The coronavirus crisis hit Youjing Chinese Restaurant owners Lei Wang and Jing Guo particularly hard.
First, their staff of predominantly international students struggled to make it back into Australia after going home for Chinese New Year in January.
Then, for those who did make it back to Launceston, tightening dining restrictions and lack of tourists meant Youjing’s trade fell away dramatically. Without access to JobKeeper or JobSeeker, the staff all returned to China and could not return.
Lei Wang and Jing Gou operated the kitchen themselves for a month with only takeaway service, but it could not last.
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In April, they made the tough decision to shut.
“At first we kind of gave up. We talked to the landlord and said we can’t survive, we don’t have enough income to pay the rent, the landlord gave us a lot of support,” Lei Wang said.
“He understood if we wanted to shut the restaurant, they won’t hold us for the rest of the lease, very reasonable.
“But later on we were thinking, it would have been so easy to give up, we need to do something to help us help everyone. We were thinking in Launceston we need something else: fish and chips.”
Adapting to a changing market at the Seaport
For two months, and thanks to support from the state government, the restaurant underwent substantial renovations.
The kitchen was replaced, the bar was removed and a new counter added with ice cream freezers and a casual dining feel. The seafood was sourced from George Town Seafoods, and they could tap into the ready and willing Launceston workforce.
Reel Fish and Chips opened on June 18, and the response was instant.
“You can’t believe it, it was so popular! We were shocked, actually, very surprised,” Lei Wang said.
While in the past they had relied on evening dining service, they now look forward to weekends and school holidays when thousands of people walk past on their way around the Seaport – and from the nearby Riverbend Park.
“We are casual dining, it’s popular for young children as well, especially during school holidays,” Jing Guo said.
“It’s the first time we’ve experienced school holidays, in July, it was so popular. All of the grandparents bring their grandchildren here after they play in the park.”
For Lei Wang, going from Chinese restaurant chef to fry cook was an easy transformation, and he was enjoying the more relaxed environment.
“It’s so much easier for me,” he laughs.
“Lots of people ask, ‘why did you close Youjing? We miss that!’ but once we tell them the story, about our staff, the travel ban, they say, ‘oh yes, that’s true, of course’.”