How Chinese-American restaurants are ensuring their future
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The future is a particularly immigrant concern. For any immigrant family, the future is all encompassing. The past has been severed, and the future is a gamble that’s been entirely cashed in on. In the era of the coronavirus pandemic, how to reopen is not a question of, “Will I succeed?” It is a vow: “I must succeed or else.” The steeliness of that hope is what drives one through crisis.
Chinese restaurant owners will need to double down on that resolve: While restaurants nationwide have lost business owing to lockdowns, Chinese restaurants have been among the hardest hit. An April study conducted by the data subscription service Womply found that over half of them had stopped taking debit and credit card transactions during the pandemic, indicating closed operations—more than any other type of establishment (the next most closed being “sandwich and deli concepts” at 23%). According to Yelp data, half of the worst days for Chinese restaurant searches in the U.S. over the past year occurred since the coronavirus broke out. During the pandemic’s peak, most Chinese restaurants in New York City had ceased operations, according to the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation. While small businesses everywhere have struggled to nab SBA loans, many Chinese restaurants aren’t even around anymore to receive such aid.
Even before the shutdowns, Chinese restaurants saw a significant drop in customers. Certainly racism played a part: Some restaurants faced discrimination from consumers wrongfully wary of Chinese food spreading the coronavirus in the U.S. Others have been the subject of racist graffiti and broken windows.
Many restaurants also began to struggle because some Chinese-Americans, who made up the majority of their clientele, started avoiding restaurants in January as they heard about the coronavirus from family in China and became fearful of large gatherings. “Restaurants that had mostly Chinese customers were hit really badly,” Larry La, the owner of Meiwah in Chevy Chase, Md., says, pointing to those in Rockville and Silver Spring, towns with large Chinese populations.
As dining rooms emptied and restaurants pivoted to delivery and takeout models, you might assume mom-and-pop Chinese restaurants would be ahead of the game. Chinese food is frequently synonymous with takeout, after all. But these restaurants in particular have been struggling.
The thing is, Chinese restaurants in America have been vanishing for a while. Yelp data showed in 2019 that the number of Chinese restaurants has been consistently declining in the country’s top 20 cities. From 2014 to 2018, they saw a 7% drop nationwide. Part of it is a generational shift—the kids doing homework behind the counter have grown up and don’t want to, or need to, take over the family business. “The goal is to not come back to the restaurant, because the restaurant is [a] crutch to get [immigrants] through society,” says Wilson Tang, owner of Nom Wah Tea Parlor in New York City’s Chinatown.
Old-school Chinese restaurants—the mom-and-pop shops marked by General Tso’s chicken, happy-face plastic takeout bags, and lazy Susans—have been used to orders placed over the phone, not through the tech-savvy solutions accelerated by social distancing. They may be less used to third-party apps such Grubhub or Uber Eats. They may be less likely to have a major presence on social media.
The blow to Chinese restaurants during the coronavirus pandemic is less of a sudden hit and more the result of years of pummeling.
Let’s get the worst-case scenario out of the way: Chinese restaurants in America won’t go extinct. They’re accustomed to existential threat—in fact, they’ve thrived in the U.S. in direct spite of it. After the Chinese Exclusion Act, a moratorium on immigrant laborers from China, was passed in 1882, one of the few ways Chinese workers could still enter the country was through the “merchant status” of a restaurant owner. Waves of immigrants were diverted to the restaurant business as their only livelihood option. “Chinese restaurants always pop up and survive,” the writer Jennifer 8 Lee says. “They can survive nuclear disasters. If [places] can support life, they can support Chinese restaurants—that’s one school of thought.”
But to survive, they’ll need to adapt.
Preparing to reopen
Nom Wah Tea Parlor is Manhattan’s oldest Chinese restaurant, dating back to 1920. As a tourist destination, it has lost many diners as a result of travel halts. Out of its four locations, only the Nolita site has stayed open during the city’s shutdown and only for takeout. It’s been selling frozen dim sum.
Nom Wah has persisted for a century, and Tang is looking forward to still more years. The restaurant is already preparing to reopen. It has secured infrared thermometers for the front of the house to check customers with. It has stockpiled masks and gloves for staff. Nom Wah is also considering at-home experiences, such as offering tutorials on dumpling wrapping. It is talking with the city’s Department of Transportation to potentially open up Doyers Street, in the heart of Chinatown, so customers can dine outside while socially distanced. Nom Wah is even thinking about providing branded bags for customers to put their face masks in while they dine.
