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Craving Chinese takeout? In Capital Region, options are scarce — and the reasons are complex

Craving Chinese takeout? In Capital Region, options are scarce — and the reasons are complex

Craving Chinese takeout? In Capital Region, options are scarce — and the reasons are complex
Ichiban Japanese & Chinese Restaurant remains open on Central Avenue in Albany.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

ALBANY — A line of cars waiting for curbside pickup idled outside of Ichiban Chinese & Japanese Restaurant on Central Avenue in Albany on a rainy day last week.

A mask-clad worker emerged and passed an order through an open window.

Within seconds, a couple was scarfing down beef wontons while lamenting the rapidly-vanishing Chinese takeout options. 

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The scarcity is not an illusion: 

Visits and phone calls to over 70 Chinese takeout restaurants across the Capital Region last week revealed just four remain open between Saratoga Springs and Cobleskill. 

“A lot of our customers want us to stay open because they like our food,” said Ichiban's owner, who identified herself as Jenny. 

For the past month, a state directive designed to reduce the spread of the coronavirus has reduced restaurants to providing delivery or takeout-only. 

If any restaurant could easily navigate the change, it would appear to be Chinese takeouts, scrappy family-run operations where the tables in the lobby are more ornamental than operational and staff crank out dishes with brisk efficiency. 

But just like the standardization of their layouts — from the backlit menus to the paintings of waterfalls and countertop and maneki-neko, or “beckoning cat” figures designed to bring luck — their closures have been identical in their execution: 

Neatly-typed notes affixed to storefront doors state the restaurants have been temporarily closed out of an abundance of caution and will reopen once the pandemic subsides. 

Most are dated within days after the state directive took effect on March 16. 

Now the kitchens are silent; the interiors tidy, and in some, the ATM machines emptied and left open. 

And restaurants that were previously open seven days per week have outfitted their front doors with cardboard mailboxes, makeshift adaptations for unprecedented times. 

“Please come back,” read a note at Ming’s Flavor in Scotia. “We miss you.”

RISK MANAGEMENT

Not all Asian restaurants are closed, but rather the ubiquitous Chinese eateries with names like Mr. Wok, New No. 1 and Ocean Palace that are prolific in American life, offering a predictable dose of comfort food from their unassuming strip mall and inner-city locations. 

Interviews with over a dozen restaurant owners revealed a sequence of fast-moving events that shaped the contours of their closures in a more uniform way than their counterparts.

Public health concerns influenced by strong family ties is one factor, said Larry Zhao, manager of Wasabi Sushi in Saratoga Springs, who estimated 80 percent of Chinese and Japanese restaurants in the region are owned by Chinese.

Restaurateurs had been closely monitoring the virus’ spread in China, following news coverage and maintaining close contact with friends and family who dialed them into the brutal daily realities. 

Once the virus reached New York with its first confirmed case on March 1, many acknowledged that nothing short of stringent lockdowns and quarantines like those implemented in China were needed to safeguard public health.

Despite the directive allowing them to stay open, many restaurants opted to close entirely as a precautionary measure.

“Even though takeout provides lower risk, business owners fear getting the disease and passing it to their employees,” said Cindy Zhang, owner of United Buffet in Schenectady.  

For many owners, family pressure was more of a driving force rather than if their restaurants were equipped to pivot to the changes.  

“They’ve all heard stories about how much worse this is than the regular flu,” said Eric Li, president of Kuma Ani, a Japanese-style restaurant with four Capital Region locations.

Wasabi Sushi, in downtown Saratoga Springs, closed immediately and distributed produce to employees as they prepared to dig in for an indefinite closure. 

“I didn’t want to take that risk,” Zhao said.

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Li struggled with the optics keeping open and asking staff to wear face masks.

While their usage is a long-established precautionary measure in Asia used to safeguard against air pollution and the flu, he wondered if donning them would send the wrong signal to others that the wearer is sick. 

“Sometimes when you see an Asian person wearing a mask, it may make the mainstream public at-large feel uncomfortable,” Li said. “If you ask to choose between wearing masks or closing down the business, many choose to close down the business.”

