The lights are on in Chinatown but sadly, not so many people are home.
Friday's once-bustling scene when the famous night market was in full smoky, sizzling swing is now an empty freeway. The restaurants with outdoor seating are still furnished with diners ordering up Korean barbecue, slippery Xian-style noodles and Sichuan hotpot. But basement food courts, the places where lesser-known regional Chinese cuisine will often emerge first on the Sydney dining scene, languish.
There's light at the end of Dixon Street, thanks to an initiative from Thai Kee IGA. Customers can now access the likes of Chaco Bar's gyoza, Ippudo's ramen, Sam Young's pork and shiitake dumplings and Sydney Cebu Lechon's Filipino-style suckling pig in the chilled food aisle.
Owner/manager Alan Trinh says the idea to start collaborating with chefs to sell their products in-store started in March, with seven restaurants from Chinatown and beyond currently on the books. The supermarket moves 100-200 units per week, per restaurant.
"From what we've seen in the business, we've had fewer people coming through the store," says Trinh. "On average, before COVID-19, it was about four- to six-thousand people per day and after COVID-19, it dropped by half. But we found people were buying a lot more and spending a lot more, so it just made sense that this restaurant range fit in."
The frozen meals are designed for people to enjoy whenever they want, making them a perfect add-on for customers trying to minimise their contact time in shops.
Junda Khoo, chef and owner of Haymarket Malaysian restaurant Ho Jiak had the misfortune of opening his second restaurant at Town Hall three days before the March lockdown.
The driving force for Khoo to create frozen meals was to keep as many of his staff employed as possible. "A lot of our industry is fuelled by people on student and worker visas who were not getting any of the support our government has been giving. We [the restaurants] needed to find jobs to look after people."
During the first wave of restrictions, Sam Young, the head chef of Lotus bistro in Potts Point, turned to collaborations with local cafes to keep busy and soon started his own delivery service. His partnership with IGA is an extension of his already successful delivery work.
Young's dumplings are made to his mum's recipe. "They're her signature and she's been making them for years," says Young. "But there's a high cost to make them. Garlic chives, shiitake mushrooms, dried shrimp... these are really expensive ingredients. But I thought, 'you know what, I'm just going to go for it.'"
Sydney Cebu Lechon's owner Will Mahusay says that while the dream, ultimately, is to get Filipino food in front of a broader audience, a smaller independent grocer is a great place to start.
"For me, it's all about baby steps," Mahusay says. "I know it's not easy to get into the mainstream supermarkets but I thought, if I could take a crack at IGA, it's a stepping stone. "