Rising rents threaten to spoil city's food culture
Staff costs and a lack of food critics willing to criticise also blamed for hurting industry, writes Vivienne Chow / SCMP.
Surging rent and labour costs together with self-censorship by food critics are hurting Hong Kong's culinary culture despite the growing number of restaurants opening in recent years, industry insiders say.
Distinctive local flavours are disappearing as dining outlets are replaced by retailers profiting from mainland tourists that can afford a much higher rent, they say.
One of the latest victims is the Press Room, one of the best known outlets of the group of the same name, which closed yesterday after the landlord sought a fivefold increase in rent.
Another group outlet, The Pawn, closed this week for renovations and faces a 50 per cent rent increase in a new lease.
Group co-founder Alan Lo Yeung-kit said street-level shops were being taken over by retailers like cosmetic chains and jewellery and watch shops at the expense of Hong Kong culture, as high rents drove entrepreneurs away. "Even simple [shops] like bakery or noodle shops ... you almost cannot see any of these any more on street level," he said.
Food critic Walter Kei said the proliferation of trendy restaurants was another problem.
"There are too many restaurants in the market," he said. This led to cut-throat competition and drove up staff costs.
Restaurateur and critic Lau Kin-wai said he shut the doors of his famous Yellow Door Kitchen a couple of months ago more because of staff issues than rent.
"I can't hire someone to wash dishes even with HK$10,000 a month," he said.
Lo also blamed the city's lack of respect for the industry as a profession and food as culture.
"The food and beverage industry is still considered a job, not a career," he said. Japan and the West by contrast are proud of their culinary culture and business. Local restaurateurs, he said must create a career path to keep staff interested in the job.
Kei said that with high rents and labour costs, the only cost that could be cut was food.
This was compromising quality but consumers didn't know because food writers and critics weren't telling them. "The so-called food reviews are only to promote new places, not the quality of the content," he said.
"Writers are afraid of offending restaurants."
As a result, Kei said, people had higher tolerance of bad ingredients and bad food sourcing. He said McDonald's Hong Kong's importing of tainted meat from Shanghai Husi Food Company was a good example.
The Press Room Group still runs 13 other outlets but Lo said the pressure was on. "There's no room for error," he said.