During the darkest days of Sars, restaurant group Epicurean Management, owners of Hong Kong landmarks Jimmy's Kitchen and The Peak Lookout, faced the possibility of closure. It was June, business had dried up and no one had a crystal ball. 'Our business is restaurants, which have a huge cost structure, so the owner was calculating how long we could last,' explained Epicurean's group operations director Grant Baird. That they survived and still thrive is due in no small part to the actions Mr Baird took as soon as the New Zealander realised the enormity of the potential calamity of Sars. 'I decided early on in March and April that this could be a disaster and went into crisis mode, even before the press really got going,' he said. In 26 years in the hospitality industry nothing had prepared him for this. 'I didn't have a crisis management manual. I read widely about Sars and my decisions were guided by logic and common sense.' Cutbacks were implemented immediately, 'We cut strategic spending, no more wine buying and stopped all nonessential purchasing.' As business slumped, cash spending was slashed too. In these early days of Sars such measures were regarded as extreme, he recalled. 'Our management thought it was over the top, but as the weeks went by, it became clear it was the right decision.' The second strategic stop concerned the 350 staff in Epicurean's 13 outlets. China travel was monitored. 'A lot of my boys live over there or have wives there, so we tracked them closely. If anyone got sick they went home - we followed the government guidelines and no one connected with our restaurants got Sars.' Staff took pay cuts of up to 20 per cent, some volunteered for unpaid leave, realising their jobs were at stake. 'We had to cut our losses and they knew we weren't taking the mickey because of the economic situation, and by doing this we kept all our staff,' he said. No one moaned. 'They all rallied and worked together. The good thing about human nature is when the going gets tough the tough get going.' These were tough calls, made quickly. Daily meetings with the restaurants' managers kept them informed and involved in all discussions and action plans. 'I took no decisions over anyone's head,' he said. 'In a crisis you must get senior management involved and on your side. I went on an offensive with all staff in the restaurants too. I was frank. I said 'I need your help to get the company through this crisis.' There wasn't a murmur of dissent. The Chinese press had made Sars sound like Armageddon by then. People were damn scared. The staff would come to me and say: 'Don't worry Mr Grant, we understand, we support you'.' Mr Baird also had to deal with the Epicurean Group's low-profile owner, who prefers not to be named. Unsurprisingly, his primary concern was the finances. 'He was delighted that we made the hard decisions ourselves and didn't leave it all to him,' Mr Baird said. But there were bleak days in June. '[It was] during one dark period when we sat together and considered the doomsday scenario of having to close the company. We were in negative cash flow over cost structure,' he said. The owner calculated they could last another six months. It looked grim. 'He said if it turns into a world pandemic, we should let everyone go. We'd already gone through April, May, now June - we didn't know it would only last another three months,' he said. 'But we decided to battle on, one day at a time.' There was another essential person to handle, himself. 'There were times when I would sink into my executive chair in despair. But when I put on my jacket and tucked in my tie, I put on the act, the smile, said: 'Hey we're going to be OK' and turned on the spin machine.' But he admitted there were late nights sitting on the balcony, his mind churning over what more he could do. 'I was drained. It's a strain when you're trying to keep up the image, the worst strain I've ever had. I don't mind admitting I went to church every Sunday and prayed we could get through it.' Also needing reassurance were Epicurean's 122 suppliers. They were panic stricken when the group's cutbacks coincided with another English language newspaper's story saying thousands of restaurants would close, recalled Mr Baird. Credit terms of 30 to 90 days are normal in the food and beverage business. 'All I could think was: Imagine if they all call it in now!' said Mr Baird. He went on an all-out charm offensive with suppliers, reassuring and calling in favours. 'I told each one: You have my personal guarantee you will be paid no matter what, but you must be patient. They knew after five years with the company I wasn't a fly by night. It worked - out of 122 suppliers only one cut our credit.' This is where you found out the strength of your corporate image and that included with the banks, he added. Turnaround finally came in June. Sars, he said, bucked the normal 'j' shaped crisis curve. 'This was a 'y,' a sharp decline and swift recovery. The key to surviving was down to our people and making key cutbacks early on. If Sars happened again, we'd be prepared and know how to handle it.' Even the masks are ready, stacked in the storeroom. Five thousand of them.