Dining out going out of fashion
Restaurants are usually the first to feel the chill of recession as Beijing's high-end eateries that depend on group reservations and banquets for business will tell you.
"The number of diners has dropped by two-thirds from Monday to Thursday and by half on weekends," says Tianyi Li, deputy general manager of Yi Jin Yuan. It is a classy Muslim restaurant, where an average diner spends 150 yuan (US$22). Those who venture into VIP rooms could be poorer by 500 yuan per person.
"The trend seems to be to cut down dinner budgets and reduce the number of visits to restaurants," Li says. "Diners who used to splurge more than 10,000 yuan on a banquet now spend much less, and those who preferred private rooms now dine in the general area."
A major company used to hold its year-end banquet for 200 people at 1,000 yuan per head. But this year it has booked tables for just 50 people at 500 yuan per person, she said. "Even the person who used to negotiate for the banquet has been laid off."
Spring Festival, which falls on January 26, is usually one of the busiest times for restaurants because of family reunion banquets. Usually by this time of the year they are booked for the festival but this year reservations are still available.
Golden Jaguar, a buffet restaurant, had to cancel 10 to 20 per cent of its group reservations for the upcoming festivals, said George Wang, an administrative board member of and spokesman for the eatery.
Many of the bookings to be cancelled were traditional year-end banquets, hosted by large companies for their employees or customers. The restaurant that offers a spread of more than 400 dishes at 198 yuan per person for lunch and 238 yuan for dinner has seen an average 5 per cent drop in diners' numbers in its outlets in Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Shenyang.
"The situation in Shanghai is the most serious--group reservations have fallen by 20-30 per cent, though the flow of individual diners has not suffered," said Wang.
Beijing restaurant Hong Jing Yu, where the average amount one spends is about 50 yuan, appears less affected by the economic downturn, though.
"Revenue has fallen between 5 and 8 per cent (because) diners are spending 3 to 5 yuan less per person," said Li Xun, deputy general manager in charge of six outlets of the restaurant.
"The good thing is that fewer people now waste food. I've never seen so many people ask for doggy bags, even for steamed rice," she said.
Yan Jiang works for a foreign company in Beijing and used to dine out on weekends. But now she spends part of the weekend buying vegetables, meat and other stuff so that she can prepare lunch and carry it to work on weekdays. She earns more than 10,000 yuan ($1,460) a month and has to save for a house, she said.
"It's a financial crisis I need to be financially prepared instead of spending as frivolously as before."
Some restaurants have announced special offers to draw more diners. Hong Iing Yu, for instance, is offering 12 to 20 per cent discount on its dishes.
Yi Jin Yuan will distribute lucky draw coupons to Christmas and Spring Festival eve diners, offering prizes like two plane tickets to Hong Kong and laptops. It is also offering five half-priced dishes to diners reserving tables through its website.
Golden Jaguar, too, has announced special promotions to attract diners, Wang said. The restaurant hosted an Australian food festival recently, and will hold an Argentine food festival with tango performances at the year-end.
"The effects of recession are more obvious on restaurants in Beijing's Chaoyang district and the central business district, where many foreign enterprises and joint ventures are located," said Bian Jiang, secretary-general of China Cuisine Association.
"But while high-end restaurants are losing business, some middle- and lower-level eateries are becoming more popular because more diners have started frequenting them," Bian said.