Restaurants Were Packed Again Once SARS Was Over: Michelle Garnaut

By Cristina Ng, February 8, 2020

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This article is a part of our Appetite for Destruction feature, a series of interviews conducted by That’s staff to examine the impact of the novel coronavirus on China’s food and beverage industry. For more articles from this series, click here.

Michelle Garnaut – Shanghai

Founder and CEO of the M Restaurant Group

Michelle Garnaut opened her first restaurant in China in 1989 with M at the Fringe in Hong Kong. Restaurants followed in Shanghai and Beijing, with the current M Restaurant consisting of Shanghai’s M on the Bund – the first independent venue on the historic Shanghai Bund in 1999 – and Glam. Below, Garnaut shares her thoughts on the impact the novel coronavirus is having on Shanghai’s F&B scene:

How has the novel coronavirus epidemic impacted your businesses?
The most obvious issue is with suppliers. Many of our suppliers have said that it’s very difficult to get things and that they are not back unless it’s an emergency. Most of the big ones have said that they won’t be back until the ninth or the 10th. Between that and having to pay double salaries, staying closed was a bit of a no brainer to be honest.

We have been closed since January 24, because we always close for about five to six days for Chinese New Year anyway. We delayed our opening until February 4, then moved it to the 10th. Now, we have been closed for an extra 10 days.

I’m just about to talk to my team and decide what is next. Right now, we are aiming for the 10th and I’m reluctant to push that. If we have enough supplies and staff, then we will open.

What measures have your businesses taken to mitigate the damage caused by the prolonged CNY holiday and ongoing coronavirus outbreak?
I haven’t really thought about it yet. To be honest, what can you do? I think that right now, there’s nothing that you can do. We are trying to work out when to open and what menu to put on. We won’t be able to do a full menu, and don’t know how busy it will be. [The menu] will be based on what supplies we can’t get. We are kind of working backwards based on what isn’t available.

Have you experienced similar challenges previously, while working in China’s F&B industry?
I went through this with SARS. I think the most important thing is to be levelheaded, calm and clean. Everyone has to wear masks, of course, and I’ve just sent up a couple packets of talcum surgical gloves. In the kitchen, they were already using gloves, but at this time everyone including the service staff will have to use them.

It’s also important not to appear to be profiting [from the outbreak] – using this as a fully-fledged marketing exercise to sell your own agenda is distasteful. Everyone is going to have to suffer – everyone is suffering – and we will have to grin and bear it.

When we come out of it, then what are we going to do? I’ve said to the team that, maybe for Valentine’s Day, we should offer a glass of Champagne on us or something. It’s just a nice gesture that says come out and celebrate because everyone is crawling up the walls. I do remember after SARS, once everyone felt calmer, restaurants were packed. I’m not too concerned about it. Once the numbers start to peak and drop, everyone will calm down a bit.

How long do you think it will take for your businesses to recover as a result of the virus and the preventative measures that have been put in place?
I think once people feel a bit calmer. It’s different from SARS, because we didn’t have social media then – Facebook was just kicking off. I remember moving into an apartment in 2002 in Hong Kong. My neighbor was a super young groovy guy who sent me an email request to ‘friend’ him on this new platform. I remember saying ‘no, thank you’: Why do I need to friend you when you just live next door?

Information – and false information – can move so quickly now. It will eventually settle down, but it might take a few weeks to move on. In the meantime, stay vigilant and remain calm. I mean, people don’t want to be around panicked people.

How long do you think it will take for the F&B industry in Shanghai to recover as a result of the virus and the preventative measures that have been put in place?
For people in the restaurant business, I say hang in there and don’t spend one penny that you don’t need to. It’s time to be super careful with money. During SARS, I was in Hong Kong and couldn’t get back into China. The Shanghai team didn’t do simple things like cutting the roster, the amount of food, etcetera.

But, by the end of 2003, in both Hong Kong and Shanghai, our turnaround was fine. I was just reading today that China has GDP forecasted at 6% growth this year, and they are worried that it will drop to 5% if this goes on for a few weeks. If this goes down to 4%, there will be a world recession. That’s quite interesting, but we ended up not making a loss in 2003 in either city. Part of it is thinking of some inventive ways to get your customers back – and don’t despair.

What could be the possible positive outcomes of this disease outbreak for Shanghai’s F&B community going forward?
The good outcome will be much better control of the sale of food. In the restaurant, the measures of the hygiene bureau are extreme. I was in a restaurant in Melbourne yesterday saying that there was just no way on the planet that this place would get a license in China. The whole kitchen was open with people walking in and out. Nobody was wearing masks, hats, hair tied back, etcetera. 

The hygiene bureau is so tough on a service level, but obviously, they aren’t tough enough in places where food itself is transmitting. Live animals in markets with so many people around is not really a good idea. It’s not in our food culture and I understand that it’s a different food culture, but I think that given the circumstances it will have to change.

Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

For regular updates on the novel coronavirus outbreak in China, click here. For more articles in our Appetite for Destruction series, click here.

[Cover image via Michelle Garnaut]

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