Word of Mouth Goes a Long Way, Especially for Uncle Lou

New Restaurant opens in Chinatown amidst Omicron wave

By Elizabeth Brewer and Kaye Paddyfote

After the late lunch rush on Wednesday, February 2, in the restaurant, Uncle Lou’s on Mulberry St., only a few customers remained. Yet, Louis Wong still had a beaming smile on his face. He’s still getting used to the flow of daily life at his new restaurant. He’s only been open for just over a month, after running a successful wireless store just down the street for many decades. Since migrating to New York City in 1970 from Hong Kong, he has always lived in Chinatown.  Wong, his mom and sister followed his father, who was working as a chef at a restaurant on Mott St.

“In the old days, people only had restaurants and factories, there were no other jobs,” Wong said. “That’s how they earned their money and raised their family.”

Owner of Uncle Lou’s, Louis Wong and his investor and nephew, Eddie Chen. At Uncle Lou’s Restaurant in Chinatown, New York City. February 2, 2022. Elizabeth Brewer for NY City Lens. 

Uncle Lou’s shows Wong going back to his family’s roots. For his new namesake restaurant, he knows there are big risks but he’s willing to take them. In 2021, 17 restaurants and 139 ground-floor businesses in Chinatown permanently closed, according to figures from Wellington Chen, the executive director of Chinatown’s Business Improvement District. 

Two factors have led to this plummet of local businesses: the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes. According to a report published after the third quarter of 2021 by the New York Police Department (NYPD), there were 114 complaints and 55 arrests of hate crimes in that quarter alone. This is a jump from the previous year. In the report from the Third Quarter of 2020 by the NYPD there were 75 complaints and 19 arrests were made. The jump between the two years was by more than double.

“The anti-Asian hate and the pandemic affected [businesses], because if you are fearful, let alone with the coronavirus,” Wellington Chen said.  “Somebody might hit you or somebody might punch you, push you to the ground or shove you to the ground. it doesn’t matter what your age is, you could be 95 years-old.”

Executive Director of Chinatown’s Business Improvement District, Wellington Chen. February 2, 2022. Elizabeth Brewer for NY City Lens. 

A May 2021 report , “Small Businesses, Big Losses,” sponsored by the Asian American Federation found that three out of every five small business owners in New York City’s Chinatowns said they were worried about how anti-Asian hate crimes were affecting them or their staff. 

“Roughly a 15% vacancy on ground floor [businesses] is where we are at,” Wellington Chen said. “But, the nice thing to see is that there is a new crop coming in that believes in this area.”  

Shuttered business on the corner of Mott St. and Pell St. in New York City’s Chinatown. February 2, 2022. Elizabeth Brewer for NY City Lens.

For new businesses, such as Uncle Lou’s, one step to maximize profits is to merge digital communications with the products they are selling, according to chief strategy officer for the Chinese Planning Council, Brian Chen. 

“So whether or not you actually digitize the products and services online, or you just utilized platforms like social media platforms, those platforms that you believe consumers would best get a sense of visibility of your service or business or offering,” Brian Chen said.“That is definitely key.”

According to Wellington Chen, after highlighting Uncle Lou’s on a local AM radio station, it was so busy the next day he had to wait in line for his late Lunar New Year lunch. 

Lanterns hung for Lunar New Year celebrations on Mott St. in New York City’s Chinatown. February 2, 2022. Elizabeth Brewer for NY City Lens. 

“We know people are avoiding the subway and prefer to be in cars, so we took advantage of  knowing that the consumer behavior pattern is they’re stuck in their car waiting to turn on the Bronx Queens Expressway,” Wellington Chen said. 

Wong’s main goal for the future of his new restaurant is simple: everyone should be happy. 

“I wonder when the virus [will] leave us alone. And then we could be happy again,” Wong said with a smile. “Boy, I mean, I mean more happy again. I always want to see Chinatown go back to what it used to be, everybody happy.”