Since Junda Khoo opened the award-winning Malaysian restaurant Ho Jiak in Sydney’s Chinatown two years ago, he’d never been busier — until now. Booming trade with 800 daily covers has given way to slow days and losses week after week since the coronavirus outbreak.
The chef is just one of many local business owners whose livelihood has taken a battering as a result of Australians’ fears as COVID-19 spreads.
“When the outbreak came, the first week the business dropped by about 30% in terms of sales,” said Khoo. “After that, business was down by over 40% for the next two weeks. Last week we went back up by a little bit, by 10%, but overall we’re still down about 30%.”
When HuffPost Australia visited Ho Jiak, it was clear Khoo was very well-respected by his staff. He approached me casually dressed in a T-shirt and jeans while I finished off the last bits of my crispy Hainan chicken rice. It turns out that after halving the shifts of wait and kitchen staff, Khoo cut his own shifts as head chef so five of his remaining cooks could still have a job.
“The argument here is I could continue running at a loss of $17,000 a week to keep the place open, or I could do what a lot of people are doing, which is closing down temporarily,” he explained. “That means I incur no other cost but I only lose on the rental income which is about $10,000.”
The IT and finance graduate said closing the restaurant temporarily would not only mean losing loyal customers but also losing chefs who would find work elsewhere, as “everybody needs money.”
“That’s the bigger picture, so [we’d] rather incur the loss but keep the place running,” he said. “In the last two weeks, I’ve literally done one dinner service.”
Some of Khoo’s senior staff have also taken shift cuts, but not all of them.
“They understand what I’m going through as a business owner as well, but of course not all of them are coming back, so I’ve actually lost a few of them already,” he said. “They’ve taken jobs elsewhere and I don’t blame them, because everyone needs a job.”
Since the outbreak of coronavirus in late 2019, many Chinese restaurants have suffered a slump in business amid racism and xenophobia directed at Asian-Australian communities. Yet Khoo believes the decline in his business is because of fear in the Asian-Australian community itself.
“We haven’t encountered any racist comments, and personally, I don’t think racism plays a part in the downfall of business,” he said, noting that 35% to 40% of customers are Caucasian and have continued to dine in recent weeks. Khoo said the issue is “the fear of people not wanting to come out” due to the virus, and that “to be honest, if you really think about it, the people fearing the disease the most are actually the Chinese themselves.”
“As Malaysians/Singaporeans, we have a term called ‘kiasi,’ which means scared to die. ... So when something happens, they’re also scared and they stay in. So that’s what I truly believe, it’s actually the fear of the virus.”
Khoo also owns another Ho Jiak restaurant in Strathfield, but said the eatery hasn’t faced a slump in customers in recent weeks.
Over the other side of the Sydney CBD at Pyrmont’s Jones Bay Wharf, co-executive chef and owner Victor Liong is working hard at the Japanese restaurant Chuuka. Like Khoo, he’s a savvy restaurateur with two businesses under his belt, the other being Chinese restaurant Lee Ho Fook in Melbourne.
While Chuuka, which opened last year, hasn’t seen profits decline significantly since the COVID-19 outbreak, Liong can’t say the same for his Melbourne joint, which opened in 2013.
“I feel as though the current climate mirrors the economy, and our customers in Melbourne are in somewhat anxious times,” he told HuffPost Australia. “With this heightened level of anxiety comes emotional confusion, which can trigger unwarranted fear.
“On the whole, we’ve experienced midweek dips in local patronage at Lee Ho Fook,” he explained, noting that the Melbourne restaurant’s varied clientele of regulars, tourists and visitors is what the business is banking on going forward.
“Being a hospitality operation is tough enough. While we continue to provide and strive for excellence across all my businesses, these factors have not helped. We can only persevere and innovate in our own small way through these times.”
As Australia’s number of confirmed cases of coronavirus has climbed to 33, all that Khoo and Liong now ask for is Australians to support those local businesses that are suffering.
“The health risk of a virus is always going to have everyone on alert, in various parts of the world,” said Liong. “SARS and mad cow disease had people concerned, even after they were resolved. It’s the perception of risk that we are trying to overcome.”
“I’m just encouraging people to not fear the virus,” echoed Khoo. “Just live life, come out and support businesses, not just restaurants. “Go to Paddys Markets or the fish markets, you’ll see how empty it is.”