Pandemic expected to spark rush of online orders
On Jan 13, the first day of the 12th lunar month, the number of searches for "Lunar New Year's Eve dinner" on the online food ordering platform Eleme quadrupled compared with the same day last year.
Fang Jie, who is responsible for the platform's Lunar New Year's Eve dinner project, said the number of searches usually rises only after the Laba Festival, also known as the Rice Porridge Festival, which falls on the eighth day of the 12th lunar month.
However, with new cases of COVID-19 reported in several places in China, people are being encouraged to remain in cities where they work to celebrate the Spring Festival holiday, which this year runs from Feb 11 to Feb 17.
Many people have started to make early preparations for their Lunar New Year's Eve dinner, Fang said.
"Last year, due to the pandemic, online business in the catering industry grew significantly. We expect that for Lunar New Year's Eve dinner this year, takeout choices will rise further ... from the number of restaurants to the variety of dishes offered," she said.
Countless people working away from their hometowns will miss their parents' signature dishes at family reunion dinners on the eve of Spring Festival this year.
These meals are traditionally home-cooked, but takeout dinners are set to become a popular choice for Lunar New Year's Eve next month. Restaurants and online food ordering platforms are ready for their busiest night of the year.
Some restaurants are offering set takeout meals for two to four people, but are also catering to single diners.
Fang said Eleme is collaborating with restaurants to launch set meals for one to four diners, especially in first-tier cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou and Shenzhen, Guangdong province.
"It's going to be different this year, with many couples and single people having to celebrate Spring Festival on their own," she said. "Many of them do not know how to cook the main course for a Spring Festival dinner, so we hope the restaurants can help them with this.
"It takes some time for people to learn how to cook these complicated dishes, so it's better that they order takeout or semi-finished meat dishes and cook the vegetables themselves."
Fang said strong demand is expected during the holiday for milk tea and desserts, and Eleme has contacted merchants to prepare for a rising number of orders.
She said the platform has distributed many thousand pairs of gloves and kneecaps to its delivery riders, who are being given a special payment to work during the holiday. It is also preparing an online gala and special dinner on Lunar New Year's Eve for deliverymen not returning to their hometowns.
In 200 cities nationwide, Eleme has collaborated with more than 30,000 restaurants and stores to set up courier stations for deliverymen to take a break. The stations also offer a free charging service for the riders' scooters and motorcycles, along with hot drinks and food.
Fang said set meals offered by the platform in collaboration with restaurants will be launched online from Monday.
Customers can also collect meals themselves."They don't have to wait for a deliveryman if the restaurant is close to their homes," she said.
Coping with pandemic
The Nanjing Dapaidang restaurant chain usually offers a set Lunar New Year's Eve dinner for eight to 12 people, but marketing director Han Yan said that this year, set meals for two to four diners are being provided at a cost of 398 yuan ($61).
These meals, which feature duck, fish, chicken, prawns and vegetables, comprise four cold dishes, five hot ones, two staple foods and a fruit platter.
"The dishes in our restaurants are mostly served in small portions, so for our 398-yuan set we have included nine dishes with a variety of our signature menu offerings. This way, customers can sample more food for this special dinner," Han said.
"We are preparing Lunar New Year's Eve dinners in our 80 restaurants across China. Take Nanjing (capital of Jiangsu province) for example, where we have prepared 1,200 set dinners to ensure each of our dozen restaurants in the city can offer some 100 such meals," she said.
Han said the 398-yuan sets make up about one-third of the dinners the business has prepared for the eve of Spring Festival. The meals must be ordered two days in advance.
"As some people are still choosing where to spend Spring Festival, we are giving our customers more time to decide. They can opt to dine at our restaurants, collect meals themselves or have them delivered," she said.
Han feels that due to the pandemic, the chain's eateries have put more effort into online services. They have also changed their menus more often to meet customer demand, and upgraded takeout meals.
Nanjing Dapaidang has prepared special packaging for Spring Festival. "We have tested it to ensure it keeps food hot for at least an hour and a half," Han said.
She estimates that 80 percent of the company's 6,000 employees will work during the holiday.
"Our purchasing and kitchen staff members are ready for the busiest season of the year, and if delivery platforms are short of manpower, our employees are ready to join these teams," she said.
Han said a crisis plan has been drawn up in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak emerging in a particular area. If a community needs to be quarantined, Nanjing Dapaidang will collaborate with residents to ensure food is delivered.
The chain has also launched several gift boxes featuring semi-cooked dishes that only need to be reheated. These dishes include traditional Nanjing food such as boiled salted duck and preserved meat. Han said tens of thousands of the gift boxes have been sold.
"It's a special year for the catering industry, with most restaurants preparing to deliver food for Lunar New Year's Eve dinner. All we can do is prepare well and meet customers' needs," she said.
During the pandemic, the Meizhou Dongpo restaurant chain has launched semi-cooked takeout dishes and online vegetable stores. Both services have proved popular and have been upgraded for Spring Festival.
