TAIPEI: Taiwan’s economy is facing a lot of challenges from stagnant cross-strait relations and uncertainty about US President Donald Trump's trade policies, but its restaurant industry is thriving despite the uncertain political climate.
The number of restaurants in Taiwan is growing at an average of 3 to 6 per cent a year to more than 120,000. Last year, the total revenue of the industry exceeded US$14 billion, breaking a new record for the 15th year.
That is because an increasing number of Taiwanese prefer to dine at restaurants for the variety of cuisines on offer and for convenience, with surveys showing more than 70 per cent of the island's population choose to eat out. They spend more than 10 per cent of their income on dining out, according to official statistics.
“Based on our report on family income and spending, the amount of money they spend on eating out and hotel accommodation increased 15 per cent last year from 2011. Basically, when people's living conditions improve, they are more willing to spend on dining out,” said Wang Shu-chuan, deputy director of the statistics department at the Ministry of Economic Affairs.
Italian restaurant Il Mercato, one of Taiwan's newest eateries. (Photo: Victoria Jen)
Italian restaurant Il Mercato in Taipei is the latest addition to the island’s restaurant boom. Owner Michael de Prenda said he has invested US$4 million to US$5 million to bring authentic Italian food to the island where he has lived for 20 years.
“Taiwan is a market I feel is very friendly to business - everything is very efficient and fast. It’s bigger than Singapore and Hong Kong in terms of the amount of people. The reason why they aren’t putting money into this market is that they don’t know it well,” he said.
He has hired Enrico Derflinger as the restaurant head chef, who has worked for both the British royal family and the US president. He is also a popular chef for celebrities like Hollywood star George Clooney and Italian singer Andrea Bocelli. His signature dish is a prawn risotto that has won him praise from the British Queen.
“The Queen was very happy," said Derflinger. "She called me to the dining hall and asked me what I wanted for a present. I asked for the pot that I used to cook the risotto."
De Prenda said he has picked Taiwan to start his restaurant business because he thinks Taiwan’s low operating costs make it an attractive market. He has managed to keep the prices at least 30 per cent lower than its rival restaurants.
“It’s one of the reasons why we can sell at such affordable prices - we buy directly from all the farms here and we grow things locally. When the economy is bad, you might not buy an expensive car, you might not buy a new house, but you can treat yourself better and eat out and the prices are reasonable,” he said.
He plans to open 32 more restaurants across the island over the next five to eight years and is confident that the Taiwanese's passion for food is likely to steer the restaurant industry clear of any downturn.