Even in good times, a restaurant operation can expect a net profit of about 3% on sales. Employee 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.
But Chinese restaurants have been hit by a triple whammy during this pandemic. Not only have they been buffeted by the general economic disaster, but they have suffered additionally for serving Chinese food. COVID-19 originated in China, and from the beginning has been associated with 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 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 recommendations, too)
This effort could not stanch the bleeding. After serving the Los Angeles neighborhood where I grew up for over 40 years, Chinese restaurant Kim’s Restaurant had to shut its doors due to anti-Chinese harassment. Meanwhile, things got ugly at Taste of China in Chesapeake, Virginia. The restaurant owner saw her car vandalized with “Go Back To China” and other racist graffiti. People also ran into the restaurant screaming anti-Chinese epithets and pouring water inside the premises.
Fortunately, both of these episodes have a happy ending. 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 decrying the anti-Chinese harassment and saying how missed the restaurant was. 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. Still, these are isolated successes, and reported episodes of anti-Asian bias have numbered in the thousands.
Of course, xenophobia does not totally account for the early body blow to the Chinese restaurant industry. Chinese-Americans themselves started abandoning Chinese restaurants even before the coronavirus was making a conspicuous presence in the United States. I remember exchanging Chinese New Year’s greetings with one of my old 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 coronavirus thing blew over. And while Chinese New Year restaurant gatherings mostly continued through the end of January, San Gabriel Valley restaurants that cater almost exclusively to Chinese diners, fell off in February. Chinese-Americans went into a shelter-in-place mode well in advance of government mandates. (This behavior did prove to be prescient as infection rates in the Chinese-American community have turned out to be far lower than expected.) When I had lunch with a former Chinese restaurant owner at the end of February, he estimated that business had already dropped by roughly 30 percent at San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurants.
On an early Sunday evening in March, my family and I drove up to Henry’s Cuisine in Alhambra, one of the most popular Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley. As we pulled up, we weren’t sure whether the restaurant was open. A sign on the door indicated the restaurant was in fact open, but due to a sharp decline in business, would be closing the following day until May. That first episode was quite a shock, but in the next few days, we heard of other Chinese restaurants doing the same thing. Later that week, cities started ordering dine-in restaurants to cut their seating capacity by 50 percent, and by that 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. The biggest and smallest Chinese restaurants were the first to close, either on an interim or permanent basis. Since then, Chinese restaurants have been struggling to adapt. Some tried to make a go of takeout and delivery but subsequently closed. Others, like Woon in Los Angeles, initially closed but re-opened for takeout and delivery. Henry’s Cuisine also reopened for takeout in early May. Often, these reopenings came on a modified basis, including changes to hours, a limited menu, adding inventories of food products and supplies for resale, refusing to accept credit cards and requiring cash, and other adaptations.
Industry statistics indicate that Chinese restaurants have closed at over double the rate of other restaurant categories in the United States. While partially connected to the current stigma of being a Chinese restaurant, another factor is that a higher percentage of family-owned Chinese restaurants operate 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.
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. 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. With this triple whammy, it is likely that many of us will not have the opportunity to ever eat at some of our favorite Chinese restaurants again.
David R. Chan is a third-generation American who has eaten at 7,000 Chinese restaurants and counting. He maintains a spreadsheet of each of his culinary conquests — a document he began in the early 90s, when he bought his first home computer. "When I entered the workforce in the 1970s, that coincided with the rise of what we think of as authentic Chinese food in North America," Chan told the LA Weekly Squid Ink blog. "As such, my goal was to try every authentic Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area at least once." He has extended his list to New York, San Francisco, and thousands of restaurants beyond. Still, Chan admits, he can't use chopsticks.