Published: 09:52, May 4, 2020 | Updated: 03:19, June 6, 2023
The stay-at-home order that is shaking up dining habits
By Kong Wenzheng in New York

Staff of a Chinese restaurant in Chicago prepare takeout food on April 11. (ZHANG DAWEI / CHINA NEWS SERVICE)

As the novel coronavirus takes its toll on New York, Kang Ning, owner of a popular Chinese chain restaurant in Manhattan, has a simple wish: that the local Chinese food industry survives the pandemic.

"The outbreak is hitting the industry hard," said Kang, whose restaurant chain, Mala Project, has outlets in midtown Manhattan and East Village.

The food industry is like a language system, where the image of a certain food consists of individual words and products.

Zhao Yong, owner of Junzi Kitchen, a fast and casual Chinese restaurant chain

Both of Kang's restaurants have mostly ceased operating since the mayor, Bill de Blasio, banned restaurants from offering dine-in services on March 15.

That ban, and the stay-at-home order placed on New York State a week later, took away most of Mala Project's customers.

Kang introduced a special menu consisting of ready-to-eat Chinese-style "Mala-to-me" sauce served with noodles, which is easier to prepare and more convenient for customers. 

ALSO READ: Pack to work for China's foodies

Adopting an interim menu has become a popular strategy among Chinese restaurant owners in the city.

The Midtown Shanghainese restaurant Little Alley offered handmade frozen Chinese food such as dumplings, the upmarket hotpot venue Tang Hotpot introduced maocai, which is ready-to-eat hotpot with all ingredients cooked in broth, and the fast and casual Chinese restaurant chain Junzi Kitchen started selling family-sized meals and a menu with fewer selections.

Still, revenue in many restaurants has fallen. Little Alley's owner, He Yishu, said his trade has fallen by two thirds, and Kang said she had heard of Chinese restaurants closing permanently.

For those still operating, supply chain challenges loom.

At Tang Hotpot, which offers hotpot delivery with a free set of stove and pot for orders costing more than US$300, a favorite dish, shrimp paste, was removed from the menu for lack of required ingredients.

"It's hard for us to get some special ingredients because many Chinese grocery stores are closed," said Li Yu, owner of Tang Hotpot.

"What we have is still a short-term solution that is not quite sustainable if the current situation stretches into two or three months."

Zhao Yong, owner of Junzi Kitchen, said: "One of our suppliers serves mostly Chinese restaurants. With the restaurant business disrupted, he also decided to temporarily suspend business."

Mala Project's special menu, for example, did not last long.

"Most of my staff are concerned about their health and are working under great pressure," Kang said. She decided to suspend the restaurant's service near the end of March after selling out of all the sauce.

The outbreak is posing a great threat to traditional Chinese restaurants, which Zhao said had already been "slowly dying out" for years.

"What we are experiencing today is like a high-speed version of the chronic death of the traditional Chinese food industry. It could possibly turn into a sudden, large-scale extinction."

Reliance on community

The New York Times, quoting the reviewing website Yelp, said the share of Chinese restaurants in the top 20 metropolitan areas has been in constant decline in recent years.

Compared with five years ago, Chinese restaurants accounted for 1 percentage point fewer in those areas, even as the number of restaurants overall has risen.

Older-generation Chinese restaurants, concentrated in Chinatown and heavily reliant on the Chinese community, are mostly family-owned small businesses vulnerable to disruptions in the industry.

For years they have been caught between stagnating prices and rising costs, Zhao said.

The price of Chinese food was at the lower end among various popular ethnic cuisines in the US, falling behind Japanese, French, Italian, Indian and many others, said Krishnendu Ray, a professor at New York University who wrote the book The Ethnic Restaurateur.

The American historian Haiming Liu, in his book From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express, which chronicled how Chinese food developed in the United States, wrote:"The niche in the mainstream American restaurant market for Chinese food was not fine dining but cheap ethnic meals."

Ray said economic and cultural factors in the immigrants' home country would affect how Americans view their cuisines, and he advanced the idea of a "global hierarchy of taste".

For instance, Ray said Italian and Japanese cuisines, both ranked high among all ethnic cuisines in the US today, were not held in high regard when Italian immigrants were associated with poverty in the late 1800s and early 1900s and when the aftershock of World War II had an enduring effect on Japan.

