Diners choose chicken over caviar as downturn bites

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 August, 2009, 12:00am

It is a full house at Hong Kong's cheap-eat restaurant chains such as Cafe de Coral, as diners stretch their budgets during the downturn.

By contrast, getting a table even during peak dinner time at a new caviar restaurant in Central is easy, underscoring the tough times for the restaurant trade.

Caviar Kaspia, a crystal-palace-like dining room in the upmarket Landmark building, has a sky-blue ceiling and large marble pillars featuring close-ups of caviar. Its parent restaurant in Paris is frequented by artists, fashion designers and Hollywood movie stars.

But like other high-class restaurants across Hong Kong and the world, Caviar Kaspia is feeling the pinch. Normally, it would be crowded with rich bankers impressing their clients. Now, many of those bankers are out of jobs. The restaurant averages about 30 to 40 customers a day.

Thomas Woo Chu, vice-president of the Hong Kong Catering Industry Association, said earlier this year that some restaurants had seen business dive up to 50 per cent.

Michelin-starred British chef and television personality Gordon Ramsay saw profits plunge 90 per cent at his restaurants in Britain as the recession began to bite. Locally, Lan Kwai Fong institution Co Co Crazy, the lunch and late-night refuge of inebriated revellers, closed recently after more than two decades of operation.

Caviar Kaspia, which opened at the end of last year at the height of the financial crisis, is the first branch of the prestigious Parisian gourmet boutique outside Europe. But at the moment, very few people can be seen enjoying its fine food or location.

'Our food and service are good, but the customer volume is very small in Landmark. There are so few people here,' said Ricky Leung, the manager of Caviar Kaspia. 'Besides, customers may retreat when they see the sumptuous outlook of our restaurant.'

If the decoration at Caviar Kaspia is luxurious, so is the price - a spoonful of Beluga caviar costs HK$490. Mr Leung said dinner could cost HK$10,000 to HK$20,000, although the average price for lunch is more modest at a range of HK$300 to HK$400.

The caviar restaurant opens on to the shopping centre, so it is a perfect place for those wanting to appear rich and successful. However, that can also be an obstacle for attracting diners.

'The location of our restaurant can be a problem as you can be seen by lots of people passing by,' Mr Leung said. 'Some of the diners may not want to be frequently caught by their friends or colleagues.'

By contrast, Cafe de Coral, the ubiquitous budget chain, currently caters for about 300,000 customers a day. The company runs 584 outlets and aims to have 1,000 by 2014.

Being stuck in a long queue at dining rush hour at a local Cafe de Coral is a common experience for scores of city office workers. The attraction: a meal for between HK$30 and HK$50 per person.

'It is quite near my workplace and it takes a shorter time to wait for seats because people eat fast here,' said one customer walking out of a Cafe de Coral. 'Most of all, it is cheap.'

However, poor sentiment in Hong Kong's retail market and the onslaught of swine flu are still posing problems for the restaurant trade - even for success stories like Cafe de Coral.

'Restaurant sales in general have narrowed their growth to low single digits, particularly since the outbreak of swine flu in this past quarter,' said Lucia Cheung, a senior manager of Cafe de Coral.

'Many restaurant operators have also found it difficult to negotiate a substantial rental reduction. But the volume of traffic in the fast-food sector still remains resilient to the economic downturn as more people trade down in their eating habits.'

While Cafe de Coral and Fairwood serve up basic fare such as barbecued pork and rice and chicken curry at budget prices, the rare ingredients used at the caviar dining palace are unlikely to get any cheaper. Despite the challenges, Mr Leung is upbeat.

'Right now, we don't have other competitors in Landmark, and I believe we can survive here,' he said.

Cafe de Coral plans to spend HK$100 million to open 60 more outlets this year, 90 per cent of which will target the mass market.

'We will focus on developing medium to low-end restaurants to take advantage of the economic downturn,' said Michael Chan Yue-kwong, the chairman of the group.

Caviar Kaspia, meanwhile, has more modest expansion plans. A third outlet will probably only be opened after the economy has fully recovered.

Off the menu

Upmarket restaurants are feeling the pinch as diners seek cheaper fare

The average cost of lunch at the luxurious Caviar Kaspia starts at, in HK$: $300

Diners buy lunch at budget chains such as Cafe de Coral for an average, in HK$: $30