When change is on the menu

  • Colours of China
  • Monday, 08 Jun 2020

Hard day’s work: Many restaurants have resorted to providing food delivery services and discounts to survive the current situation. — AP

Malaysian restaurants in Beijing are forced to adopt new ways to attract business.

DEEP in a quiet hutong (alley) in Beijing lies a siheyuan (traditional courtyard residence).

From the outside, it looks no different from other homes in the Chinese capital but once inside, it’s a different world altogether.

The single-storey premises with a rooftop is full of plants and flowers, and decorated with paraphernalia from Sarawak such as wooden craft, weaving mats and other handicraft from a state known for its diverse range of motif and designs.

This is the Mulu Hutong restaurant, the paradise of Jasmine Kho who is desirous for Beijing city folk to enjoy delicious Malaysian cuisine while indulging in the beautiful rainforest.

“Miss Beh!” someone greeted me as I pushed open the wooden door and walked into the place.

It took me a while to figure out who this person clad in a chef outfit was until I realised it was Kho, the Sarawakian owner of the restaurant.

Gone is the normally glamorous and smartly dressed lady who would usually be chauffeured around Beijing in a posh car.

“I heard that you have been helping out in the kitchen and I thought people were just joking, ” I told her.

Apparently, she is not only helping in the kitchen, Kho also delivers food to customers.

“I had to cycle more than 120km a day to deliver food to my customers when we reopened for business after the Chinese New Year holiday.

“It was the time when the Covid-19 pandemic was at its height in China, and most people preferred to stay home, ” she said.

At that time, Kho operated the restaurant with just one chef as her other workers, who had returned home for the festival, were stuck at their respective hometowns.

After two weeks of cycling, she was too exhausted and her chef suggested that she learn to ride an electrical motorcycle, which is faster and more comfortable and you don’t have to obtain a licence to ride one.

It took her just a few tries to ride one but she is still far from mastering it.

“Almost every day, I fell off the bike, sometimes hitting obstacles on the road; sometimes I lost balance and the worst incident was when I rammed into a car.

“Luckily, the driver was understanding and did not ask me to pay for the scratch mark, ” she said, showing me bruises and little injuries on her hands.

Business is better now as the food delivery industry is back to normal. But business is still tough.

Mulu had to close down its branch at a shopping mall in the popular Wangfujing commercial street due to the high rental.

To ensure continuous business at its headquarters, the high-end Malaysian restaurant, which used to only entertain customers with reservations, is now offering food at much cheaper prices.

“We now accept delivery and have launched our weekend buffet meals, ” Kho said.

For just 160 yuan (RM97), one will get to taste a variety of Malaysian food, including nasi lemak with curry chicken, Sarawak laksa, fried popia, teh tarik, kolok mee and bubur cha-cha.

Up to 50% discount is offered to those who order from the menu.

James Ong, who runs Nyonya Kitchen at a shopping mall in the bustling central business district, has to implement new strategies to attract customers.

Affected by the coronavirus outbreak, the restaurant was forced to close for more than two months from late January.

“It was tough. I had zero income and yet had to pay for rental and staff salaries, ” he said.

When the restaurant reopened in mid-April, business was down as most people were still reluctant to eat out.

Ong then introduced set meals at almost half the usual price.

Before the pandemic, customers paid 58 yuan (RM35.50) for a plate of chicken rice, but now with just 68 yuan (RM42), one could get a main course plus a dessert that usually cost 16 yuan (RM10) and a 24 yuan (RM15) teh tarik.

“The business now is equivalent to about 30% of what I made before the pandemic, ” he said.

He was somehow relieved that the mall’s management gave a discount on the rental. “Not much but at least something, ” he said.

Ong used to run a restaurant called the Malacca Legend but it was closed down last year as the landlord wanted the place back.

He then teamed up with the Malaysian owner of Nyonya Kitchen.

There are a few restaurants operated by Malaysians in Beijing, where I go to when I crave for Malaysian food.

Now, with the big discounts, I foresee that I would go to these places more often.

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