The two cuisines only started to earn more respect when both countries climbed up the socioeconomic ladder, Ray said.

Kang, who moved to New York from Beijing in 2010 to study at the Culinary Institute of America, experienced the difference between Chinese and other ethnic cuisines firsthand.

"There was an obvious and huge gap between local Chinese restaurants and fashionable and modern American or Italian restaurants."

When she arrived in New York she saw only a few upmarket Chinese restaurants, she said, and it was clear that the service and presentation of Chinese restaurants was inferior.

With the market used to cheaper Chinese food and family-owned small companies lacking the ability and experience in financing and branding, most older-generation Chinese restaurants survived by keeping their overheads down. They sometimes sacrificed service and environment, which further tarnished the image of the Chinese food industry in the US, Zhao said.

The industry is thus vulnerable to the narrative of some US politicians that links the coronavirus directly with China by branding it "the China virus", he said.

"Sanitation has always been an issue associated with Chinese restaurants. That makes them susceptible to taking a hit in the event of a public health crisis."

Despite restaurant owners' efforts to contain costs, rising rents and labor costs are making it harder to turn a profit.

Jasmine Moy, a lawyer who specializes in restaurant leasing, told the website Eater that leases for most restaurants in New York provide for an annual rental increase of between 2 percent and 4 percent.

However, the rise in real estate prices almost always far outstrips these increases. Thus when a lease expires, a landlord may ask for a double-digit rental increase as the restaurant owner seeks to renegotiate the lease.

Over the past 10 years the average hourly earnings of food service and bar workers has risen more than 30 percent, the US Labor Department says.

Many of those workers, particularly in New York, where COVID-19 has exacted the highest toll in the US, have lost their jobs because of the pandemic.

The city's real estate market is likely to face pressure even after the pandemic has subsided, industry experts say.

New generation

With the living space of traditional Chinese restaurants narrowing and many second-generation restaurant owners show reluctance to inherit the businesses, a newer generation of Chinese-restaurant owners such as Zhao and Kang are having their moment.

In 2015 Kang opened her own restaurant, emphasizing ambience and service. Mala Project, with Sichuan mala xiangguo (spicy dry pot) its signature dish, became a hit, and she opened a second outlet in Midtown three years later.

As Mala Project developed into a chain restaurant, Kang saw a new generation of Chinese restaurants booming.

"Around 2017 we started seeing new modern Chinese restaurants emerging, and they really started to shine the following year."

In the past few years, both the variety and location of Chinese restaurants have greatly diversified. In New York, instead of being concentrated in Chinatown, newer Chinese restaurants headed to the East Village and Midtown.

The new generation of restaurant owners, many in their 20s and with deep roots in the restaurant industry, have similar aspirations: to go upscale and position authentic Chinese food in the mainstream spotlight.

"I have sought to break Americans' stereotype of Chinese culture," said He Yishu of Little Alley, on why he decided to enter the business.

After arriving in the US when he was 10 years old, He started working in traditional Chinese restaurants at an early age, giving him an insight into Americans' misconceptions about China.

"We are a lot different to what they perceive, and I want to challenge those stereotypes," he said.

Zhao said "restaurants are starting to realize that we cannot limit ourselves to the Chinese community" in terms of both staff and consumers.

Newly emerging, brand-focused restaurants backed by better financing, healthier recipes, cleaner environments and more efficient operations and management are looking to a brighter future.

A key to success for Chinese restaurants is for them to be acceptable to "mainstream Americans",Kang said.

"We must never speak only to Chinese consumers."

From the time that Kang's restaurant opened it was clear to her that most of its customers were non-Chinese, even though it had initially looked to local Chinese students as clientele.

"We figured that our exposure on local mainstream media helped."

Eater, TimeOut, The New York Times and Gothamist were among the media outlets that featured or recommended the restaurant.

Li of Tang Hotpot said his restaurant stands out by localizing the entire experience, elevating the standards for service, food and ambience.

The upmarket Tang Hotpot was given three dollar signs out of four (for prices) on Yelp, and the average cost of a meal was more than US$50.

Positive reviews

Reviewers on Yelp highlight its modern Chinese decor, industrial lights, quality ingredients, arty interior and how it is "a great place for a special-occasion meal", wrote one Yelp contributor, Regina L.

"When Americans dine out they care a lot about the ambience," Li said, whether the venue is good for a date, a team event or a quiet chat.

