Magazine article Management Today

Chinese Takeways: Troubled Times for the Chinese Takeaway

Magazine article Management Today

Chinese Takeways: Troubled Times for the Chinese Takeaway

Article excerpt

As traditional fast-food outlets fall out of fashion, some owners are trying to find new markets in wholesale, haute cuisine and karaoke Matthew Gwyther reports.

The slightly down-at-heel Hong Kong on Clay Lane is the oldest surviving Chinese restaurant in Coventry. It opened in 1969. Where better for a conversation about the current state of the takeaway in the UK? It's an ideal venue for a SWOT analysis of the spring roll and special chop suey.

Coventry has endured a tough few decades and the green shoots of post-crash recovery are thin on the ground. Stephen Chung, the Hong Kong's proprietor, is hardly brimful of optimism.

Since 2008 small, independent takeaways' sales have dropped from pounds 4.4bn to less than pounds 3.4bn. Low-income males are Chung's target market and their finances were the hardest hit by the recession. He's heard of Just Eat, the online delivery service, but a sign-on fee of pounds 699 and a 10% cut of any orders have put him off. Life is tough enough already, trying to achieve the dream 70% gross margin. Anyway, the Hong Kong has no internet connection. He'll deliver any order more than pounds 10, usually in person and by car, but he's a conservative traditionalist. The menu has barely changed since 1969.

Business is so-so, he admits, and he has a few ideas about why things have gone to the dogs, as the conversation rapidly turns in an unexpected direction: immigration into the UK.

'Yeah, I voted UKIP,' he says. 'Coventry feels like it's turned into a foreign land. What a mess. With all those eastern Europeans and Africans. Immigration is out of control. It's just too easy to come here and get access to the benefits system. I see them day in, day out. In the betting shops. They steal from bins and then take the stuff to charity shops to sell. There's a lot of friction. My friend was a UKIP candidate.'

Stephen's father, Yin Chung, arrived in Liverpool from Hong Kong's New Territories in the 1950s. A qualified tailor at home, he soon found work in the restaurant business. Yin toiled for others before starting up alone on Clay Lane.

There has been a Chinese population in the UK since the early 19th century, when seamen began settling here. However, by 1951, there were still only 3,459 single males from Hong Kong. The numbers went up during the 1950s and 1960s, coinciding with pressure in the then British colony caused by the build-up of huge numbers of refugees streaming in from China following the end of the Chinese Civil War and Mao's victory.

With Chinese laundries on the wane, most of these young men from the rural villages of the New Territories went into catering. By 1961, the census recorded Britain's Chinese population at 38,750.

Stephen began out back in the kitchen at the Hong Kong when he was seven or eight, carefully fixing the lids on the aluminium containers of steaming king prawn with water chestnuts, folding down the edges on all four sides.

His father developed a bad back and Stephen, who wasn't proving a hit at school, felt duty-bound to get more involved. He then had a period of punk rebellion, spending what little cash he had following The Damned, Stiff Little Fingers and The Clash. The one thing that makes him smile is reminiscing about how the kung fu sensation Bruce Lee gave young Chinese guys such as him a sense of identity. He shows us his nunchuks.

'It's very hard now,' he says. 'OK, we don't have to grow our own bean sprouts or chop potatoes to make chips. But employees are demanding. Chefs want Wi-Fi in their flat. Back in the 1960s, in the takeaway business there was no KFC, no McDonald's, no Domino's. We had to compete with the odd Indian and traditional fish and chips, but it was a good living. We served pork and stuffing batches. They were the good old days. We served the drunks from pubs after closing time at 11. Pubs did no food back then. There was a bit of racism, but nothing too bad: the odd fight, a broken window. …

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