Obviously these are tough times for everybody, rougher for some than others. Particularly hard hit is the restaurant industry due to the precarious economics of the business, where a restaurant operation can expect net profit of 3 percent on sales even in good times. Even more precariously situated are restaurant workers, as restaurant wages are often 25 percent or more of restaurant costs, so it doesn’t take much of a decline in restaurant revenue in such a low margin industry to trigger labor cutbacks.
However, Chinese restaurants have been hit by a triple whammy during this pandemic. Not only have they been buffeted by the general economic disaster as amplified in the restaurant industry, but they have suffered additionally for being Chinese restaurants. This is because COVID 19 originated in China, and from the beginning has been associated with things Chinese, as indicated by unfortunate terms such as “Chinese virus” and “kung flu.” Immediately as the virus spread through China, business at Chinese restaurants in the United States, and indeed throughout the world, began to sink even before the rest of the world economy and other types of restaurants became impacted.
Startled by this unwelcome rise of xenophobia, the food community attempted to fight back. Food bloggers around the country attempted to whip up support for neighborhood Chinese restaurants. An organization called No Appetite For Ignorance started a campaign to support Chinese restaurants around the world by having Chinese food personalities, including the greatest Chinese food expert of all, Fuchshia Dunlop, highlight their favorite Chinese restaurants. (You can check out my own recs here.)
Unfortunately this did not stanch the bleeding, and indeed one Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles neighborhood where I grew up, Kim’s Restaurant, had to shut its doors due to anti-Chinese harassment after serving the neighborhood for over 40 years. Meanwhile, things got ugly at Taste of China Restaurant in Chesapeake, Virginia. The restaurant owner saw her car vandalized with anti-Chinese graffiti and “Go Back To China” written on it. People have run into the restaurant screaming anti-Chinese epithets and pouring water in the premises. Fortunately both of these episodes had happy endings. At Kim’s Restaurant, upset customers tracked down the restaurant owner and presented him with a ten page printout from the neighborhood online message board from customers decrying the anti-Chinese harassment and saying how much the customers missed the restaurant. After seeing the extent of neighborhood support, Kim’s Restaurant reopened. Meanwhile, the customers of Taste of China organized a takeout tailgate in the restaurant’s parking lot, overwhelming the restaurant with orders. Unfortunately, the reported episodes of anti-Asian Covid 19 related bias have numbered in the thousands (not counting people calling up Chinese restaurants to order bat dishes) and most of the endings are not so happy.
Of course the early body blow to the Chinese restaurant industry can’t be blamed completely on anti-Chinese xenophobia. Admittedly, Chinese-Americans themselves started abandoning Chinese restaurants even before the corona virus was making a conspicuous presence in the United States. I remember exchanging Chinese New Year’s greetings with one of my old Chinese friends this past January. But when the subject of our annual Chinese New Year lunch meeting came up, he told me that he was not going to set foot in a Chinese restaurant until the whole corona virus thing blew over. And while Chinese New Year restaurant gatherings were not largely affected at the end in January, business at Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, which cater almost exclusively to Chinese diners, fell off throughout the month of February as Chinese-Americans went into a shelter-in-place before being ordered to do so by government officials. I remember having lunch with another friend, a former Chinese restaurant owner, at the end of February and he estimated that business had already dropped by roughly 30 percent at San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurants, at a time where dining out in the greater community had yet to decline.
Things started to crash a week into March when we drove up to one of the more popular Chinese restaurants, Henry’s Cuisine in Alhambra on an early Sunday evening and we weren’t even sure whether the restaurant was open or not. At first we thought it was just kind of early for dinner, but we saw the sign on the door which indicated they were in fact open, but would be closing the following day until May, due to a sharp decline in business. That first episode was quite a shock. But then in the next few days we heard of a few other Chinese restaurants doing the same thing. Later in the week, cities started ordering dine in restaurants to cut their seating capacity by 50 percent, and by weekend, dine-in operations were ordered to shut, with only takeout or delivery permitted.
The closure of dine-in eating in the middle of March was obviously the watershed moment for restaurants in general and Chinese restaurants in particular. Large Chinese restaurants with a high cost structure and smaller, marginal Chinese restaurants were the first to close, either on an interim or permanent basis. Since then, Chinese restaurants have been struggling to adapt to a take out and delivery world. Some which tried to make a go of takeout and delivery subsequently closed. But others, like Woon in Los Angeles, closed initially on a strategic basis, and as their subsequent path became clear, re-opened for takeout and delivery. Henry’s Cuisine did reopen for takeout in early May, but closed again after two days with plans to reopen again in a month. Quite often the continuing operations came on a modified basis, including changes to hours, changes to the menu, adding inventories of food products and supplies for resale, refusing credit cards and taking cash only, and other adaptations.
Industry statistics indicate that the closure rate for Chinese restaurants during the pandemic have been more than double than that of other categories of restaurants in the United States. While part of that may be connected to the current stigma of being a Chinese restaurant, another factor is that a higher percentage of family owned Chinese restaurants are operating on a “shoestring” compared to other types of restaurants. As celebrity Chinese American chef Ming Tsai has stated, the post-pandemic future for mom and pop restaurants in general is bleak, warning that half of these operations are not likely to survive. https://finance.yahoo.com/news/ming-tsai-50-of-mom-and-pop-restaurants-cannot-get-through-coronavirus-pandemic-191715552.html?.tsrc=fin-srch And mom and pop Chinese restaurants would seem to be at greater risk.
We all hope things return to normal as soon as possible with the least amount of disruption. But realistically it is unavoidable that some restaurants will not reopen, and in this regard Chinese restaurants are more vulnerable. Besides falling into economic distress at an earlier point in time and the xenophobia factor, there is a particularly high concentration of “mom and pop” Chinese restaurants Unfortunately, then, it is quite likely that many of us will not have the opportunity to ever eat at some of our favorite Chinese restaurants again.