JINAN, Feb. 16 (Xinhua) -- Tables were set. Food was ready to be served. For eateries across China, there was only one problem: the diners weren't coming.
As China's catering businesses were ready to cash in on the traditional high season during the Spring Festival holiday, a coronavirus outbreak spreading across China has kept customers from dining out, taking a toll on the catering industry and catching restaurant owners off-guard.
In 2019, earnings during the Spring Festival holiday accounted for about 15 percent of the total annual revenues of the catering industry, which topped 4.6 trillion yuan (about 667 billion U.S. dollars), according to the China Cuisine Association.
Amid the outbreak, nearly all meal reservations and wedding banquets have been canceled and a large number of restaurants suspended operations, according to a report issued by the association on the epidemic's impact on the catering business.
Restaurants that previously relied heavily on eating-in earnings had to focus on take-out business, hoping the move could help alleviate the pressure from overhead costs such as rent and labor.
A seafood restaurant in the eastern Chinese city of Jinan recently started accepting takeout orders from individual customers and providing set-menu meals for businesses. Yu Tingting, a manager of the restaurant, said daily takeout orders grew to between 40 and 50.
To reassure customers that the takeout food is virus-free, many restaurants attached to the delivered food a piece of paper showing the body temperatures of the staff who prepared and delivered it.
"Facing great operational pressure, many catering businesses are scrambling to boost their takeout business in an effort to minimize the impact from the virus outbreak," said Liu Wenjun, deputy president of a cuisine association in Shandong Province.
"While developing their takeout business may be a contingency plan for many restaurants at the moment, it could be an area they could explore in the future," said Liu.
Online food delivery and ticketing services platform Meituan Dianping has initiated a program providing catering services for enterprises that have resumed operations amid the epidemic.
The program can help ensure catering for enterprises while shoring up restaurants that have faced a sluggish market, said an executive with Meituan Dianping.
Over 150 catering companies in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen have joined the program.
Meanwhile, the sudden surge in the number of people eating at home in China has led to a shortage of deliverymen in many cities.
Tech giant Alibaba's Freshhema, a fresh food retailer that offers delivery service, came up with the idea of "sharing employees" with restaurant chains to solve the dual problems of the shortage of deliverymen and surplus of restaurant staff.
As of Feb. 8, over 1,600 restaurant workers had started their new, short-term jobs with Freshhema in 14 Chinese cities.