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From Wuhan to Seattle, the coronavirus pandemic cuts deep into local businesses

March 14, 2020, 11:00 AM UTC

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This time last year, Greg and Jing Wetzel were—in his words—“killing it.” The couple’s Chinese food truck had successfully transitioned to a stationary location, Seattle’s only restaurant serving the cuisine of Wuhan. Things were going so well that Zheng Café was preparing to open a second location.

Now, amid the outbreak of COVID-19, both spots are closed, bills are piling up, and Greg is debating taking the van to be voluntarily repossessed—but not before he completes Jing’s request to remove anything valuable from their now-shuttered restaurant in case it gets targeted in a hate crime.

“For everything to just drop out like it did, it’s shocking,” says Greg.

When they set out to open a food truck in 2016, Jing argued that nobody wanted food from Wuhan—that the popular sesame dry noodles (often called hot dry noodles) were just street food. But Greg countered that he was American and he ate the dish with its thick, savory sauce and sharp pickled vegetable topping every morning. He won out, and she got some recipes from her mom and aunt. They worked together for a year, creating the filling for the buns, perfecting the texture of the dough. “We ate so many buns; we were so tired. So much work went into it,” Greg recalls of the more optimistic time. “To see it disappear in a matter of weeks, to be sitting where we are, it’s mind-blowing.”

Greg and Jing Wetzel in Wuhan, China, in 2016.
Greg and Jing Wetzel

The restaurant business is notoriously shaky in the best of times, and cooking food that hails from the epicenter of a pandemic crushed Zheng Café’s business. And when the Wetzels tried to rise again, the pandemic followed them to Seattle.

It’s not the first time Greg has hit rock bottom. In 2009, just after his divorce, he was there. But looking for an escape, he followed a friend to teach English in China. He sold everything he owned and took a one-year contract that landed him in Wuhan, where he fell in love with his job, the city where people were so friendly and treated him so well, and—eventually—with Jing. “This is all happening now,” he said of the coronavirus coming out of Wuhan, “but sometimes I wish I was still there.”

He stayed in Wuhan for four years, marrying Jing, who had a son from her previous marriage. The food was amazing: “A little bit of everything—spicy, sweet, savory, all kinds of flavors,” he says. And the people were so friendly, he recalls. But in 2014, the pair decided to move back to the U.S. to help their son’s college chances. Greg looked around for a new career. His graphic design degree wasn’t much help, but he’d always enjoyed cooking—his mom is a private chef, his grandma was a chef as well—so he went to cooking school.

When they opened, those sesame dry noodles Jing doubted people would like became their top seller. Their search for a commissary kitchen landed them a café space in South Lake Union, the heart of the Amazon lunch crowds. In 2017 they went stationary, and after a slow start, a Chinese food blogger’s post on social media sites WeChat and Weibo sent lines out the door. They hired employees for the first time, then started plans for expansion to help make the business profitable. The second location didn’t work: They were stretched too thin and ended up closing it after three months to preserve the quality of their primary location. But they were unable to get rid of the location and have years of paying rent on the space still under contract.

Back to just Jing and Greg at the original location, they aimed to start over in December, focusing on their core business: the one spot, with their loyal customers who came from Wuhan, or went to university there, and now worked for Amazon and nearby tech companies. Greg and Jing worked four days a week, 13 hours a day, then spent the rest of their time with their son or doing prep for the following week.

Then COVID-19 hit. Jing’s parents were the first to tell the couple: They were under quarantine. Her uncle, already battling lung cancer, tested positive, then her aunt while caring for him. He went to the ICU, and after she went in for treatment, the government put chains on her apartment. She had to move into a hotel room, and it was hard. No banks were open—there was no way to get money. Greg and Jing worried constantly—about her parents, about the 250 students in the class Greg had followed through three years of school. Jing was crying constantly. Their customers from Wuhan would cry into the beef noodle soup—young men, alone, and far from their parents in quarantine, coming in for a taste of home. The Wetzels took some time off: “It was hard to cook, hard to put a smile on and face people every day,” Greg says. The restaurant started to get negative feedback.

“Are you from Wuhan?” a Chinese tourist asked. When Jing said yes, the customer walked out. Chinese and Asian restaurants around the country saw business go down. When Greg decided to try to collect masks and hand sanitizer to send to Wuhan and created a donation box, the restaurant got a one-star review online, telling the couple they ran a business and should purchase it themselves. “People thought we had ulterior motives,” he says. “We didn’t get any donations.” They shut the business down.

Wuhan sesame noodles with ground pork: a traditional dish made with homemade sesame paste, seasoned ground beef, pickled long beans and Japanese radish, sweet peanuts, green onions, and sesame seeds.
Greg and Jing Wetzel

Then KOMO News, a local TV and radio station, asked for an interview, and Eater Seattle wrote a story. “They wanted to help,” says Greg, to show support and help people shed their fear. Lots of people said they would come in—they wanted to eat there. So Jing and Greg got back to work and prepped to re-open on Feb. 19. The first day was great, with lots of customers coming through, but it was short-lived—the second day it all dropped off. And then things got worse: Amazon, which employs some 50,000 people in the neighborhood, including about 80% of Zheng Café’s customers, instructed its employees to work from home. “We called it quits,” says Greg. “There’s not much I can do.”

Every day, they talk to Jing’s parents in Wuhan. “They’ve been locked in,” Greg says, with a chain on the apartment building so they can’t go out. The building’s residents placed their food orders together, and when the meals arrived, the gate was unlocked, and the manager—whom Greg and Jing knew—had been bringing it to each apartment. Then she got sick and passed away within four days. Someone else took over, but food supplies are dwindling. “Now they get a cabbage, a dozen eggs, and some rice,” Greg says.

Jing’s parents are in their seventies and have breathing problems, so they can’t go out. But now that the virus is here, Jing, too, is vulnerable—she’s allergic to penicillin and some antibiotics, so a secondary infection could be deadly. While the café was open, Greg was vigilant about wiping everything down, but hearing customers coughing made them anxious.

Greg and Jing know what the virus can do from talking to friends and colleagues, and they worry that people here don’t realize the seriousness of it. “Even my dad just keeps saying it’s just the flu,” Greg notes. But he guesses it’s even worse than it sounds. “I am sure the numbers are underreported—everyone I know has lost someone,” he continues. “To think that is on the way here is really frightening.”

For now, he watches the bills pile up, including the rent at both locations. But with no income coming in and trash, power, water, and license renewals to pay, that’s not enough. The company he and Jing own in China was their extra lifeline when they’d come up short before, but that’s no help now. It’s been closed, as are all the banks. Greg debates between paying a $488 trash bill or saving to buy food and pay potential future medical bills for his family.

But letting the business go bankrupt will ruin his credit and any chance of rebuilding the business. Meanwhile, Jing is scared to go outside, with rumors of racist attacks and hate crimes on top of concerns about her own health. “The people of Wuhan didn’t deserve this,” says Greg of the blame the city has shouldered. Neither do the Wetzels nor the Zheng Café, and yet the business sits in pieces, with little plan for recovery. Greg recently put the South Lake Union space up for sale, and somebody jumped on it. If that sale goes through, he says he still hopes they might head back to the Green Lake spot and try again. But he also knows it won’t be the same: “Because we serve Wuhan food, there will always be a scar on us.”

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