Zhou Miao, who is responsible for the chain's brand marketing, said six signature dishes were selected for takeout services, including Dongpo braised pork hock and spicy boiled blood curd.
"For these meals, we use a seal to avoid the soup spilling. The meals can also be heated directly on a stove in the bowl provided, so customers don't have to wash their own pots," Zhou said.
Vegetables can be ordered online from Meizhou Dongpo for delivery the next day. "For Beijing diners, we provide fresh local vegetables shipped from Sichuan province each day," Zhou said.
The chain is offering Lunar New Year's Eve takeout dinner sets ranging in price from 399 yuan to 1,899 yuan, together with an onsite chef.
Zhou said its restaurants nationwide would remain open during the holiday, providing breakfast, lunch and dinner.
For those eating alone on Lunar New Year's Eve, Japanese restaurant Nadaman in Beijing has launched a special Spring Festival hotpot set, which will be available throughout the holiday.
These sets, which cost 688 yuan, feature a bottle of sake, two types of sashimi and other hotpot ingredients such as prawns, salmon, beef, pork, chicken and a variety of vegetables.
In addition to eat-in dinners and takeouts, Peking roast duck restaurant chain Dadong offers a service in which star chefs and waiters visit customers' homes to cook and serve Lunar New Year's Eve meals.
The service is available in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.
Luo Ruixin, Dadong's marketing director, said a menu has been prepared for the special dinners, and customers can also order their own dishes.
"Typically, a family of six to 10 uses this service, which costs about 1,500 yuan per person. We send a roast duck chef, two chefs for other hot dishes and one or two servers."
The chefs bring the ingredients with them. Some ingredients, including abalone, are prepared in advance if they take a long time to cook. All tableware and even an electric oven for the roast duck is also supplied.
"Our teams usually arrive at a customer's home two to three hours before the dinner is served," Luo said.
She added that chefs and servers sent to customers' homes are vaccinated against COVID-19 and are complying with anti-pandemic measures.
Luo is optimistic about this service, as she thinks that people are not that worried about the pandemic. They are also not traveling overseas during Spring Festival.
She said that in previous years, dine-in business was good from Lunar New Year's Eve to the second day of Spring Festival, when it declined sharply before gradually picking up ahead of Lantern Festival, on the 15th day of the first lunar month.
"In previous years, we limited the number of takeout orders in order to maintain our service for dine-in customers. However, this year, we are expecting more online orders," Luo said.
Dadong is offering coupons for Spring Festival sets and gift boxes that include its signature dishes such as abalone, roast duck and braised pork. The sets and gift boxes have nearly sold out.
"Many companies buy the coupons as gifts for their employees or clients. They can use them to order takeouts or to eat at our restaurants," Luo said.
Afternoon tea is another option for Spring Festival family gatherings.
From Feb 11 to Feb 13, the Park Hyatt Beijing is offering a Chinese New Year afternoon tea package for customers to enjoy views from its 63rd floor. The package, which costs 699 yuan, comprises a dessert set with tea, coffee and two glass of Champagne. Bookings must be made at least a day in advance.
Executive chef Martin Aw Yong said the package includes savory and sweet desserts that combine Chinese and Western cuisine.
Savory desserts include baked truffles and braised wagyu beef in spicy Chinese-style puff pastry, along with pomegranate puff pastry with basil wrap and blue fin crab and sea urchin fillings. Both desserts have been given auspicious names to celebrate the Year of the Ox.
The sweet offerings include citrus quark cheesecake, red berry tea tiramisu and honeydew melon milk sago.
An open kitchen enables diners to watch chefs preparing these delicate desserts, and their creations are displayed on a glass exhibition stand next to the kitchen.
For Spring Festival, main courses made from quality ingredients which take a long time to cook are a popular takeout choice, and poon choi is one of the best-loved dishes at Cantonese restaurants in Beijing such as Xin Ming Yuen, Jia and Dining Room.
Believed to date to the Song Dynasty (960-1279), poon choi is said to have originated in the walled villages of the New Territories in Hong Kong.
The ingredients usually include abalone, ginseng, fish maw, prawns, crabs, beef, pork, lamb, chicken, duck, fried eel, dried shrimp and pig skin.
Peng Aiqiang, executive chef at Jia, who has more than three decades' experience in Cantonese cuisine, said ingredients for poon choi have become more plentiful each year.
His version of the dish features a variety of premium seafood and rare mushrooms stewed to perfection.
Peng also makes a takeout dish using braised Dongshan lamb from Wanning, Hainan province, which has less fat and more protein than other types of lamb. The meat is stewed slowly for more than 90 minutes with chestnuts, water chestnuts and winter bamboo shoots.
Peng said lamb is best suited for winter, and as this dish has been popular at the restaurant, he decided to make it a takeout option for Spring Festival.
"It's suitable for family gatherings," he added.