Dallas-area Chinese restaurants are surviving the pandemic with takeout, safety and loyal customers
In October 2020 cookbook author and New York-based stir-fry guru Grace Young teamed up with the James Beard Foundation for an Instagram campaign for #SaveChineseRestaurants.
In a statement for the initiative, Young cited a Business Insider report that 233,000 Asian-American companies closed between February and April 2020. A report by NBC News found that companies had historically been in business before home stay contracts were filled in March 2020. Chinatowns such as San Francisco and New York had lost 70 percent of sales “due to anti-Asian bigotry, fear before the virus and a sharp decline in international tourism. “
“This is a crisis and without ongoing patronage these companies will not survive,” writes Young.
While the numbers for Chinese restaurants in other parts of the country are disheartening to say the least, Chinese restaurant owners in D-FW are now reporting a completely opposite trend. Some local restaurants reported declines in business at the beginning of the pandemic, but now sales suggest overwhelming support from loyal customers. And aside from some reports of diners departing or becoming hostile because of a mask request, the owners say their restaurants have shown no signs of xenophobia or racism.
According to five restaurants – Kirin Court, Jeng Chi, Monkey King Noodle Company, Royal China, and Szechuan Chinese – takeaway sales are booming, almost making up for the loss of dine-in, even with fewer people eating out and the 50 percent capacity constraint. Four of the five respondents say that despite a temporary decline at the start of the pandemic in 2020, they resumed operations with 70 percent or more of their pre-COVID sales. This is an encouraging fact as is the case with other decade-old establishments in the city.
Andrew Chen, Executive Chef at the Monkey King Noodle Company, opened two new locations in 2020. “The fact that we only lost 30 percent of sales while opening other markets is a miracle,” he says.
Chen opened Monkey King offices in the Lake Highlands and Richardson in the AT&T Discovery District in downtown Dallas and at the new Harvest Hall in Grapevine in October and December. It owes its success to the branching out of its flagship Deep Ellum cuisine into family-oriented suburbs as well as its North China street food menu, which was originally built to take away in 2013.
Geography is a factor. D-FW’s expansive size means restaurants are spread out across the region, unlike the concentrated, touristy Chinatowns of other major US cities. And there are other common factors that contribute to the success of Chinese restaurants.
Jeng Chi founders Mei Teng (far left) and Yuan Teng with their son Francisco Teng and his wife Janelle Teng, co-owners(Ben Torres / Special Contributor)
All five owners we surveyed use third-party delivery services such as Caviar, Grubhub and DoorDash. Chen says he was an early user of UberEats and Caviar, and while the fees are “gross,” the apps “keep the cash flow going. They keep the kitchen active. “
In addition to the delivery apps, the other four owners use commission-free online ordering systems like Chownow and Menufy, which are launched from their restaurant’s homepage.
According to Michael Chan, owner and general manager of Richardson’s 33-year-old dim sum destination, Kirin Court, Menufy makes it convenient for customers to order from the 45-point menu. With such services, customers can pick up the restaurant or pay full courier rates for delivery, with restaurants paying a flat fee each month.
General Manager Michael Chan is preparing an order for on the go at Kirin Court restaurant in Richardson on Thursday, January 28, 2021. (Ben Torres / Special Contributor)
Although Governor Greg Abbott allowed restaurants to reopen dining rooms on May 1, 2020, dozens of Chinese restaurants across the Metroplex remain closed for dinner. Others employ cleaning and safety precautions that go beyond state guidelines to increase guest confidence and protect their employees.
Alice Wu, co-owner of the 44-year-old Chinese restaurant Szechuan on Lemmon Avenue, hopes she won’t have to reopen for dinner “until things are much closer to normal.” Working on 80 to 85 percent of sales, Wu sees the decision to stay closed as the “smarter choice” between losing a little business and losing a lot when forced to quarantine her team. Aside from the health risks to her families, she fears that customers will assume the restaurant will be permanently closed during this time or that they will be skeptical of returning.
“Some customers are upset that we haven’t reopened [for dine-in]”, She says,” but I cannot endanger our employees and children. In general, it’s about security. “Right now, she doesn’t think it’s worth the risk.
Staff wearing face masks walk forward to serve customers at Jeng Chi Restaurant in Richardson during the COVID-19 pandemic on Friday January 29, 2021. (Ben Torres / Special Contributor)
One of the city’s most popular spots for Chinese food is the ornate Jeng Chi in the center of the Richardson Terrace Shopping Center, closest to Dallas to Chinatown. The establishment began with Yuan and Mei Teng selling bao at a local supermarket. Jeng Chi has served an extensive range of classic Chinese dumplings, noodles and teas since 1990.
The son of the Tengs, Francisco Teng, who is now a co-owner with his wife Janelle Teng, waited until after Mother’s Day to reopen their 5,000 square meter dining room. Later in the year they voluntarily closed two weeks before Christmas when they “the hell cleaned the kitchen” and hired a professional housekeeper to clean “the floor-to-ceiling of the dining room,” says Janelle. The strict hygiene is continued with an electrostatic disinfection routine three times a week.
In addition, the hosts are prepared with disposable masks for customers who enter without their own mask. After guests are seated at a table they feel safe at, they are asked to continue taking the CDC recommended precautionary measure by leaving masks on when ordering from the staff.
“I hope that by maintaining cleaning and safety, I will build my customers’ trust. That is very important to us, ”says Janelle. “We are a family company. We still have seven people on the payroll who are family members. “
Other restaurant owners, like Chan at Kirin Court, use UV light to sanitize surfaces at night and set up routine sanitizing misters three times a week. Additionally, Royal China installed $ 2,000 worth of HEPA air filters at Preston Royal this summer after they closed twice due to staff cases. Co-owner April Kao tells us no one has tested positive since then.
An Uber Eats driver picks up a takeaway order at the Kirin Court restaurant in Richardson on Thursday, January 28, 2021. Kirin Court uses various take-out services to help keep the restaurant afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Ben Torres / Special Contributor)
Dallas-based Facebook group Asian Grub in DFDUB, with more than 38,000 members, was particularly helpful for D-FW’s Asian-owned restaurants during the pandemic. The group was founded by five University of Texas alumni at Arlington and had 18,000 followers when Brian Reinhart of Dallas Observer first reported on the group’s mission to save northern Texas restaurants.
The group’s founder, Kimberly Le, tells us that when the group of friends heard terms like “the Chinese virus” on the news and reports of empty Asian-owned companies in Houston, they started the group to prevent it from happening this xenophobia is affecting restaurants in the Dallas area.
Another group founder, Vu Ly, says the platform is his generation’s way of helping established mom and pop restaurants and promoting new restaurants. “There are hidden gems all over town,” he says, and enthusiastic posts on the site often receive thousands of “likes,” which confirms that there are many who agree.
No matter what Pivots owners are doing during these times, they mean nothing without repeated, loyal customers, and perhaps nowhere is that as obvious as the 47-year-old favorite for hand-drawn noodle, Royal China, who is open to dining in.
Owner April Kao says of the restaurant business: “There are always ups and downs, but it has never been like this.”
Before COVID, two thirds of sales came from dine-in and one third from delivery. Now it’s the other way around, says Kao. In addition to the increased to-go sales, she states that customers tip more and buy more gift cards than a customer who bought $ 5,000 gift cards.
“We’re fortunate to have so many supporters in the neighborhood,” she says. “There are many people who love us and we are so grateful. We are very grateful to the friends we have made. “