With the coronavirus pandemic came a wave of mandatory physical distancing measures at restaurants around the world.
Already operating on thin margins, such measures have forced tens of thousands of them out of business, with many more to come.
But during this global crisis, one valuable resource is now making the rounds among restaurateurs: the “Covid-19 Playbook,” by Black Sheep Restaurants.
The group operates 25 establishments across Hong Kong, including Michelin-starred restaurants Belon and New Punjab Club.
When co-founders Asim Hussain and Christopher Mark got wind of a highly contagious virus across the border in mainland China, the restaurateurs immediately set to work.
In January, they held a leadership meeting to map out a plan, then rewrote their standard operating procedures for their internal usage.
But after fielding calls from concerned peers in the industry, Hussain and his team decided to publish the playbook online for anyone to reference.
He never expected it to gain so much traction.
“We have had emails from people in Brazil in the west to Japan in the East, from India, the US, the UK, Australia … and so far, the book’s been translated into four languages,” Hussain tells CNN Travel.
“We’ve received notes of gratitude from people not only in the restaurant industry but also hoteliers, folks in the fashion retail, academia, hospitality schools and policymakers. The response has really surprised and touched us.”
Among the many notes piling up in his inbox, Hussain says they’ve heard from American restaurateur Will Guidara of Eleven Madison Park in New York City; chef-owner Liam Tomlin of Chefs Warehouse and Cookery School in Cape Town, South Africa; chef-owner Naotaka Ohashi of TIRPSE in Japan; and famous pastry chef Will Goldfarb, who runs Room 4 Dessert in Bali, just to name a few.
“Adversity can be a beautiful thing; it brings people together,” Hussain adds. “And I think in a world where there’s been so much uncertainty and misinformation, this book was just our honest attempt of fighting this together.”
No time to waste
Black Sheep’s Covid-19 Playbook came out of sheer necessity.
Heading into 2020, Hong Kong restaurants were teetering on the brink, following months of pro-democracy protests that rocked the industry.
And like many other restaurant groups, Black Sheep could not risk further unnecessary losses.
“The outbreak came on the heels of the social unrest of last summer and we feel like we have been swimming against the tide for almost a year now,” says Hussain.
“The past few months have been the most challenging of my career. I am sure this is the same everywhere, but the general uncertainty has caused a lot of anxiety for all of us.”
Following two consecutive quarters of financial losses during the social unrest in 2019, the restaurant group started to see some improvement in December.
“Then Covid squarely put us between a rock and a hard place again. Things very quickly became tougher than tough.”
As many Hong Kong residents lived through the SARS outbreak in 2003, the community took action right away – working from home, wearing masks in public, elevating personal hygiene, and avoiding unnecessary travel – even before the government issued formal requirements.
“Here in Hong Kong, we were at a bit of an advantage because many of us have SARS PTSD – there is a collective understanding of what we need to do to get through this,” says Hussain, noting that the city’s proximity to China also increased perceived risk.
“We knew it would spread in Hong Kong quickly because there is so much travel between Wuhan and Hong Kong – it was only a matter of time.”
‘Maniacal’ about safety
The team set to work, creating new guidelines that would protect their staff, guests and bottom lines against Covid-19, and ensure consistency across their two dozen restaurants.
The 17-page manual outlines highly specific and practical procedures, covering everything from handwashing to face masks, hand sanitizer, cleaning procedures, physical contact, temperature checks, health declaration forms, cost management and how to communicate with concerned or disgruntled guests.
The document also encourages restaurant owners to predict and plan for potential conflicts: “Try and think about various scenarios and give your team guidance on how to handle them – what if someone who signed the health declaration starts displaying symptoms like coughing? What if you notice someone is wearing a quarantine bracelet?”
Of the many recommendations within the playbook, Hussain says three relatively small changes can make a huge impact.
First, he recommends requiring hosts, service and kitchen staff to wear masks at all times. Guests too, he says, should wear a mask until they sit down to start eating.
Hussain also recommends collecting health and travel declaration forms (so “you are able to contact everyone who dined with you if there is a confirmed case of Covid-19”) and implementing temperature checks at the door.
