Vietnamese restaurants in Seoul take a coronavirus hit

By Vien Thong    March 5, 2020 | 08:10 pm PT
Vietnamese restaurants in Seoul take a coronavirus hit
Alaghi Vietnamese restaurant in Seoul on February 29, 2020. Photo courtesy of Doan Ngoc Quang.
Covid-19 is taking a heavy toll on the South Korean food and beverage industry, with restaurants reporting falling revenues and quitting staff.

It’s 10 p.m., Doan Ngoc Quang, owner of Alaghi Vietnamese Restaurant in Seoul, just cancelled an order for ribs with rice, beef noodle soup and four spring rolls from Asan Hospital trainees who included a message reading: "We miss Vietnamese food!"

As coronavirus infections spiral across South Korea, orders from Quang’s Alaghi chain have dropped sharply, due to fear of contracting the disease from delivery staff.

Though any order is precious in a time dominated by an epidemic, Quang refused because the hospital was too far away.  

South Korea recently became the worst-hit country by the Covid-19 epidemic outside China with over 5,700 infections and 35 fatalities reported.

Following the Lunar New Year (Tet) holiday (January 25-29), Alaghi’s revenues remained stable with its three branches in Seoul and Cheonan City location, 200 km south of the capital, serving 300-400 meals a day.

In early February, when the epidemic spread to countries and territories around the world, residents in Seoul started wearing face masks but still commenced daily activities and business.

Until mid-February, as South Korea detected its first infections, linked to "Patient 31", a 61-year-old woman who attended services at Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu, the atmosphere grew more stressful.

"People started limiting shopping excursions and avoided crowds, resulting in a customer drop at my restaurants," Quang said.

The South Korean food and beverage industry took an additional hit when Daegu, around 300 km to the southeast of Seoul, was declared the new epicenter.

In Seoul, many office employees have been instructed to bring food to the office. Meal times are also split, with everyone sitting in opposite seats to avoid infection.

Kindergartens temporarily stopped accepting new arrivals while secondary and tertiary schools have allowed students to stay home until March 16, instead of reopening on March 1. Many women have taken leave for daycare purposes while many families cook at home after briefly shopping at a supermarket.

Now, Quang’s chain makes only 60 percent of its previous revenue, with customer numbers at 40 percent.

"Streets are deserted, so there are almost no walk-ins. Loyal customers, mainly office workers, refuse to go out for lunch," he said.

In addition to plummeting business revenue, Quang’s restaurants also face a shortage of staff as many quit over fears of contracting the disease via public transport. The chain has also been forced to cut staff to save on operation costs.

Like many restaurants in Vietnam and other countries, Quang’s is equipped with a free hand sanitizer while staff are required to wear face masks at all times. The restaurants even distributes plastic gloves to guests on request.

Reduced restaurant revenues, deserted streets and anxious employees are common across Seoul.

"The local Vietnamese business community is no exception. Everyone is trying to stay up to date and encourage each other," Quang commented.

Besides, Vietnamese trading in phones, ginseng, mushrooms, clothes and home appliances also reported a sharp decline in sales.

Bustling areas like Myeongdong, Itaewon, and Samcheongdong are now quiet as Vietnamese fly home or avoid venturing out on shopping sprees.

"Even if the epidemic ends, South Korea would need at least 3 to 6 months to recover its economy. It would take until the fourth quarter for the food and beverage industry to recuperate," Quang noted.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Vietnam said about 200,000 Vietnamese are studying and working in South Korea, with 8,285 living in Daegu City, and 18,502 in North Gyeongsang Province.

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