Home / Entertainment / The Hong Kong restaurant group’s ‘Covid-19 Playbook’ helps global companies reopen

The Hong Kong restaurant group’s ‘Covid-19 Playbook’ helps global companies reopen



(CNN) – The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in a wave of mandatory physical detachments in restaurants around the world.

Such measures, which have already been carried out with low profit margins, have pushed tens of thousands of them out of business, and many more will follow.
But during this global crisis, a valuable resource is now circulating among restaurateurs: the “Covid-19 Playbook” by Black Sheep Restaurants.

The group operates 25 facilities across Hong Kong, including the Michelin-starred Belon and New Punjab Club restaurants.

When the co-founders Asim Hussain and Christopher Mark got wind of a highly contagious virus across the Chinese mainland, the restaurateurs immediately got to work.

The Black Sheep Restaurants group in Hong Kong recommends that restaurants check guests' temperatures before giving access.

The Black Sheep Restaurants group in Hong Kong recommends that restaurants check guests’ temperatures before giving access.

Courtesy of Black Sheep Restaurants

In January, they held a leadership meeting to work out a plan, and then rewrote their standard operating procedures for internal use.

After Hussain and his team answered calls from affected industry peers, they decided to publish the game book online so everyone could refer to it.

He never expected it to gain that much traction.

“We have received emails from people from Brazil in the west to Japan in the east, from India, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia … So far, the book has been translated into four languages,” Hussain told CNN Travel.

“We received letters of thanks not only from people from the restaurant industry, but also from hoteliers, people from the fashion trade, universities, hospitality schools and political decision-makers. The reaction really surprised and touched us.”

Among the many notes piling up in his inbox, Hussain says they heard from American restaurateur Will Guidara from Eleven Madison Park in New York City. Chef Liam Tomlin from the Chefs Warehouse and Cookery School in Cape Town, South Africa; Chef Naotaka Ohashi from TIRPSE in Japan; and the famous confectioner Will Goldfarb, who runs Room 4 Dessert in Bali, to name just a few.

“Adversity can be a nice thing; it brings people together,” added Hussain. “And I think in a world where there was so much uncertainty and misinformation, this book was just our honest attempt to fight it together.”

No time to waste

Black Sheep’s Covid 19 playbook was created out of necessity.

On the way to 2020, the restaurants in Hong Kong were on the verge of ending after months of protests against democracy that shook the industry.

And like many other restaurant groups, Black Sheep could not risk further unnecessary losses.

“The outbreak followed the social unrest last summer and we feel we’ve been going against the tide for almost a year,” said Hussain.

“The past few months have been the biggest challenge in my career. I’m sure it is the same everywhere, but the general uncertainty has worried us all.”

Black Sheep operates 25 facilities across Hong Kong, including Burger Circus.

Black Sheep operates 25 facilities across Hong Kong, including Burger Circus.

Courtesy of Black Sheep Restaurants

After two consecutive quarters of financial losses during the social unrest in 2019, the restaurant group showed some improvement in December.

“Then Covid put us right back in between a rock and a hard place. Things got harder than hard very quickly.”

With many Hong Kong residents experiencing the SARS outbreak in 2003, the community immediately took action – working from home, wearing masks in public, improving personal hygiene, and avoiding unnecessary travel – even before the government made formal requirements.

“Here in Hong Kong, we had a bit of an advantage because many of us have SARS-PTSD – there is a collective understanding of what we need to do to achieve this,” says Hussain, noting that the city is near China is also at increased perceived risk.

“We knew it would spread quickly in Hong Kong because there are so many trips between Wuhan and Hong Kong – it was only a matter of time.”

“Maniacal” about security

The team got to work and created new guidelines to protect employees, guests and company results from Covid-19 and to ensure consistency in two dozen restaurants.

The 17-page manual describes highly specific and practical procedures that cover everything from handwashing to face masks, hand disinfectants, cleaning procedures, physical contact, temperature tests, forms for health statements, cost management and communication with affected or disgruntled guests.

The document also encourages restaurant owners to predict and plan potential conflicts: “Think about different scenarios and give your team instructions on how to deal with them. What happens if someone who signs the health care certificate shows symptoms such as coughing? What is, if you notice someone wearing a quarantine bracelet? ”

Of the many recommendations in the game book, Hussain says that three relatively small changes can have a big impact.

First, he recommends that hosts, service and kitchen staff must wear masks at all times. Guests, too, he says, should wear a mask until they sit down to start eating.

Black Sheep venue visitors must complete a health and travel declaration form.

Black Sheep venue visitors must complete a health and travel declaration form.

