This Hong Kong restaurant group created a manual about how to handle the pandemic, and it's become a blueprint guide for restaurateurs around the world

The owners of a Hong Kong restaurant group created a COVID-19 manual that was released publicly and has become a blueprint guide for restaurateurs around the world.

At least half of what was first included in the book is now a government-mandated rule for all restaurants in Hong Kong. 

The coowner told Business Insider that other restaurants shouldn't wait to go back to normal but learn how to exist in a COVID-19 world.

When the coronavirus outbreak kicked off in January, Hong Kong was recovering from a six-month-long period of protests in the city, which had forced many restaurants and stores to close and cost the local economy billions of dollars.

Restaurants in Hong Kong were still reeling from the effects of this when it quickly became clear that they might be approaching an even more tumultuous chapter. 

The management team at Black Sheep, a popular neighborhood restaurant group in the city, were among the first to quickly clock on to the severity of the situation and start to make a plan of how to handle it. 

"We had an inkling that this was going to be an issue and it was going to come to Hong Kong," Black Sheep cofounder Syed Asim Hussain said in a recent phone conversation with Business Insider.

"Being in fight mode because of what was happening in the industry maybe helped us, and we were very swift to come together and say: 'What are things we need to do to keep our restaurants open?' Because closing the restaurants meant the full financial failure of the company," he said. 

Hussain and his team took immediate action and set about in creating a set of guidelines that his 1,000 person team working across 23 restaurants were asked to follow in order to keep employees and guests safe as the restaurants stayed open. 

This included anything from mandatory temperature checks on arrival to handwashing every 30 minutes and a ban on all physical contact – no handshakes, no high fives, and no fist pumps.

It wasn't long before Hussain and his team was receiving calls from restaurants around the city who had heard about the rules they were enforcing and wanted advice. So, they decided to make their playbook public to help their neighbors.

The book was quickly picked up by restaurateurs around the world as the pandemic spread and others stumbled to find solutions to keep their own businesses open. It became a global hit and is now being translated into four different languages. 

In this time, the team was also invited by the Hong Kong government to advise policymakers on the work they were doing; at least half of what is in the book is now a rule in Hong Kong for all restaurants, Hussein said. This includes mandatory temperature checks, tables spaced six feet apart, and mandatory masks.

"The response has been phenomenal, we have had hundreds of emails and social media messages from restaurant owners that are using the book everywhere from Brazil in the west to Japan in the east," he said.

And most crucially, it has enabled Hussein to keep all of his restaurants open throughout this period, enabling the business to stay afloat.

This photo shows one of Black Sheep's restaurants before the protests and coronavirus pandemic broke out.
Black Sheep Restaurants

Pre protests and pre coronavirus, Black Sheep's restaurants were brimming with customers most nights. Today, it's a very different scene. Even at their very busiest times, each location is only ever able to reach 50% capacity. This was a company rule first and is now mandated by the Hong Kong government. 

On arrival, guests are asked to fill in a health declaration form, confirming that they haven't tested positive for the virus in the past 14 days, been in direct contact with someone who has, experienced any symptoms, or traveled outside of Hong Kong. They are also asked to provide their contact details so that the restaurant is able to easily contact anyone who has dined there in the future if they need to. 

Next, they have their temperature taken using contactless thermometers (anyone with a temperature of 37.5 degrees Celsius or 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit would not be allowed in) and are shown to a table, spaced six feet apart from the next. 

On each table, there are paper bags for guests to store their mask in while they eat, along with hygiene wipes and sanitizer.

Customers are required by the Hong Kong government to wear a mask to enter a restaurant.
Black Sheep Restaurants

While parts of this process are now mandatory in Hong Kong, at the very beginning of the crisis they weren't, and convincing customers to sign forms and have their temperature checks taken was extremely difficult, Hussein said. 

"We were turning away dozens of guests on a nightly basis," he said. For the first time, hospitality wasn't coming first, he added, safety was. 

As other parts of the world slowly come out of lockdown, they are facing similar challenges and experts say there has been a rise in customers being more aggressive to retail or restaurant workers who are in charge of enforcing similar rules at their own locations. 

Hussein has never wavered on his policies, however. "In my mind, there is absolute clarity around this, I am not going to put my people in harm's way.

"This maniacal commitment we have had to these protocols have in some way have helped. Even if it increases our chances of success by 1%, we are going to keep doing it," he said.

Keeping restaurants at 50% capacity every night isn't good for business either, and Hussein said that the hardest part of this crisis is the battle between mitigating full financial failure and fighting the virus. "Fighting on both these fronts has been very difficult," he said. "This has been the hardest 6 months of my life."

But if he has one piece of advice for his fellow restaurateurs around the world it is that they shouldn't wait for things to resume to normal. 

This image shows what one of Black Sheep's restaurants looks like at full capacity today as per government rules.
Black Sheep Restaurants

"Anyone waiting for things to return to normal is going to be waiting a long time. Things are not going to go back to what they were before and something that we are saying very loudly and clearly in our world is that there is going to be a new framework and all of us have to figure out how we are going to exist in that new framework," he said. 

He added: "The successful ones will very quickly figure out how you operate in this new environment and implement strategies around that."

Coming to terms with the fact that things may not return for a long time has been extremely hard for Hussein to digest himself. 

"It is harder than hard but we have no choice," he said. "I say good restaurateurs are like jazz musicians; we have to improvise."

And he certainly doesn't believe this is closing doors for all restaurants. 

"I would argue that restaurants will be even more important when the dust settles. I am a big believer that restaurants are the last non-digital frontier, this is where people will go to to get away from their tablets and computers...Restaurants are going to come back," he said. 

You can find a link to the manual here.

Mary Hanbury