Li was a pioneer in bringing upscale hotpot to Manhattan, and eventually it was brimming with all-you-can-eat hotpot joints.

Li also offers a delicately designed cocktail menu, adding that something special to the experience.

New-generation industry leaders are also looking for investors as they try to upgrade the traditional Chinese food industry.

As part of Junzi's effort to help Chinese restaurants evolve, Zhao and his team, which raised US$5 million in its most recent round of financing last year, is devoted to identifying and buying traditional Chinese restaurants.

The team says it can help restaurants rebrand and evolve to fit in with the times.

Like other Chinese companies, Chinese restaurants in the US are facing two key challenges, localizing management and branding, Zhao said.

"The Chinese restaurant in China has already developed a mature business model with abundant new products and a comprehensive database, which we could take advantage of after it is put together with an Americanized branding and management strategy.

"After all, it's a promising and fast-evolving US$30 billion market ready for further upgrades."

While seeking recognition from the American mainstream, young Chinese restaurant owners are seeking the right approach even as they preserve the authenticity of Chinese cuisine.

"Authenticity is the key to our cuisine," said He of Little Alley. "Especially for the classic Shanghai dishes, we stick to the original recipes as much as we can."

Ten years in the business has given him a good understanding of what American customers like and dislike about Chinese food.

A Chinese restaurant in New York forced to close by the novel coronavirus pandemic. (MA DELIN / CHINA NEWS SERVICE)

"For non-Chinese customers, the challenge comes not only from the taste but from the ingredients as well."

For example, some authentic Chinese dishes contain bones and skin, which are barely acceptable to non-Chinese consumers.

Li especially sees this as a challenge because offal, a repellent ingredient for many American diners, is an inseparable part of Sichuan hotpot.

"So the question is how we keep our food authentic and welcomed by the mainstream at the same time and find the right balance," said He, whose Midtown restaurant targets primarily neighborhood residents and office workers, most of whom are not Chinese.

Both owners added to their menu a few dishes catering to non-Chinese consumer preferences, and He and his chefs do their best to remove all the unpopular ingredients from recipes.

"That's a key step in introducing our food to mainstream consumers," He said. "And once they are open to trying our food, we are confident they will like it.

"Customers used to come in and ask for familiar American Chinese dishes like orange chicken and General Tso's chicken. It would take us some time to educate them that we focus on Shanghai cuisine, which is an entirely different concept."

In a parallel effort, some new-generation restaurant owners have sought to reform the traditional American Chinese food industry, which has a long history and is intertwined with American society, and make it more authentically Chinese.

"The food industry is like a language system, where the image of a certain food consists of individual words and products," Zhao said.

American Chinese food is one of those established language systems that consists of concepts that are uniquely Chinese American, he said.

Americanized Chinese food "became one of the major 'national' food items" in the US with more and more Americans consuming it regularly by the 1950s, Liu, the historian, wrote in his book.

Chop suey nostalgia

A famous dish in the early era of American Chinese food was chop suey, an "imagined authentic Chinese food" that in fact had never existed in China.

For Americans it became the iconic Chinese dish in the mid-1900s, coming to be regarded as more and more authentic, Liu said, even as it became less and less Chinese in its culinary format.

Many old photos of New York often show restaurant signs advertising chop suey.

As chop suey slowly disappeared from Chinese restaurants, Zhao identified some modern parallels such as chicken with broccoli, which is less a presentable dish in Chinese restaurants but more a homemade casual meal.

The way American Chinese restaurants cook such dishes is "overly simplified", leaving considerable space for innovation, Zhao said.

He saw the popularity of American Chinese food as a solid cultural foundation for reformation, whether in recipe or taste.

"Many vocabularies in the American Chinese food language system have generous room to improve," said Zhao, who, together with his team, is conducting research for an American Chinese food menu worth upgrading.

Young industry leaders believe the COVID-19 outbreak will accelerate changes in the Chinese food industry.

READ MORE: Top YouTube chefs teach a new generation to cook

"Chinese restaurants have become ever more refined and upmarket in recent years, but the outbreak may put the brakes on the trend," Li said.

For Zhao, whose team is dedicated to buying and rebranding traditional Chinese restaurants, the pandemic is making the purchase process smoother.

"We are in a challenging time, but we are excited about those opportunities," he said.