BEIJING, May 21 (Xinhua) -- At an hour past midnight on May 10, popular crayfish restaurant Huda on Guijie Street in Beijing saw customers still in queue for a table to satisfy their cravings for the restaurant's specialty crayfish dishes. However, the line was still much shorter than before COVID-19 broke out, which caused many eateries and storefronts to shutter their doors.
The recovering hustle and bustle in the streets of Beijing reverberated to Chen Jumao, owner of a 1,800-mu (about 120 hectares) crayfish-breeding pond in the city of Qianjiang, central China's Hubei Province, over 1,000 km away.
Chen, together with many others along the crayfish industry chain in Hubei, which accounted for over half of China's annual crayfish output in 2018 and was hard-hit by COVID-19, have bitten the bullet with true grit and wit while the epidemic blocked logistics, closed restaurants and hurt demand.
Breeders like Chen felt the bite of the virus as travel restrictions left the ponds understaffed for feeding the crayfish and fishing them out to sell. Chen and his son worked around the clock to keep as many crayfish alive as they could, but they could not make any sales while under lockdown.
Coming to their rescue, Kang Jun, executive director of Xiagu, the Qianjiang-based crayfish trading center, led his team crossing lockdown lines to procure the crayfish from individual breeders.
"Breeders will continue breeding if we show them that their crayfish can sell," said Kang.
The crayfish trading center, the country's largest, sent out the first truck of crayfish in late February. At 2 yuan (about 0.28 U.S. dollars) for commission for each kg of the 475-kg total, the shipping cost Kang at least 5,000 yuan.
Chen's employees started returning in mid-March, and businesses including packers and processors gradually resumed in April, leaving Chen less than three months to snap out of his labor crunch and frozen logistics and churn out profits before prices plunge by the end of May as matured crayfish flood the market.
Market prices for crayfish had already taken a hit compared to last year, halved in regions like east China's Jiangsu Province and central China' Hunan Province, while shaky demand added to the volatility.
Industry insiders said that the sinking prices were more the result of speculation than an epidemic-driven glut.
Instead, the epidemic could help bring the crayfish industry back on track, as sky-high prices have cost the appeal of the food as a main-street delicacy and hurt restaurants.
Pages are already turning in the industry. Spiced, frozen and packaged, crayfish can crawl off Lazy Susans and climb up dining tables of common households.
China's leading e-commerce platforms like JD.com, Pinduoduo and Freshhema have been procuring crayfish in bulk to sell them as packaged and processed frozen delicacies online or in supermarkets, as part of efforts to revive sales of farm goods from Hubei.
The e-commerce platforms as an emerging marketing outlet have helped diversify crayfish products, said Shu Xinya, an engineer at the Aquatic Science Institute of Hubei Province, pointing to the potential for more lines of product to be developed.
Hubei Province has rolled out credit support at discounted rates for companies with crayfish processing and storage capacities of over 300 tonnes, as the steep increase in orders from online platforms demanded more processors.
In answer to the nation's call of shoring up the virus-hit Hubei agricultural sector, public-spirited people from across sectors have lent their hands in their own ways, starting from selling crayfish.
Local government officials of Qianjiang, Jingzhou and other cities in Hubei have taken to live broadcasting to promote homegrown crayfish, while business leaders, Internet influencers and television hosts also chipped in, selling 6 million crayfish from the virus-hit province within five seconds at a livestreaming event on April 21.
Tech giant Alibaba announced it will procure 1 billion yuan worth of Hubei crayfish from April to August through a pro-agriculture project.
Now that public venues like shopping malls, supermarkets, hotels and restaurants are gradually reopening as was ordered in a State Council guideline in early May, crayfish industry insiders are confident that the delicacy will remain a major night-time snack nationwide and are planning for the long run.
Kang's distribution center started posting 600-tonne daily shipments of crayfish in mid-April, basically on par with that of the same period in previous years. On May 1, the center shipped over 1,000 tonnes of crayfish to cities and provinces across China.
Huda is considering renting new storefronts to expand businesses, while other restaurants in Beijing are also seeking to cash in on the epidemic-propelled enthusiasm toward Hubei cuisine.
Entering May, Chen and his son finally took a breath of relief when a popular local restaurant in Qianjiang to which they supply crayfish restored foot traffic.
"We still have a chance this summer as long as we breed crayfish well," said Chen Long, the son. Enditem