Hong Kong’s Kitty Chan has taken to eating out to help her restaurant survive the pandemic, but has since opened a second store as demand for cheap meal boxes mounts in an economically troubled city.
Convenience stores selling cheap two-course meal boxes have proliferated in one of the world’s least affordable cities, popping up in working-class and white-collar areas alike where people tighten their belts.
“Covid restrictions were a helping factor,” she told AFP at her restaurant in Kowloon, one of the world’s most densely populated city districts, as a queue of hungry customers crept up the street.
“There are multiple factors in this city that make us a lot of people in the kitchen.”
Hong Kong took an economic hit in 2019 when months of democratic protests kept visitors away and helped push the city into a prolonged recession.
More than 2.5 years of strict Covid controls once again pushed the Asian finance hub into negative growth.
Hong Kong’s chief financial officer, Paul Chan, warned Thursday that there was a “very high probability” that the city would end the year in a full-blown recession while the fiscal deficit was expected to balloon to HK$100 billion ($12.7 billion), double the initial estimate.
Andy Cowan, director of the ACE Center for Business and Economics think-tank, said the mealtime boom “is like the rise of dollar stores during the (2008) financial crisis.”
“People tend to spend less when the economy is in bad shape and confidence is low,” he told AFP.
Chan’s sells 2,000 to 3,000 packs of meals per day at HKD48 ($6).
Meal boxes range in price from HK$25 to HK$80 depending on ingredients and store locations, and many include a drink or soup.
To compete in what is now a crowded market, Chan is trying to provide the kind of food you can get at a sit-down restaurant – mostly fried Cantonese dishes like black pepper beef ribs, steamed fish and oysters.
Its strategy has attracted a mostly white-collar clientele.
“The two-course meal box is an interesting entry point for monitoring our economy,” said Fred Koo, an economist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Although the two-course restaurant has long been a feature of the city, “the perception of consumers has changed and these meal boxes are no longer a symbol of relatively low income,” Coe said.
China and Hong Kong have largely escaped the hyperinflation seen around the world.
But food in particular is getting more expensive — Chan estimates that her grocery purchases are up about 20 percent this year.
Mealbox restaurants are also popular among Hong Kong residents who have refused to vaccinate themselves against Covid.
The city uses a QR code system that prevents unvaccinated people from accessing most public places.
Retiree Grace, who only gave her first name, described herself as a “disadvantaged person” because she only received one vaccination.
“At first I thought why not try (meals) since I had to eat takeaway,” the 68-year-old told AFP. “But now I find it very attractive…I feel like I’m eating a buffet.”
The Facebook group for sharing tips about snack bars, started by social worker Andrew Wong, has grown to 87,000 members.
“When the group opened at the end of 2021, we found 110 to 120 such restaurants, and so far in 2022, we have found 150 new locations,” he told AFP.
Another collective-source map lists more than 440 two-course restaurants across Hong Kong, up from about 330 in May.
Wong said the boom was driven by COVID restrictions and declining tourist numbers over the past three years.
Before the protests and the epidemic, Hong Kong was receiving about 65 million tourists a year, 78 percent of whom came from the Chinese mainland.
That has slowed considerably, with Chinese borders virtually closed and international arrivals still facing mandatory hotel quarantine upon arrival.
City leader John Lee has vowed to reopen the city and hinted at more relaxation of the Covid virus in the coming weeks.
But Hong Kong’s international reach remains far from competitors such as Singapore, London and Tokyo.
“People are asking whether there is any policy to stabilize the economy and whether the government is bold enough to make changes,” said Kwan, director of the think tank.
“In the meantime, people are cutting back on daily expenses so they can spend more if the worst happens.”