“These are little steps we intend on taking, but none of it is bulletproof,” Tang says. They are hard measures to take, because “a restaurant’s main goal is for people to come together and enjoy,” he notes. These measures are counterintuitive to that.
Brandon Jew, the chef and owner of Mister Jiu’s in San Francisco, feels the same. “We’ll need to limit interactions but also be hospitable. It’s a real fine line. The restaurants good at that in-between will probably be successful,” he says. “I don’t think people should expect great hospitality until this is sorted. Until we can give recommendations, tell them about the food from farms, or tell them that this pairing will be great, everything is going to be a very orchestrated, very planned experience.”
Mister Jiu’s is expecting half occupancy. It will go from a restaurant that seats 100 and a lounge that seats 65 to a restaurant that seats 45 people and a lounge that “is up in the air,” says Jew.
The restaurants that manage to reopen will need to rely on technology. Mister Jiu’s is going to try contactless payment and will allow food to be ordered ahead of time. The restaurant is currently using Tock, a reservation platform. For delivery, La says Meiwah, which has been around in various locations for 20 years, now uses Grubhub, Uber Eats, and DoorDash. “So we don’t have to prepare a lot. Just make sure the computer is working, the phone is working, that’s it,” he says.
Restaurants will need to be handy with digital payments and social-savvy to thrive during socially distanced reopenings. Many Chinese restaurants that fit that bill are owned and operated not by immigrants but their children, as is the case with Tang and Jew. They’re not run out of financial necessity but rather an abiding love for food and heritage. Many of them trend toward regional foods or push the envelope on culinary creativity. Some of them, like the Michelin-starred Mister Jiu’s, which blazed onto San Francisco’s dining scene a handful of years ago, are considered fine dining in a way their predecessors never were.
These businesses seem as if they’d be fine, but even Mister Jiu’s isn’t in the clear. “The amount of restaurants that are going to be able to survive after this—it’s going to really surprise people, unfortunately in a bad way,” says Jew. “There’s going to be a lot of closures.”
Says La: “It will take a long time to get back to where we were. Maybe three, four months? We don’t know. An unpredictable second wave could kill a lot of business.”
Even if they get the green light to fully reopen, the restaurateurs Fortune spoke with say their restaurants might not. “It depends on the comfort of the staff,” Tang says. Many of his staff are elderly, but many of the younger folks also live in multigenerational households, with parents or grandparents, and are hesitant to go into work. “Bringing the virus back home is a concern.
“Customers still wouldn’t have full confidence in dining out, lockdown or not,” he continues. “We’ve got to weather the storm for the next year and half or two years, when a new vaccine comes out. It’s cloudy for the foreseeable future. We can only take it one day at a time and hope for the best.”
Tang thinks Nom Wah can afford to keep its locations closed for another few months. He says they’re lucky because the spaces themselves are family-owned, so they don’t need to worry about rent.
La also thinks another few months are manageable—though he originally thought Meiwah would need to be closed for only two weeks. But any longer than that, especially if restaurants need to close through September in the event of a second wave of outbreaks? “That’s just unthinkable right now.”
If even the relatively wealthy restaurants are stumbling, then the mom-and-pop shops, many of which are immigrant-owned and operate cash only, are really in danger. The ones that are run by and serve low-income communities are the most vulnerable.
Running as cash-only businesses, as a lot of old-school Chinese restaurants do, hinders these small businesses from taking advantage of aid as part of the federal stimulus package. “That’s the problem,” Tang says. “A lot of places will fail because they can’t get PPP or FDA loans, because all through the years they’ve been operating under the radar.”
For a PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loan, a business must have good documentation, enough employees, and a relationship with a bank. “Everything about that program is tricky for mom-and-pop Chinese restaurants,” writer Jennifer 8 Lee says. For example, many Chinese restaurants provide housing and food through costs that aren’t reflected in employee salaries. “It hurts them in a really big way.”
The coronavirus-induced shrinkage of small Chinese restaurants is exacerbated by a broader problem. “Chinese restaurants are a function of Chinese immigration,” Lee notes. The Trump administration’s severe stance on immigrants, including those from China, may squeeze the flow of immigrants opening up new restaurants: “It’s not the best time to be an immigrant from China or an immigrant in general.”
The coronavirus pandemic casts a double shadow over Chinese restaurants: the specter of losing business and the fear of anti-Chinese discrimination.
