China's entrepreneurs, essential to the economy, have seen their fortunes plummet. Many millions of jobs are at stake.
The stone counters where customers normally crowd at Pang Mei's Noodle Shop in Beijing have been turned into an assembly line of workers folding dumplings or measuring out noodles, sauces and other ingredients into plastic containers.
The restaurant has been closed to the public for more than a month. Its customers, like all Beijingers, have been all but ordered to stay at home and avoid any public gatherings.
Its owners are trying to make up for the loss in business with an improvised delivery menu of boil-it-yourself noodles — with only a little success.
"I mean, now, we're not really making any profits," said one of the owners, Du Tianqi.
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The coronavirus epidemic, which has infected more than 81,000 people and spread to at least 44 countries, has rattled markets globally and disrupted business for some of the biggest corporations in the world. It is also ravaging smaller businesses in Beijing and other cities in China that do not have the resources to endure an economic crisis that has yet to ease its grip.
They include corner markets, bookstores, barbershops, bars, restaurants and cafes — all the places that are essential to a vibrant urban society, and a huge source of employment. The country's 80 million "household" businesses employ more than 200 million people, government officials say. Small and medium-sized businesses make up over half of the country's economic output.
The Chinese government must now balance its drive to stop the outbreak — and, by extension, salvage its political credibility — with its need to get the economy moving again.
Recognising the threat, an emergency task force led by China's premier, Li Keqiang, on Tuesday pledged support for the country's small and medium-sized businesses, including a deferral of pension, health and housing payments and promises to lower rents and interests on loans.
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Beijing's restaurants and cafes have been hit particularly hard. A survey commissioned by the Beijing Catering Industry Association and posted this week found that nearly 70% of them remain closed in the city, which has slowed to an eerie crawl.
They have been hampered not only by a staggering drop in customers, but also by the difficulty of procuring supplies and getting workers back to the city from holiday travels that were supposed to have ended nearly a month ago.
The industry survey estimated that the cost to the restaurant and catering industry across the country had already reached $85 billion. It called the epidemic the industry's Waterloo, after the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815, and warned that enterprises with insufficient cash flow or popularity would likely never reopen.
"Yes," said Du, "there will be a lot that can't survive."
Pang Mei's Noodle Shop opened in 2015 in one of Beijing's distinctive alleyways known as hutongs, offering pungent, chili-soaked noodles in the style of Chongqing, the city in central China. It is an offshoot of a chain from Chongqing owned by a cousin of Du's husband, Yuan Jie, and has won a devoted following. (A year after it opened, Eater included it as one of 38 "essential Beijing restaurants.")
In the last days before the Lunar New Year holiday in January, Du, 34, recalled in an interview that she felt anxious as she worked the register. The first worrisome reports of the coronavirus were emanating from Wuhan, she said, referring to the city now recognised as the center of the outbreak. The regular crowd was "very much at ease, happily slurping noodles."
"People did not really take it seriously," she said. That was five weeks ago.
Like most small shops and restaurants in Beijing, the couple planned to close for the holiday and reopen on Feb. 6. But the epidemic, and the government's efforts to contain it, had ripple effects that disrupted the restaurant's supply of spices and peppers from Chongqing.
The ones in Beijing are "not as flavourful," Du explained. In any case, many of the city's markets also closed. "We didn't even have the very basic seasonings."
By February 14, they had cobbled together a new supply chain. It was enough to offer a reduced menu of ready-to-cook noodles and dumplings for delivery, complete with instructions for people to finish the dish at home. (Noodles, she said, are best eaten immediately after being cooked and would suffer unconscionably from the time it would take to deliver them.)
The crisis has defied conventional wisdom that the epidemic would mean a boon for delivery services. According to the industry association's survey, food deliveries have also plummeted — in part because too few drivers of the ubiquitous scooters have been able to return to work, and in part because customers do not seem to want any contact with strangers zipping around town.
Du said the restaurant's revenues were now only a third of what they had been. That has already forced them to reduce costs. They normally have 20 employees, but only eight have resumed work. She handles the online orders through WeChat, China's messaging and mobile payment app, on her computer. Her husband, who is also a pop singer, fries the peppers in a warehouse in another part of the city.
In Beijing, the municipal government has issued conflicting guidance. Officials encouraged restaurants to remain open, for example, even while encouraging people to avoid public spaces. This week, the city announced a new rule requiring people to sit at least one meter, or more than three feet, apart and not face each other while eating — something that would be all but impossible in a place like Pang Mei's.
Du said she had not yet heard of any potential government assistance she could tap, though she keeps in touch with others in the industry, comparing notes. She worries about meeting rent and loan payments.
Until the coronavirus emerged, business had been booming, following a complete renovation that coincided with a campaign to refurbish Beijing's hutongs. The old wooden slats hung on the wall that described the day's dishes — which would be removed when ingredients were exhausted — have been replaced with new plastic ones.
Some owners that Du knows have already given up, including a Japanese restaurant nearby. She is hoping that a loyal fan base, and the craving for the distinctive flavour of Chongqing noodles, will get them through the epidemic.
As a worker filled a plastic bag with the makings of xiao mian, one of Chongqing's signature noodle dishes, she confided that a famous singer had placed that order. Many customers even seem to enjoy the novelty of boiling and assembling their own bowls of noodles, sending Du photographs of their results.
A local brewery has also asked about joining forces and including its beer in deliveries. "They gave us a very detailed proposal of cooperation that I couldn't say no to," she said. "This is a very special period of time. Everyone is just trying to survive by huddling for warmth together."
She does not expect to reopen fully until the end of March at the soonest, but is trying to remain optimistic. "At the end of the day," she said, "people always need to eat."
Written by: Steven Lee Myers
Photographs by: Gilles Sabrie
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