Even the Big Apple’s most beloved Chinese restaurants are in critical condition as the coronavirus keeps customers at bay.
Restaurant owners, the people who work for them and city lawmakers say business at Chinese-owned establishments has plummeted by as much as 60 percent as the global pandemic spreads. Some restaurants in Queens have closed, possibly for good, sources said.
“It’s been terrible for business,” said Thomas Ho, a co-owner of Spy C Cuisine of Forest Hills, Queens, which opened in 2018 and garnered a coveted spot in this year’s Michelin Guide. “We’ve had a steady increase in business since we opened, and then coronavirus hit,” said Ho, who is an anesthesiologist by day and a chef by night.
“None of our food comes from China, but that doesn’t matter to diners. I don’t know what motivated the scare. A lot of it is misinformation,” said Ho, who says business at Spy C is down more than 50 percent from a month ago.
“It’s killed a lot of restaurants and others are just getting by, trying to survive,” said Ho. “A lot of the large Chinese restaurants in Flushing are now closed — for renovations they say, but it’s unlikely they’ll reopen,” said Ho. “Chinatown was also really hit. It’s a lot slower. All you have to do is walk around to notice it.”
Councilmember Peter Koo of Queens has called on Mayor de Blasio to offer a helping hand in light of Hizzoner’s recent vow to “provide small businesses the support they need to survive.”
“The city should do something like lower taxes,” Koo said. “Some restaurants have even closed. They have no business and even the ones that are open have more staff than diners. These are big spaces with huge overhead.”
Koo is counting on the mayor’s initiative, unveiled earlier this month during his state of the city address, to help local businesses stay afloat amid rising rents and labor costs. “We must make New York City easier to afford, protect the mom-and-pop businesses that make New York, New York, and hand this city back to the people who make it so great,” de Blasio announced at the time.
The mayor’s office didn’t return a request for comment. But sources say de Blasio made a show of confidence in struggling Chinese restaurants on Thursday by attending a Chinese New Year event at Jing Fong, the city’s largest restaurant with 25,000-square-feet of space and a unionized staff of 170.
But Jing Fong — an iconic Chinatown eatery famous for its traditional dim sum carts — is not faring any better than its peers, said Claudia Leo, Jing Fong’s marketing director. Events scheduled for March are down 75 percent over last year, Leo told Side Dish. In February, business was down 50 percent.
“We can’t lay off anyone but we are reducing hours so people working six days a week might now be working three or four days a week,” Leo told Side Dish.
There’s also an uptown Jing Fong on the Upper West Side that employs 30 staffers and seats 70 people. Business there was down 20 percent in February, she said.
“Business is down there too, but not as much,” Leo said. “This tells you that people are still eating out but they are staying away from Chinatown.”
Johnny Lin, owner of Four Four South Village, a popular Taiwanese beef noodle restaurant in Flushing, said his business is also hurting.
“Flushing has been hugely impacted by the coronavirus,” Lin said. “Business has been going down dramatically thanks to rumors and fear-mongering … We hope that the community and the government can encourage people to support local businesses, and of course Flushing, by alleviating the concerns people have about the virus.”
A publicist who works with top Chinese restaurants across Manhattan said some restaurant owners are still hesitant to acknowledge how bad things have gotten.
“I do have some clients that are impacted significantly, but they prefer to not talk about it. Personally, I know Chinatown and Flushing businesses are hit the hardest,” the publicist said.
Popular upscale Chinese eateries like Mr. Chow, with locations in Tribeca and Midtown, Shun Lee on the Upper West Side, and Hutong near Bloomingdale’s didn’t return requests for comment at press time.
Truman Lam, the third-generation owner of Jing Fong, which was founded by his grandfather in 1972, said he had previously expected 2020 to be a bumper year following a long period of instability due to rising rent and employment costs. “We finally thought we were going to have a good year,” he lamented.
“For a business that had been around for 40 years, if this drags on for a few months, who knows if we can survive. We have some cash and we can make some cuts, but the scary thing is, there is no end in sight. The chefs are trying to cut down on staff but there is no clarity. It is hard to plan when you don’t know what will happen.”
“My grandfather would say the same thing. He came from nothing. We just have to fight and keep going and hope for the best.”