“One night, we had to turn away more than 50 people (because they had fevers). In a world where I am responsible to pay for 1,000 salaries, where we’ve had a few consecutive days of zero revenue, that’s a really hard choice,” laments Hussain.
“But I understood the risks that I was putting my people under, and I think this is something that I owed them. Our commitment to this has been maniacal. And I think that’s kept us safe.”
Once cleared to enter, guests can relax at their table, where they can use a hygiene kit containing hand sanitizer and a paper bag for storing their face masks.
“The toughest part is leaving six feet between tables,” says Hussain. “In a city where space is a premium and a lot of our restaurants are small, this obviously means that even on our busiest night, we are at half of where we need to be.”
Even so, by maintaining such strict standards, the group has managed to eke it out through two waves of outbreaks in Hong Kong without firing any employees.
Black Sheep is even preparing to open a new restaurant, Crowd Super Deluxe, a premium teppanyaki spot that’s set to launch in mid-June.
Preparing for the worst
Many chef-owners and restaurateurs have followed Black Sheep’s playbook step-by-step to Covid-proof their own businesses, while others cherry-pick the practices that make the most sense for their locale.
Penny Chutima, co-owner and general manager of award-winning Lotus of Siam restaurants in Las Vegas, is one such owner.
While preparing to reopen her Sahara Avenue location this June, Chutima says she has been studying how Asian restaurants are dealing with the crisis since January.
“Having lived in Asia during the bird flu and SARS, [I remembered] how countries in Asia did an amazing job to secure and protect [the community],” Chutima tells CNN Travel.
“So I have been keeping up with news outlets from Asia to see how they are managing things. Following the steps [restaurants in Asia are taking] has helped me greatly in preparing.”
While researching, she came across Black Sheep’s Covid-19 Playbook.
She says the manual helped her prepare external communications – in particular, how staff can clearly explain safety measures and approach someone with a fever – as well as manage social distancing, enforce mask requirements for staff and adjust cleanliness procedures.
Chutima also plans to install thermal scanners, laminate menus so they can be sanitized and set up a touchless takeaway system, among other initiatives.
“Some of the rules in Black Sheep’s playbook are perfect for Las Vegas – like wearing masks, distancing tables, cleanliness procedures, and communications,” says Chutima.
“But one thing that wouldn’t work would be the data entry. Many people in the US are very wary about giving information like that to a restaurant.”
By updating her own guidelines, Chutima says she feels more confident that she can provide a safe, clean place for her staff to work and guests to enjoy northern Thai food.
“I told my family and my employees that 2020 is not the time for us to be making a profit. It’s just to stay alive at this point,” says Chutima.
“If we’re hurting too, I know small businesses in the area, even nationwide, must be suffering.”
Time for solidarity
Back in Hong Kong, the city has recorded zero or single-digit daily infection rates for more than a month.
As a result, the government has relaxed many social distancing restrictions, however, restaurants must operate at only half capacity at any given time.
“A few good weeks doesn’t mean that we’re back,” says Hussain. “[At Black Sheep], we’re still only close to 70% of where we need to be, so we’re not popping open the Champagne yet.”
Like many restaurant owners, Hussain is bracing for a long road ahead, working under the assumption that social distancing is here to stay for the foreseeable future.
“I have had some really hard conversations because, for a lot of people, this is their legacy. They have built their restaurants with love, care and attention – I need to be a cheerleader for them,” says Hussain.
“I keep saying, things are going to be OK. When things start improving, people are going to come out again. They want to go out and be together, they want good food and good drinks.”
Of course, the reality is that some restaurants will not make it.
Of the 15,000 restaurants that existed in Hong Kong last year, Hussain expects at least 5,000 to be closed by the end of the summer.
From New York City to London to Paris, many destinations are experiencing similar rates of closures. Whether they are permanent or temporary remains to be seen.
“That is a sad reality, but I am optimistic. As an industry, we are gonna come back – restaurants are part of the social and cultural fabric of a city, part of what makes it unique,” says Hussain.
“It would be a real tragedy to lose that … And I just really believe in our scrappiness and the resilience of restaurant people. We are here, we are still fighting.”