Crisis control | One Beijing restaurant’s success story

I focused on posting about Beijing bars and restaurants on WeChat and, to a lesser degree, Twitter and Instagram during the first three months of 2020. One venue’s name popped up more than any other—Hulu—thanks to the efforts of a team, led by Ignace Lecleir, in reacting to the coronavirus crisis. See details below.

Note: A version of this post appeared in my Grape Wall of China newsletter.

Note: Since posting this in April, I’ve added numerous updates at the bottom.

Imagine starting 2020 with four notable restaurants beneath your belt. Two are focused on fine dining. One is set in a stunning Beijing temple’s grounds and, after a decade of wine, sweat and tears, recently won the reader’s choice award for “world’s best restaurant” from Trip Advisor. The other is just across from The Forbidden City and a favorite of both tourists and residents. Plus two casual dining venues — one established and perpetually packed, the other new and full of promise.

Imagine starting 2020 with those four restaurants beneath your belt. Then getting punched hard in the gut by the coronavirus crisis.

That’s what happened to Ignace Lecleir, head of TRB Group. In early February, Lecleir told me revenue had fallen 95 percent. Just one of his restaurants remained open, casual dining venue Hulu, with the other three—TRB Hutong, TRB Forbidden City and Merci—indefinitely shut. With staff to support, including some quarantined outside Beijing, and prospects for rent relief unknown, the situation seemed dire.

One might easily wonder, given that the world beyond China felt safer two months ago, if Lecleir regretted moving here in 2007 to start Maison Boulud, the local branch of Daniel Boulud’s New York-based empire, ahead of the upcoming Beijing Olympics. Then again, anyone who turned a temple-turned-TV factory into one of the city’s premier restaurants — TRB Hutong — while facing a decade of rumors the place would be shut any day is unlikely to look backward. So it was with the coronavirus crisis. Lecleir was like the guy who rushes into a burning house to save someone on the second floor. What was the alternative? Idly watch the carnage unfold?

Here is a timeline of some of what Lecleir and his team have done over the past two months, on top of informing customers, very early on, about all of the precautions the staff were taking in order to maximize safety.

February 5: Launched a custom-made delivery program for Hulu’s food and drink menus. Rather than use a third-party delivery company as do the vast majority of restaurants, he made a team from scratch, including staff from the closed TRB Group restaurants. This was partly for safety reasons, as it gave him control of his food from kitchen door to customer door, with no need for the ambiguity of a third party.

The delivery program served an area first within 3 km, then within 6 km, of Hulu. Prices remained the same, there was no delivery fee, and Lecleir added the special touches for which he is known. (My last delivery came with a free bag of madelaines and a vase with a fresh rose—see below.)

In terms of wine, options started at just rmb88 (US$12) per bottle.

February 17: Launched the same program in Shunyi, a suburb housing many well-to-do residents but relatively few nearby delivery options. Lecleir rented part of another restaurant’s kitchen and began delivery within a 10-km radius. A wine trade friend who lives in Shunyi ordered from Hulu and told me Lecleir himself showed up with the delivery, as part of testing the system, and gave him an extra bottle of wine!

February 22: Started “cleaning the cellar” by setting out dozens of bottles of wine daily at Hulu, priced at rmb150 (US$21), for drinking in store or takeaway. On any given day, you would have picks from Portugal, France, Chile, the U.S., Spain, China and elsewhere. Superb value for that part of town and for those consumers determined to go out.

February 23: Launched new dishes, including more Asian-themed ones, to broaden the menu’s appeal and give regulars new items to try. Dishes like Thai Coconut Chicken Curry and Gongbao Chicken are still on the menu. Lecleir also continued regular updates of Hulu’s popular “Power Lunch”, which gives people the choice of three appetizers, three mains and three desserts, plus a drink, delivered for rmb98 (US$14).

February 28: Launched a wine packages delivery program, starting with six options, from rmb150 (US$21) for two bottles. (In that particular case, both labels are imported by Lecleir in order to maximize value.) Themes included Australian Shiraz, sparkling, Italian, Old World and Burgundy. This helped importers / distributors who had seen restaurant / bar sales go bone dry. Lecleir doubled as sub-distributor and provided them much-needed revenue. (The image above is one of the several package options launched.)

March 2: Continued to release new “power lunch” menus each week to give regulars fresh dishes to try for delivery. Also featured a one-week Duvel delivery promotion—one kuai (14 cents) per bottle.

March 7: Launched a second set of wine packages, themes including Cabernet, organic, Tuscany and Champagne. The prices ranged from rmb150 (US$21) to 888 (US$127).

March 12: Did an early Spring opening of Hulu’s terrace. The terrace, like the restaurant, is limited by a three-person-per-table rule, but did at least add more capacity. (I spent a chilly seven hours there one night drinking wine, content to trade warmth for conversation with friends.)

March 19: Reopened TRB Forbidden City, thus adding a second in-house dining venue.

April 2: Prepared to launch a cake delivery service. Offered free cakes to the first dozen people who requested one in Hulu’s WeChat groups, which meant feedback and treated fans.

April 4: Launched six more wine packages, including themes such as Sicily, New Zealand, Champagne and “fruit bombs.”

April 9: Launched cake delivery service, with four options, plus a rotating by-the-slice menu at Hulu.

Update: In the nine days since I posted, TRB Group broke ground on a new restaurant in Shunyi, in the former Fella’s space–the slated opening is May 1. It also launched a new delivery app, including an online wine shop (I helped test the system). And is continuing wine package deals, including its first one focused on a local winery, Shi Bai Pian, just beyond Beijing. The Chardonnay and Pinot Noir — a wine that received one million points — is rmb399 until May 1.

Update 2: Hulu officially opened its new restaurant in Shunyi on May 1 and was fully booked.

Update 3: TRB opened its third Hulu restaurant, and its second this year, in Lido on September 4 — this one is pizza-centric and saw it partner with La Pizza. It also reopened its flagship restaurant TRB Hutong on August 21 and French restaurant Merci on June 12, started delivery of home BBQ kits on July 21, and had pop-ups at its Hulu Shunyi branch with Mexican restaurant Pebbles, Vietnamese restaurant Susu and Japanese restaurant Hatsune.

Update 4: TRB opened a new casual dining venue called Peach, close to HULU WAB on October 9. sandwiches, salads, burgers, pastas, juices and more.

I know I missed some stuff in there but you get the idea. It’s a testament to not only Lecleir but also the strong team at TRB Group. And the results are good: about three weeks ago, Lecleir told me delivery revenue had surpassed in-house at Hulu. Was it as profitable? I didn’t ask. But as TRB Group reopens its restaurants, it can maintain these new sources of delivery revenue, and turn a dire situation for Beijing’s restaurant and bar scene into one that gives consumers even more choice.

Note: TRB has supported many community projects over the past decade, including some in which I am involved, like the annual charity campaign Maovember and non-profit wine events like the Grape Wall Challenge and World Marselan Day. Frankly, it would be hard to imagine the city’s dining scene without TRB, which is why so many people here were happy to see Hulu’s initiatives and to support them.

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