Hong Kong’s Kitty Chan turned to takeaway to help her restaurant survive the pandemic, but has since opened a second shop as demand for cheap boxed meals grows in the struggling economic city.
Small shops selling cheap two-course meal boxes have sprung up in one of the world’s most disadvantaged cities, popping up in both working-class and white-collar areas as people tighten their belts.
“Covid restrictions were the catalyst,” she told AFP at her restaurant in Kowloon, one of the world’s most densely populated urban districts, as a line of hungry diners snaked down the street.
“There are a number of factors in this city that make us a kitchen for many people.”
Hong Kong suffered an economic blow in 2019 when months of pro-democracy protests deterred visitors and helped plunge the city into a prolonged recession.
More than 2.5 years of strict Covid control has pushed the Asian financial center into negative growth again.
Hong Kong Finance Chief Paul Chan warned on Thursday there was a “very high chance” the city would end the year in a full-blown recession, while the fiscal deficit is expected to rise to HK$100 billion ($12.7 billion), double according to initial estimates.
The lunch box boom “is similar to the emergence of dollar stores during the (2008) financial crisis,” said Andy Kwan, research director of the ACE Center for Business and Economic Research.
“People tend to spend less when the economy is not good and confidence is low,” he told AFP.
Chan’s restaurants sell 2,000 to 3,000 boxes of meals a day at around HK$48 (US$6).
Meal boxes cost from HK$25 to HK$80, depending on ingredients and store location, and many include a drink or soup.
To compete in the now-crowded market, Chan is trying to serve the kind of food you’d get at a sit-down restaurant – mostly wok-fried Cantonese dishes like black pepper beef ribs, steamed fish and shellfish.
Her strategy attracted a mostly white-collar clientele.
“The two-course meal box is a very interesting entry point for looking at our economy,” said Fred Ku, an economist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Ku said that while the two-course restaurant had long been a feature of the city, “consumer perception has changed and these meal boxes are no longer a symbol of relatively low income.”
China and Hong Kong have largely avoided the rapid inflation seen around the world.
But food, in particular, has gotten more expensive — Chan estimates her grocery purchases are up about 20 percent this year.
Mealbox restaurants are also popular among Hong Kong residents who have refused to get vaccinated against Covid.
The city uses a QR code system that prevents unvaccinated people from accessing most public spaces.
Pensioner Grace, who gave only her first name, described herself as a “deprived person” because she had only received one vaccine.
“At first I thought why not try (meal boxes) since I had to eat takeaway,” the 68-year-old told AFP. “But now it’s quite appealing to me…it feels like a buffet.”
A Facebook group for sharing tips about meal box restaurants, started by social worker Andrew Wong, has grown to 87,000 members.
“When I opened the group at the end of 2021, we found 110 to 120 such restaurants, and so far in 2022 we have found 150 brand new outlets,” he told AFP.
Another crowd-sourced map lists more than 440 two-course restaurants across Hong Kong, up from about 330 in May.
Wong said the boom was fueled by Covid restrictions and a drop in tourist numbers over the past three years.
Before the protests and the pandemic, Hong Kong would have received about 65 million tourists a year, 78 percent of whom came from mainland China.
This has slowed down, as China’s border is effectively closed and international arrivals still face mandatory hotel quarantine on arrival.
City leader John Lee has vowed to reopen the city and hinted at further Covid relaxations in the coming weeks.
But Hong Kong’s international reach remains far behind rivals such as Singapore, London and Tokyo.
“People are wondering whether there is a policy to stabilize the economy and whether the government is proactive enough to bring about change,” said think-tank director Kwan.
“Meanwhile, people are cutting back on daily spending so they can spend more if the worst happens.”