry association’s survey, food deliveries have also plummeted — in part because too few drivers of the ubiquitous scooters have been able to return to work, and in part because customers do not seem to want any contact with strangers zipping around town.

Ms. Du said the restaurant’s revenues were now only a third of what they had been. That has already forced them to reduce costs. They normally have 20 employees, but only eight have resumed work. She handles the online orders through WeChat, China’s messaging and mobile payment app, on her computer. Her husband, who is also a pop singer, fries the peppers in a warehouse in another part of the city.

In Beijing, the municipal government has issued conflicting guidance. Officials encouraged restaurants to remain open, for example, even while encouraging people to avoid public spaces. This week, the city announced a rule requiring people to sit at least one meter, or more than three feet, apart and not face each other while eating — something that would be all but impossible in a place like Pang Mei’s.

Ms. Du said she had not yet heard of any potential government assistance she could tap, though she keeps in touch with others in the industry, comparing notes. She worries about meeting rent and loan payments.

Until the coronavirus emerged, business had been booming, after a complete renovation that coincided with a campaign to refurbish Beijing’s hutongs. The old wooden slats hung on the wall that described the day’s dishes — which would be removed when ingredients were exhausted — have been replaced with new plastic ones.

Some owners that Ms. Du knows have already given up, including a Japanese restaurant nearby. She is hoping that a loyal fan base, and the craving for the distinctive flavor of Chongqing noodles, will get them through the epidemic.

As a worker filled a plastic bag with the makings of xiao mian, one of Chongqing’s signature noodle dishes, she confided that a famous singer had placed that order. Many customers even seem to enjoy the novelty of boiling and assembling their own bowls of noodles, sending Ms. Du photographs of their results.

A local brewery has also asked about joining forces and including its beer in deliveries. “They gave us a very detailed proposal of cooperation that I couldn’t say no to,” she said. “This is a very special period of time. Everyone is just trying to survive by huddling for warmth together.”

She does not expect to reopen fully until the end of March at the soonest, but is trying to remain optimistic. “At the end of the day,” she said, “people always need to eat.”

Zoe Mou and Claire Fu contributed research.

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