After some years in decline, Chinese street food vendors are enjoying a resurgence thanks to the effects of coronavirus. Just as take-out allowed many restaurants to ride out the first phase of the crisis, street food stalls could be the way back for restaurants and food professionals in phase two.
As the country in which the pandemic originated, China is often seen as a weathervane for how societies will emerge from the crisis and achieve economic recovery. There, after years of increasing restrictions, the humble street vendor is back in vogue.
Street hawkers are the “lifeblood” of the country, according to a recent speech by Chinese premier Li Keqiang. The street-selling tradition had been ubiquitous in China, but in recent years regulatory restrictions had tightened continuously, forcing vendors to indoor markets and commercial spaces.
The tradition contravenes the official philosophy of top-down control in the country, and so was being phased out in favour of more orderly and controllable commercial practices. However, now the government is seemingly giving a stamp of approval to street hawkers to spring back into action, in order to reboot a stalling economy.
A return of the street food tradition
This means the Chinese street food tradition is set to come back in a big way. Many people who have lost their jobs are using street stalls as a way to plug the financial hole while they look for a new job. They provide employment opportunities for non-skilled workers and cheap food for the poor.
The streets will be the stage for food’s recovery in New York also, as Mayor Bill de Blasio announced this week that the NYPD would stop issuing tickets to street vendors and would no longer oversee enforcement of vendors.
In addition, more restaurants are moving to outdoor dining, as the evidence suggest there is a lower risk of contagion in the open air.
According to the World Health Organisation, the coronavirus typically spreads via droplets when people are in sustained proximity to someone who is sick. Those types of prolonged interactions can happen anywhere, but experts suggest the risk of infection is lower outdoors. So the important thing is the amount of time people spend with others. This would suggest that using street food vendors is a viable interim solution.
While the daily news cycle has become consumed with other issues, the coronavirus hasn’t gone away or lost potency, despite claims to the latter. A second wave is considered by many to be inevitable, so social distancing measures remain crucial to fostering a return to normalcy, and nurturing the green shoots of an economic recovery for the restaurant industry.
The great outdoors
Many restaurants have applied their creativity to find solutions that will allow them to return to dine-in service. But perhaps the great outdoors, and not just outdoor seating, should be part of their multi-branched strategy?
One city that has shown great initiative in bringing back restaurants and bars is Vilnius. The Lithuanian capital was the first to announce a city-wide outdoor eating initiative that effectively turned the city centre into a giant pedestrianised open-air restaurant and café. The move has been hugely successful, and now the city is encouraging local tourists to explore a programme of cultural events.
Throughout the summer, Vilnius will stage foreign-themed weekends, with music, shows and events in the city centre, which encourage locals to get out and about and, crucially, to spend their money in the city’s hospitality sector.
The event's slogan declares ‘vacation abroad is now offered in Vilnius’. Locals have already enjoyed the sights sounds, smells and tastes of Italy in the first themed event, and the cultures of India, US, France, Spain, Germany and Japan are to follow. Restaurants are encouraged to create special menus for the event and to adjust prices to make food more affordable for local tourists.