Truman Lam cleaned out the walk-in freezers of his family’s business in March, the coronavirus pandemic forcing the closure of the city’s dining rooms. At the time, nobody knew the impact that the virus would have on the city, but Lam was preparing for the worst-case scenario.
“This could last… the bare minimum is two weeks, but this could last two or three months,” Lam said at the time.
A few months longer than two or three months later, Jing Fong, the largest Chinese restaurant on the island of Manhattan, is once again open for indoor dining. There are no carts, the food is served in takeout containers, and there are enough barriers to give many of the tables the feel of a private dining room. Much of the old-school charm of the restaurant has not yet returned.
Nevertheless, dim sum die-hards filled the dining room on its first day of reopening, the clientele as diverse as it ever was: an elderly Chinese couple, who told me it was their first indoor dining experience of the pandemic; families with babies; teenage skateboarders; even two bros in workout clothes grabbing a few plates after a run. It was enough for Truman’s father, and Jing Fong owner, Ming Lam to watch from the sidelines and exclaim that with this much demand even on the first day, they could easily open the entire floor and get the restaurant back up to speed sooner than expected.
But Lam corrected his father — he had been running between the outdoor and indoor dining areas, and noticed that customers who otherwise would’ve waited for a table outside were just coming inside instead. The volume remained the same, while costs increased to run both operations at the same time.
“It’s definitely in the realm of possibility that we can’t make it,” says Lam.
Jing Fong, alongside every other restaurant in the city, was ordered to shutter its dining room on March 16 to curb the rise of COVID-19 cases. The spread of the virus in China had cratered business in New York’s Chinatown for months, the neighborhood reduced to a ghost town from the loss of tourists from the mainland, but also because of racism and xenophobia. The 794-person capacity restaurant served just 36 guests during lunch the Tuesday before the shutdown.
“This is worse than 9/11,” Lam said at the time.
Many things have changed since March, not the least of which is that the virus, which was originally a Chinese problem, is now wholly an American one, no matter how much “China virus” rhetoric the sitting president throws out there. The death toll in the United States is over 220,000 people, out of over 8.4 million that have contracted the virus. Both totals are the highest of any country in the world.
As for Manhattan’s Chinatown, the streets are once again alive and bustling with activity, thanks to the many efforts to bring customers back to the neighborhood: Mayor Bill de Blasio spent over an hour visiting food businesses here in August with cameras in tow; the architectural firm Rockwell Group designed and constructed outdoor dining rigs for a stretch of Mott Street, with support from American Express; and Nom Wah Tea Parlor, which purports to be the oldest dim sum joint in the city, is on a publicity blitz for a book that highlights the restaurant, the history of the neighborhood, and the people working in it.
No normal amount of outdoor dining and takeout in the intervening months could make up for the loss of the events business that was generated by the 25,000-square-foot space. Dim sum sales during the COVID-19 era have totaled just 15 to 20 percent of normal revenue, according to Lam.
Reopening indoor dining in the largest Chinese restaurant in town comes with its own challenges.
“Even opening 25 percent here, if I were doing full service, the cost of staffing would be crazy,” says Lam. “I’m trying to save however I can because every penny counts.”
The restaurant has instituted a number of cost-cutting measures in order to survive. Both outdoor and indoor dining are now “cafeteria style,” with customers placing their orders at the door and then sitting at a socially distanced table to await the food, requiring fewer servers; the escalator is turned off to save on electricity and avoid the risk of a breakdown, which would cost thousands of dollars to repair; the food is served in takeout containers, which costs less than bringing back a dishwashing team and associated water and soap costs; and management has become more hands-on to make up for the staff shortage.
Only a quarter of the kitchen team has returned to work, and the front-of-house staff is even more of a skeleton crew: Outside, two people take orders, process credit cards, and run orders to the tables. In the dining room, a single captain brings out the food, refills the tea, and busses the tables, down from a team of 65. “We all have to play new roles in this environment,” says Claudia Leo, the restaurant’s marketing manager, who now also serves as hostess, maitre d’, and busser.
Lam assumes many of those roles as well, and one more: dim sum chef. For three to four hours a day, he works in the kitchen, molding pork buns, stuffing shumai wrappers, and making the filling for har gow, the translucent steamed shrimp dumplings. “I’m not useful enough to be able to replace a chef, but on the weekend when it’s super busy, I’m another set of hands,” says Lam, who started learning the skills three months ago when the restaurant ramped up its outdoor dining operation.
Dim sum production used to be an all-day affair at Jing Fong. The formerly 22-person team would crank out 1,200 pork buns a day, six days a week. But now the team has been reduced to just four people, producing each type of item just once a week.
The dynamic in Jing Fong’s kitchen has one major difference from the back of house at other restaurants around the city: Employees here say they qualify for unemployment benefits. Many of the staff are older and hesitant to return to work in the middle of the pandemic, but they have the luxury to wait it out, unlike workers in the kitchens of many other restaurants, some of whom are undocumented, don’t qualify for unemployment, and rely on food pantries to feed themselves until their restaurants hire them back.
“Chinese people are good at saving money! They don’t need to work just yet,” says head dim sum chef Xue Jin Ruan, who has been working at Jing Fong for 16 years. It’s a sentiment that was echoed by his colleagues in the front of house, too.
”We’ve been frugal, and unemployment has gotten us through the past seven months,” says Liang Chen, one of the managers brought back on a rotating basis to run the entire front-of-house operation.
Safety concerns remain among the restaurant’s employees, most of whom have yet to partake in outdoor dining themselves, let alone indoor. Shu Zhen, who has worked as a dim sum cart server at Jing Fong for three years, came to show her support on the first day of indoor dining, but declined to sit down and eat, even at the beckoning of a manager. She instead opted to order takeout. “I would go back to work, but not to eat,” says Zhen. “You only have one life.”
“I’m still worried about the health concerns,” says Lam, who sticks to playing board games with friends and ordering takeout himself.
The management team at Jing Fong is playing it incredibly safe, maxing out at just 84 seats out of a potential 198 that they could legally have in the space at 25 percent capacity. Dividers are everywhere, and the restaurant added MERV-13 filters to the HVAC system. So-called “cart ladies” are nowhere in sight — the food is brought on trays and served in takeout containers — eliminating any open-air food and minimizing employee-to-guest contact.
But the elephant in the room, as it is with many restaurants around the city, is rent. While the Lam family placated the landlord with some of the restaurant’s Paycheck Protection Program money, they haven’t paid their rent in full for seven months, and there are no official discussions about waiving even a portion of it. That bill will come due at some point. Even if their business recovers with indoor dining as well as the Lam family hopes, the survival of Manhattan’s largest Chinese restaurant is uncertain.
“I don’t want to work for two years just paying that off,” says Truman Lam. “If they ask me to pay all the money, I’d rather just shut down and start over.”