Chinatown establishments navigate rising costs and anti-Asian hate crimes
Taco Bell is bringing back its favorite item on the menu, Mexican Pizza. Dairy Queen launched Stackburger after record sales in 2021. Chick-fil-a reported business success in spite of inflation.
Meanwhile, JISU Vegetarian, a new establishment in Chinatown, has had to slash items on the menu and raise overall prices by 15%, just to remain afloat. The Nishiki Premium multigrain rice, a chief ingredient for many of its fares, might no longer be affordable for owner Zhong Yi Wang.
However, Wang’s worries go beyond the bills and the menu. In his fifties, he reopened the restaurant last year amidst rising anti-Asian hate in the city. The business has faced regular assaults. The front door was smashed, food and decorative bamboo plants were stolen. “It’s very hard to do business in this area right now,” Wang said.
Anti-Asian hate crime in the city was up by 361% last year, according to NYPD. Chinatown’s residents and its businesses have also been on the receiving end of assault and vandalism. As of March this year, 380 of its 1670 ground-floor storefronts stand empty. Wang’s youngest daughter of fifteen was assaulted in the neighborhood last year. The case is still in court. “We don’t know how to keep ourselves safe,” he said.
Many restaurants in the city continue to struggle amidst uncertain recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, high inflation, labor shortages and a drop in the number of tourists pouring into the city. In Chinatown, those struggles have been compounded by hate crimes.
Lynn Minnaert, a professor of social sustainability at New York University, said it’s not easy for local restaurants to work their way out of an environment like this. Being small and in the eye of a wave of anti-Asian hostility makes things much more difficult. In the minds of customers, Minnaert said, all Chinese restaurants are the same. “The little guys during this time have to distinguish themselves. Are you friendly? Are you healthy?”
The women of Wang’s household are the showrunners of JISU Vegetarian. His wife serves the patrons and his daughter lends a hand often. His niece, Maggie Chan, 26, manages their Instagram presence. The gendered aspect of anti-Asian hate crimes has added to the worries of Wang, who speaks very little English. “We had to call cops a total of eleven times from October 2021 until now, but they never caught any perpetrators,” he said.
Last summer, Jie Tan, an attorney from the community, got connected with Wang and decided to help with his financial troubles pro bono. They applied for funding from the State Agriculture Department’s Restaurant Resiliency program, which they received in December last year by partnering with the nonprofit Food Bank for New York City.
JISU Vegetarian served 5,675 meals to city residents as part of the program, which ended in March this year. The restaurant’s participation in the program that saved the business, in Tan’s words, was by luck of the draw. In her way, Tan tried to help Wang and his family overcome the linguistic and information barrier through her legal expertise and facility with English. “Why wasn’t the program application offered in Chinese?” she asked.
Jude Rodrigues, managing partner of Spice Symphony, an Indo-Chinese restaurant not far from JISU Vegetarian, shares Wang’s concerns about the safety of both business and community. Rodrigues has had to lay off staff, cut combos and buy groceries directly from producers to save costs. “We can’t scare away our customers by raising prices too much,” he said. “But we have to.”
Wang said his business model centers around filial care for the community. His ingredients contain Chinese herbs that help with anxiety, depression, dietary issues and other health concerns. The study of Chinese herbal medicine is part of his family heritage. “I want to help the city be healthy,” he said. In the face of rising costs of restaurant supplies and fear of hate crimes in the streets, Wang and his family are faced with hostilities in the very neighborhood that they have called home for three decades.
“Big boys like Taco Bell have economies of scale and can compete on price. The little ones can’t in a time like this,” Minnaert said. “Local communities really have to stick by their local, independent restaurants.”