Black sheep restaurants

Hussain also recommends collecting health and travel declaration forms (so that “you can contact anyone who has dinner with you when there is a confirmed case of Covid-19”) and doing temperature checks on the door.

“One night we had to reject more than 50 people (because they had a fever). In a world where I am responsible for 1,000 salaries, where we had a few consecutive days without earnings, this is really difficult choice,” complains Hussain.

“But I understood the risks I was putting my people at, and I think that’s something I owe them. Our commitment to it was insane. And I think it protected us.”

After entering, guests can relax at their table and use a hygiene kit with hand sanitizer and a paper bag to store their face masks.

“The hardest thing is to leave six feet between the tables,” says Hussain. “In a city where space is scarce and many of our restaurants are small, this obviously means that half of us are where we need to be, even on our busiest night.”

Nevertheless, by adhering to such strict standards, the group has managed to deal with two waves of outbreaks in Hong Kong without firing employees.

Black Sheep is even preparing to open a new restaurant, Crowd Super Deluxe, a premium teppanyaki restaurant that is slated to open in mid-June.

Prepare for the worst

Many chefs and restaurateurs have followed Black Sheep’s playbook step by step to protect their own businesses against Covid, while others choose the practices that make the most sense for their locale.

Penny Chutima, co-owner and executive director of the award-winning Lotus of Siam restaurants in Las Vegas, is one such owner.

Many Las Vegas Siam restaurants have implemented some of Black Sheep's recommendations, including temperature testing.

Many Las Vegas Siam restaurants have implemented some of Black Sheep’s recommendations, including temperature testing.

Courtesy of Lotus of Siam

While Chutima is preparing to reopen its Sahara Avenue location in June, it has been investigating how Asian restaurants are dealing with the crisis since January.

“After living in Asia during bird flu and SARS, [I remembered] How countries in Asia have done a great job of securing and protecting [the community]”Chutima tells CNN Travel.

“So I kept up with Asian news agencies to see how they manage things. Follow the steps [restaurants in Asia are taking] helped me a lot with the preparation. “

While researching, she came across Black Sheep’s Covid 19 playbook.

She says the handbook helped her prepare for external communication – especially how employees can clearly explain safety measures and turn to someone with a fever – as well as coping with social distance, enforcing mask requirements for employees, and adjusting cleanliness procedures.

Lotus of Siam servers were asked to take a hygiene and security check. Servers that had not passed the test were only allowed to return if they were able to do so with an “excellent” grade.

Lotus of Siam servers were asked to take a hygiene and security check. Servers that had not passed the test were only allowed to return if they were able to do so with an “excellent” grade.

Courtesy of Lotus of Siam

Chutima is also planning to install thermal scanners and laminate menus so that they can be cleaned and a non-contact snack installed.

“Some of the rules in Black Sheep’s playbook are perfect for Las Vegas – like wearing masks, distancing tables, cleaning procedures, and communication,” says Chutima.

“But one thing that wouldn’t work would be data entry. A lot of people in the US are very careful about giving that information to a restaurant.”

By updating their own guidelines, Chutima is more confident that they can offer their employees a safe and clean place of work and can offer guests Northern Thai food.

“I told my family and coworkers that 2020 is not the time for us to make a profit. It is just about staying alive at this point,” says Chutima.

“If we hurt too, I know that small businesses in the region, including across the country, must suffer.”

Time for solidarity

As a result, the government has loosened many social distance restrictions, but restaurants only need to operate at half capacity at a given time.

“A few good weeks don’t mean we’re back,” says Hussain. “”[At Black Sheep]We’re still almost 70% from where we need to be, so we’re not opening the champagne yet. “

Like many restaurant owners, Hussain is preparing for a long journey and assumes that social distancing will remain in the foreseeable future.

“I had some really tough conversations because this is a legacy for many people. They built their restaurants with love, care and attention – I have to be a cheerleader for them,” says Hussain.

Once approved, Black Sheep Restaurants guests can store their face masks in the paper bags provided.

Once approved, Black Sheep Restaurants guests can store their face masks in the paper bags provided.

Courtesy of Black Sheep Restaurants

“I keep saying that things will be fine. If things improve, people will come out again. They want to go out and be together, they want good food and good drinks.”

The reality, of course, is that some restaurants won’t 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 have similar rates of closure. It remains to be seen whether they will be permanent or temporary.

“It’s a sad reality, but I’m optimistic. As an industry, we’ll be back – restaurants are part of a city’s social and cultural fabric, part of what makes it unique,” says Hussain.

“It would be a real tragedy to lose that … And I just really believe in our scrapping and the resilience of the restaurant people. We’re here, we’re still fighting.”


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