“Because of the President’s comments, and what some people believe about what they hear, I think the Chinese community as a whole and Chinese cuisine have another layer of complications or hurdles to try to get over,” Jew says. “I just…It kinda pisses me off because it’s just not needed. There’s so much already.”
The majority of Nom Wah’s employees live in the Sunset Park and Bensonhurst areas of Brooklyn. It takes them over an hour to commute to Chinatown. Tang says Nom Wah’s staff fear going into work because of the virus, along with the potential racism they might experience on the subway. He cites reports of verbal abuse, harassment, and even assault that occurred during the peak of the pandemic. “There’s a chat group for cooks in Chinatown,” Tang says, where his employees share news. Some of the information may be exaggerated or misleading, but the news of racist attacks has “added to the stress, for better or for worse.”
Tang expects anti-Chinese discrimination to continue after lockdown, which low-income immigrants are most vulnerable to. “It’s taken us so long as a culture to move forward. This one pandemic really set us back as a culture,” he says.
“People might get upset about what happened, that they had to stay home, and they might blame it on the Chinese. They might carry that into Chinese restaurants or Chinese food too,” La says. “So the future of Chinese restaurants in general is going to be very tough.”
Jew sees it as a rally for reopening. “It’s something I’m concerned with, but it’s also part of what’s motivating me to reopen,” he says. “If people are really not going to come out to Chinatown, I want to experience that so I can tell people this is bullshit.”
Many Chinese restaurants employ an all- or majority-immigrant staff. For a Chinese restaurant to struggle—and shut down—is for an entire community of immigrants to face financial precarity at once. Jew employs some undocumented workers, including a prep cook who’s worked with him for almost 10 years.
On the other hand, that immigrant makeup may be the very reason why a restaurant may better survive the pandemic, according to restaurateurs. “Typical for first-generation immigrants, they are very frugal,” Tang says, referring to his older employees. “They save money.”
“Immigrants, we usually save money for the rainy day,” La, an immigrant himself, says about his staff’s well-being. “We don’t just use all the pennies we make, so I think that’s helped too.”
Chinese cuisine isn’t going anywhere
Though stressed about their businesses, these restaurateurs do expect Americans will still have an appetite for Chinese food. “I believe in Chinese cuisine,” Jew says. “I know, no matter what, people will crave this food and its flavors, and I still feel strongly about this cuisine as a whole.”
“Even as restaurants suffer, the American taste for Chinese food is not on the decline,” Lee says. Indeed, even though small Chinese restaurants have been struggling since before the pandemic, Grubhub data from a few years ago also revealed General Tso’s chicken to be among the app’s top five most ordered dishes.
While Chinese restaurants have suffered in the wake of coronavirus panic, much of the clientele lost were actually Chinese-Americans themselves. “I don’t think white people are staying away [from Chinese restaurants] because of COVID,” Lee says. “To them, it’s so American.”
There are more Chinese restaurants than McDonald’s locations in the country, as the cliché goes, and Chinese food itself is “more American than apple pie,” as Lee wrote in her book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. (She asks the reader: How often do you eat Chinese takeout versus apple pie?)
“People were understanding Chinese cuisine more because they were traveling and interested in different regions of China and being more educated on Chinese palates and some of the flavors, and that comes back to really valuing the cuisine,” Jew says. Mister Jiu’s is decidedly not a mom-and-pop shop; it’s one of many examples of the expanding definition of what Chinese food in America is. “In the last couple of years, we’ve been really lucky because of that surge of interest in Chinese cuisine,” he says.
During the pandemic, despite the general decline in business for Chinese restaurants, an interesting trend has proved the popularity of next-generation purveyors of the cuisine: Some online pantries selling Chinese ingredients, such as Xi’an Famous Foods’ deliverable chili oil, have enjoyed blockbuster sales. Jew also recently started a grocery concept, in which customers can order premade meals, alcohol, and favorites like organic eggs, Japanese vinegars, braised pork, and lap cheong.
So he and the others hope Americans will continue the classic dream of family dinners gathered at lacquered round tables, lunch buffets piled high with crab legs and fried bananas, hasty work-break lo mein slurped up on the way back to the office, and late-night takeout, plentiful and warm. And the wilder dream of lap cheong stuffed into roasted quail and tomalley-adorned Dungeness crab congee. After the pandemic, the dream of Chinese food in America, they hope, and the enduring possibility of it, even if briefly endangered, will continue.