THE HEROES WE NEVER KNEW WE NEEDED
This portrait series is a celebration of the everyday heroes in this pandemic.
(Documented from a distance)
As part of our efforts to capture some of the impact of the coronavirus on Hong Kong’s F&B industry, we caught up with a number of friendly members of our community. We heard from chefs, restaurant owners, front of house and we were lucky enough to catch up with Michael Larkin, Senior Operations Manager at JIA Group.
It was a complete surprise, but the biggest surprise for me was how quickly Hong Kong reacted to it.
The second the virus started breaking out in January, everyone was wearing a mask. The elevator in my building was all wrapped up in plastic. I felt that Hong Kong people knew already something I didn’t (they had the SARS outbreak in 2002/2003). And I was very impressed by the community response.
Everyone knew exactly what they were doing. So professionally I felt I didn’t have to take a lot of measures. The customers were so worried that they would already take all the necessary precautions without us having to introduce strict measures for guests.
Did anything change after the initial reaction?
There was a bit of a shift at the beginning where our restaurant staff was like “I don’t want to wear a mask, I am not doing this or that…” and the public perception was that customers wouldn’t feel comfortable walking in a venue where staff weren’t wearing a mask. But then in 3-4 days the sentiment was “if your staff is not wearing a mask, I won’t come in.” So we switched instantly, it was incredible.
Professionally, things definitely got harder. One would think that now that we are less busy as we don’t have so much to do, but it’s not true. There is so much more to do: operationally you have to add steps to every procedure, and you have to unfortunately let staff go.
So you did have to lay people off?
For sure. I can’t say numbers, but we had to let go more people than I would like to count. We were having very adult conversations about something that we knew had to happen and tried to divide emotions from it, and face the reality of it. We knew we had to let people go and we knew we had to close venues, and our staff they just took it as they knew it was coming.
It was incredibly depressing and heart breaking. Then we had a couple of staff that did actually resign because of the fear of putting themselves and family at risk coming to work. But yeah it was tough, it was a fine balance between trying to keep the venues open, controlling costs, issuing no-pay leave, furloughing staff, closing venues…
Eventually we had to close 3 venues. Commissary, Old Bailey, Ham & Sherry, we temporarily closed Duddell’s airport (for obvious reasons!). Behind Bars and 22 Ships had re-opened (before the most recent new social distancing measures introduced).
And what about the picture for Hong Kong?
Hong Kong was that kind of city where you threw something at the wall and it would make money, it was always busy, always working. It’s not necessarily an encouraging thing because operationally people get complacent, they relax, and this would bring failure when things get harder unexpectedly.
So for a long time before the virus, the protests tested those muscles. So COVID was the final nail in the coffin. For 10 months during the protest period we kept asking ourselves “what do we do about this and that, how do we make it better despite the situation, let’s try and fix it.” Then when the virus broke out we were like “Ok, can we stop playing this game? Let’s clean the slate and let’s get ready to do something proper”. And whatever happens after this we know we have a stronger team, more condensed, more focus, more productive and efficient. So we cut a leg off.
So this could potentially be an awakening for the industry?
It’s not my money, so I don’t know what it is like to be an owner. Actually, touch wood that I still have a job! But at the same time, I think it’s awakening. It’s a good opportunity for people to look at themselves and try to do better and improve.
I think this is a moment when people need to make themselves more valuable, you’ve got a job, appreciate it and make yourself irreplaceable. Which is good for me because I get to work with great people!
To be frank I think in the last 30 years Hong Kong has done very little improvement when it came to the hospitality industry. Operationally, it’s 15 years behind the UK, US, it just is. When it comes to the organisation of procedure, HR, fire safety, revenue control, cost control. They never had to touch these things because they just made money anyways.
And a lot has been said about Hong Kong landlords during the pandemic. What’s your view?
Hong Kong has always been a landlord market. They could decide to raise the rent and there was nothing venues could do about it. You either take it. Or you close down. That’s why a lot of venues had a shelf-life of 12 months.
The landlords definitely had their fun, but now they’re seeing the repercussions of that. So many successful businesses and stores are closing silently from one day to another. But I think HK now is willing to try new things because it has no alternative.
You can look at hotels for example, they had huge budget to redevelop their hotels, to renovate their venues, but they wouldn’t do it because they were so full for so long and couldn’t afford to close for renovation.
So HK hotels have fallen behind Korea, Shanghai, Bangkok. When it comes to high end venues, best bars, they’re a bit behind. The Four Seasons is old, Conrad is old, Marriott also. The Murray and St. Regis are new. The Rosewood is the one that is standing out, but it is new. And now with the virus they are renovating their restaurants, their bar program. It’s good that they are taking this chance to improve even more. This is going to give Hong Kong a better life I think.
And what is your sentiment on the “third wave” we are now experiencing in HK?
I am now completely unemotional. Whatever we need to do, we’ll do it.
We have procedures in place where everyone knows exactly what they need to do. We are ready, and we are doing deliveries now that restaurants are closed. It’s working really well. Not covering rent or wages, but it definitely helps stop the bleeding.
In March and April when we launched JIA Everywhere, we did well but restaurants were still open, so we didn’t develop it as much as we are doing now that restaurants are closed for dine-in. There is no choice for customers, either cook or order. So our delivery team are going crazy, but it’s good!
It’s just a shame that the virus is still breaking out. I have heard of people breaking quarantine and I hear people talking about seeing their friends who are in quarantine and I am just shocked by it! How can you even discuss something like that, there’s no buts & maybes, just sit at home for 14 days! The thing is that it is only with grief, terror and pain that people change their perspective and behaviour. They can watch an inspirational video or TED talk, or see beaches covered in plastic, but if it doesn’t affect their day-to-day life in a dramatic way, people never change. You need to break one reality to allow them to see that there is an alternative. I think this will make everyone stronger. It will make Hong Kong stronger, and a little bit humbler, hopefully.
And on a more personal level, how are you feeling?
This thing has definitely made me tougher than I thought I could be, but then again, I am used to this. Since I was a kid my parents made me do things to learn a lot of lessons very quickly! So I can detach myself emotionally very quickly from unexpected scenarios.
My girlfriend on the other hand takes things much closer to heart. The conversation sometimes arises when we’re at home, but I do believe your home should be your sanctuary, so we try to keep the outside world a bit more at bay.
These things are too big and too much out of our control. As long as your healthy, take all the precautions, and you’re safe, the rest doesn’t matter. Hundreds of thousands of doctors and practitioners tell us this thing is extremely deadly. 2 billion people tell us that it’s not. Who am I going to believe? I think I am going to believe the scientists.