But despite the family pressures, business at many locations had already sagged in February as the virus ravaged China, and later, Italy.

Visits to United Buffet in Schenectady were cleaved in half. 

“Business was good," Zhang said. “Then the news came out and it plummeted by 50 percent.”

The restaurant business is already tough. But profit margins are even tighter in the stripped down takeout industry, said Andy Zheng, owner of Zen Asian Fusion Lounge in Schenectady, which reopened for takeout last month.

Even several days of no business could present significant financial setbacks, he said.

Zhang, the United Buffet owner, was among those who detected strong whiffs of xenophobia fueled by President Trump and some Republican lawmakers’ insistence on referring to COVID-19 as the “Chinese Virus,” which emerged in the central city of Wuhan in December. 

Many believe the language created a stigma that blamed them for the outbreak. 

“It’s going to be a long time for this to go away and change peoples’ perceptions of Chinese-Americans,” Li said.

A group of mask-clad men huddled near a shuttered takeout restaurant in downtown Albany last week. 

“Ain’t gonna get Chinese anywhere because of this,” said one, pointing at his face.

TOUGH ROAD

While nearly all takeouts are closed, many fusion restaurants like Zen are opting to tough it out. 

But attracting customers isn’t the only obstacle.

The New York City supply chains that serve as a pipeline for Asian restaurants and grocery stores are winding down over safety concerns, and many wholesalers have closed entirely.

“Suppliers are carrying less stuff and they do less deliveries as well,” Zheng said.

The wholesalers who remain open may not find it worthwhile to service a dwindling number of upstate restaurants and grocery stores, citing shrinking profit margins.

That also has a ripple effect on the Asian supermarkets that serve the region’s restaurants. 

“Life is more important,” said Siu Nan, owner of Asian Food Market in Albany, which is struggling to obtain inventory. 

Restaurants like Tai Pan Clifton Park, which is among the few traditional Chinese restaurants that remain open, are having trouble finding ingredients for popular items like egg rolls and wonton. 

Shifting to American suppliers like Sysco isn’t an ideal solution because there are particular ingredients that can only be obtained through Asian suppliers, Li said, including those used by restaurants to make the homemade speciality sauces that attract loyal followings. 

Asian suppliers also don’t charge for delivery fees, Li said, a further incentive for restaurants attempting to keep costs low.

Aside from sporadic customers and supply chain issues, pivoting to a takeout model presents challenges for fine-dining restaurants like Zen because it takes time to tweak menus and adapt to new operating changes like retraining staff and developing new systems to take and package orders, Zheng said. 

Each day is a learning curve, including fine-tuning preparations in order to avoid food waste, which is critical now more than ever.

“Everything slows down basically,” Zheng said.

Li, the Kuma Ani president, said all shuttered restaurants will face an uphill climb when they reopen. 

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Despite the state’s 90-day moratorium on evictions, rent payments don’t stop. Neither do taxes and payments to suppliers. 

“All those expenses are going to catch up, so there is a huge financial stress that every restaurant owner is going to feel,” Li said.

Zen is already encountering staffing issues because many laid-off workers are finding it easier to collect unemployment, Zheng said. 

State benefits allow aid-off workers to collect up to $504 per week, and the recently-passed federal stimulus package will offer an additional $600 weekly payment until at least July 31.

Li also pointed at flaws in the Paycheck Protection Act.

The federal program is designed to keep small businesses float by providing two months of payroll costs. But it means little to restaurants who’ve slashed staff and have no one on the payroll, he said. 

“So even if they take out these loans, they won’t be forgiven,” Li said.

Despite the challenges, the few restaurants who are offering authentic Chinese food are grinding on. 

While the phones are still  on at Tai Pan during the day, night brings a whirlwind of activity from loyal customers accurately aware that their hometown restaurant is among the few in the area that can scratch their takeout itch. 

Manager Danny Lee said he appreciated their loyal customer base. 

But the nightly deluge has led to some stressful encounters — like the irate customer who threatened to sue over long wait times.  

“We just hope the virus goes away fast and everything goes back to normal,” Lee said. “We just tell ourselves every day to keep going and things will get better.”

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