How pressure groups are trying to remove restrictions on al fresco dining

Pressure groups and legislators are lobbying for more alfresco dining, but the red tape remains daunting, writesNan-Hie In

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 July, 2013, 5:49pm

David Finifter, a banker at Societe Generale, misses French beachside restaurants where you can "sit outside, enjoy life in the sun with great food and beer, with the sand beneath you toes".

The 31-year-old moved to Hong Kong three years ago, and has yet to find similar options here. "Hong Kong is missing these type of places," he says.

It's not just on the beach - outdoor options in general are lacking here, he says. "In Paris, cafes with outdoor seating are virtually on every street corner," says Finifter.

"There is a strong street culture and sit-outside culture in Paris that come together perfectly." That's why you don't have to plan where to go to eat inside or outside, he says. There are so many good standard cafes, bistros and restaurants, "Just walk around and pick one - that's France!"

Compared to other major cities, Hong Kong's selection of outdoor options is limited. But that doesn't mean outdoor venues are not in demand. New openings with a terrace such as Duddell's in Central are instant hits. Bars housed in high-rises yielding sweeping open-air views do well.

Property developers are increasingly constructing commercial buildings with outdoor spaces, such as The One mall in Tsim Sha Tsui with a cluster of alfresco venues on the property's Sky Dining floors, including the perennially popular Cocky Bar and Wooloomooloo Prime.

Even so, restaurateurs are unable to keep pace with the apparent demand for alfresco space. Successful Outdoor Seating Accommodation (OSA) permit applications are declining in numbers, according to government statistics.

In 2010, 32 of 73 applications were granted. In 2011, 23 of 76 applications were granted. Last year, of 104 applications, only 17 were granted. Approval is required from eight different government bodies, including the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, the Buildings Department and the Transport Department.

Also, a public consultation ensues, which can take up to 18 months if there are objections. The government is trying to hasten the process. According to the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, it took 17 months to process an application in 2010. Last year, the time had shrunk to 10 months.

Despite the improvement, the system remains too daunting for many entrepreneurs: the drop-out rate for OSA applications is climbing. In 2010, 18 businesses withdrew their application. In 2011, 41 abandoned their application. Last year, the figure climbed to 68 withdrawals.

"The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department does not require an applicant to give a reason when he/she withdraws an application for Outside Seating Accommodation," a spokesman says.

The department also denies creating difficulties for the food and beverage industry.

"[The department] has all along been facilitating the trade to comply with the requisites for obtaining approval to use an OSA," says the spokesman.

The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department has also doubled prosecution of premises accused of violating the terms of their permits since 2010, a move apparently related to pressure from the Office of the Ombudsman.

That office received double the number of complaints from 2010 to 2012 that the department was ineffective in policing alfresco dining regulations. The government isn't the only barrier. Restaurateurs say residents have much sway over the fate of an outdoor operation - a noise complaint for example can jeopardise the licence.

In Hong Kong's densely populated urban landscape, conflicts can arise between business operators and the surrounding community. The issues have intensified as the food and beverage industry has expanded. Soaring rents are also pushing operators away from previous dining and nightlife districts, to affordable locations out in the suburbs, to the irritation of noise-sensitive neighbours.

While the government tries to balance the needs of residents and venue operators, some members of the business community say the framework for licensing is skewed in favour of the resident, not the operator.

Tommy Cheung Yu-yan, the lawmaker representing the catering sector, says the system is unbalanced. One unsubstantiated objection from the residential community can curtail the licensing process.

Cheung has been a member of the Liquor Licensing Board for nine years and says he has heard all kinds of hypothetical objections. "People associate liquor licensing with people who [will] definitely get drunk and do all sorts of things. It's the same with the OSA now; a lot of people associate [outdoor venues] with noise, disorder and smokers."

Some 10 food operations with alfresco premises contacted declined to participate in this story. Some claimed it was too sensitive and could affect their business. Operators told the Post that rising rents and margins at 10 per cent to 15 per cent made voicing concerns too risky. Losing a licence would mean the closure of the business.

Strife between the government and outdoor operators often revolves around the issue of the legality of the space the alfresco premises uses - is the area on private or public property?

In 2009, district councillors in Central and Western District passed a motion to restrict issuing outdoor licences on public space so that such premises could not be used for business purposes. The Times Square controversy sparked the move - the Causeway Bay mall drew fire for leasing the piazza for its own commercial gain when the area was deemed a public space. Central and Western District councillors were eager not to see such incidents in their own neighbourhoods.

Today, the city is still feeling the effect of the motion, says Cheung. "The district council voted that no public land will be used for commercial use. So I said why don't you take the meters out of the road, because that's also used by me, by my own car?" He adds, "Should there be no parking in all of Central and Western District?" Cheung reiterated that those motions were non-binding. "I don't know why the government decided to take the district council's motions so seriously."

The issues continue to mount for the outdoor operator. Since the smoking ban came into effect in 2009, regulators have been increasingly targeting venues with outdoor premises, although rarely those on the higher floors of buildings.

Stricter controls may lie ahead, as the Liquor Licensing Board ponders a limit on patron numbers at such spaces. But a lobby group formed by chambers of commerce aims to get lawmakers to improve conditions for outdoor operators.

The Al Fresco Group is focused on making the process more business friendly and efficient. The entity is spearheaded by the French Chamber of Commerce, the American Chamber of Commerce and has additional support from the Australian Chamber of Commerce.

Restaurant and hospitality groups, and landlords such as The Link REIT, have backed the coalition. Several solutions have been proposed. Most advise reforming the OSA rules, including the public consultation system that gives disproportionate power to "isolated objections to the detriment of community expectations, blocking OSA approval".

Cheung supports these efforts but is pessimistic on the future of alfresco dining. He's been lobbying for outdoor restaurants since the 1990s, with prominent policymaker Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee, and has been thrilled that test-sites such as Sai Kung and Stanley have been successful. "But it has deteriorated in the past 10 years. This administration has no backbone. They are not business friendly," he says.

The lawmaker says it is now difficult to obtain OSA permits. "It's high risk and I don't think this administration has the backbone to change and undo the wrongs [of the past]."