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Lydia Chang On Pandemic Reaction In Chinese Restaurants

The Chinese restaurant community in the US was among the first affected by the pandemic—and among the first to respond.

Lydia Chang is the daughter of Peter and Lisa Chang, both natives of Wuhan, China, and the culinary forces behind Washington DC’s Peter Chang, Q by Peter Chang, and Mama Chang restaurants. Lydia is her parents’ partner and runs the business operations for the restaurants, which are mostly still open for delivery and takeout during the pandemic.

Overall, we have been very encouraged by the restaurant industry. We’re all suffering from the same situation because of COVID-19. There are people who make different decisions about either closing or operating on a limited basis. But in general, we are still quite hopeful.

We have four locations in the metro DC area. There was one location we had to close because it was just impossible to find people to work there. But in terms of the other three locations, we’re so fortunate that they are still coming to work. That’s the reason why we are able to stay open and see the end of the tunnel.

Now we offer face masks and gloves. Safety is the key for us right now. We actually started offering hand sanitizers back in early February. Being a Chinese restaurant, we had seen and heard the news. It raised concerns among our community at a very early stage.

China’s restaurant community is probably a month ahead of us. As we are talking to our friends in China, they tell us about the QR codes which really help with tracking. Anyone going into a public setting—to restaurants, hotels, shopping malls—they all have to scan this code. That shows anywhere they have traveled to, and also if they have been staying in quarantine under 14 days. Only beyond that time are they able to receive the codes.

They take your temperature at the restaurant. When you’re inside, they section you. Normally, if you have a seating capacity of 100, now you only have a seating capacity of 50 people. It’s a lot of managing the traffic and keeping track of who comes in and out. They’ve dealt with this before during SARS back in 2002. They started practicing 18 years ago with face coverings.

There are different perspectives because the Chinese restaurant industry varies in terms of size, from small mom-and-pops to large corporations like Haidilao hotpots, which IPOed about two years ago. They’re facing different kinds of problems. The large corporations are still hopeful because they have the bargaining power. They are going to receive support from the government, from their investors. They’re more likely to make it. But how are they going to adapt to a new future? That’s something we’re going to see. People are allowed to go to restaurants again in China, but there could always be a second lockdown because we haven’t completely figured COVID-19 out.

Safety has always been at the top of our own priorities. We saw what happened in China, and we started taking precautions at a very early stage. People still perceive this stigma about the virus starting in China. We experienced that before all the rest of the industry in the US, which didn’t see it until the first or second week of March. It’s very unfortunate that we have to deal with that. But we have been taking a lot of preventative measures from the very beginning.

We are providing meals to those in need. We’re actually focusing on the seniors stuck at their apartments in senior housing. For example, there is a senior housing community in Chinatown in DC, and for them to get food access, to get meals, it’s been really challenging. Fortunately, we have partnered up with chef Erik Bruner-Yang to provide them with 100 meals a day.

Going forward, we want to offer more individualized food. When it comes to Chinese food, everybody understands the culture is family-style and sharing. But because of the situation we’re dealing with, we are trying to avoid any cross-contamination as much as we can. I think offering personal portions will help a lot. Other things would be separating the tables. Our dining rooms are really big, so we can actually afford to separate tables as far as required.

As a result of all this, the growth of our industry will certainly slow down. The model that we’ve had in the past—the way that we were able to grow in the past five years—it’s not going to be the next five years. We really have to think again. People’s needs have changed. Are we able to offer the same stuff and hope that people will come? How do we make sure that we can satisfy the new needs? Would it be a value meal that the family of four doesn’t have to think about? Can they enjoy the dining experience without going to a restaurant? Would that be ready-to-eat meals? Or convenient delivery? There are a lot of things for us to rethink and strategize.

In terms of aid, the Paycheck Protection Program isn’t really working for us. We’re trying to minimize costs and manage our cash flow. It’s an opportunity to talk to our landlords, because we’re essentially in this together—maybe we have to defer payments, or get a rent abatement, or extend the lease for a longer term. These are all the areas that we can actually have control over in terms of getting extra support from the government. It’s nicer to have some than none. As we’ve figured out most of the time, the policies are really aiding the places that don’t necessarily need the help. But what can we do about that?

What we can do is be hopeful that this will all be over, and people are going to eat out, and life will be back to normal. It’s just, how do we go through the time? It could be half a year. It could be two years. We just hope it will be sooner rather than later.