When COVID-19 cleared out the diners at Hong Shing restaurant, owner Colin Li needed to come up with a plan to save the family business.

So he stacked the chairs into a corner, cleared off the tables and devoted the Chinese-Canadian restaurant at Bay Street and Dundas Street West to take-out and delivery orders.

But instead of relying on existing delivery apps, he tapped his now out of work servers to take on the work.

Hong Shing restaurant in the downtown core has converted its dining room into an assembly line for takeout orders. Bernard Weil/Toronto Star Bernard Weil/Toronto Star

For just over a week now, orders of fried noodles, General Tso’s chicken and wok-fried green beans have been assembled on a table in the centre of the dining room. A condiment station with serving size packets of soy sauce, hot sauce, napkins and a giant container of fortune cookies, is set up under a window. Four tables near the entrance are pushed together labelled north, south, east and west, representing a vague map of the city.

Once the food orders are packed, they are placed on the section of the table that corresponds to the address location and every 20 minutes or so the servers-turned-drivers head out on delivery.

Hong Shing restaurant in the downtown core has converted its dining room into an assembly line for takeout orders. Bernard Weil/Toronto Star Bernard Weil/Toronto Star

Last Monday, the City of Toronto’s medical officer of health followed other cities around the world and asked restaurants to close in-house service and move to takeout and delivery to stem the spread of COVID-19.

Many restaurants that previously didn’t offer takeout signed up with the delivery giants such as Uber Eats, Foodora, Skip The Dishes and DoorDash.

But others opted to skip the apps and do it themselves.

The main reason was economics. On average, delivery apps take a 30 per cent cut of what a restaurant charges for a dish, says Li, whose restaurant launched its own online ordering system two months prior.

During the pandemic, some delivery companies did modify their policies in an effort to help local restaurants. Uber Eats released a statement saying the company was waving delivery fees for customers who order from independent restaurants, as well as allowing restaurants to receive payment on a daily basis rather than on a regular billing cycle. DoorDash also announced it is not collecting service fees for the first 30 days when a new restaurant signs on.

Li said he has signed on with Uber Eats but is not using it as the main delivery service.

“We always try to do things internal so we can control the food and the guest relationships. That’s one thing they don’t have. They’re a beautiful platform in terms of advertising, but now, you just have to be really creative with what you’re offering.”

After the announcement that all bars and restaurants temporarily close last week, Li anticipated a rush of restaurants would be signing up for the same delivery apps and vying for the same pool of self-isolating diners.

So he devised his own delivery system with the goal of bringing back the part-time staff and front-of-house workers he had to lay off when the city’s restaurants shut down.

A table of condiments and utensils has been set up to streamline putting together takeout orders at Hong Shing in downtown Toronto: Liu, Karon

“The places that are now doing delivery are using Uber Eats and the like,” he says. “It’s super competitive and we didn’t want to be in there. A lot of these restaurants are downtown but since most people are working from home and outside of these delivery zones, (we decided) why don’t we extend our delivery zone to them?”

Li has been savvy with social media since he took over the family business in the last five years, creating an Instagram page for the restaurant to build a following and attract repeat diners (as well as making amends for a discrimination suit that was filed before he became the owner).

To drum up excitement, Li went on Instagram to announce a daily “delivery pop-up” in a different GTA suburb such as Brampton, Mississauga, Scarborough, Mimico or North York, areas where few downtown restaurants deliver. In addition to food, Li also randomly did giveaways of Hong-Shing branded merchandise with orders and announced menu specials to set his restaurant apart from other delivery spots.

“Everyone is at home and is being more conservative with spending, which makes sense,” says Li. “Right now everyone is on edge. Some days are better than others, and I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. You just have to find ways to adapt now, because customers’ behaviours have changed and we need to target them differently. You have to be creative because we don’t know how long we have to do this.”

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Japanese souffle pancake shop Fuwa Fuwa signed up with Uber Eats, Skip The Dishes, DoorDash and F.O.D., a Canadian-based app specializing in Asian restaurants, shortly after the shutdown announcement was made.

The dining tables have been cleared out of Hong Shing's dining room to make a central assembly line for delivery orders : Liu, Karon

“If you can, coming to our restaurants (to pick up takeout orders) is the best option,” says Benson Lau, Fuwa Fuwa’s business development director. “With Uber Eats, they take a percentage from you. We still have to pay rent and staff, and some of them are students who still have to pay for school and rent themselves.”

Still, ordering from an app is better than no business at all, he says.

He prefers F.O.D., which is a relatively small company and has been doing more promotions with his restaurant, such as a buy-one-get-one free French toast offer.

The problem with the big apps, is there are so many restaurants it’s easy to get lost in the mix.

“To be honest, closing the restaurant might be easier than just having it open,” says Lau. “Restaurants already have such a small profit margin. If this shutdown goes longer than two months, I don’t think most restaurants will survive. If takeout doesn’t take off, it might not even be a month. It is so important to have a cash flow.”

Karon Liu

Karon Liu is a Toronto-based culture reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @karonliu





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