Chinese restaurants are on the front line in dealing with the commercial impacts of the new coronavirus (COVID-19), although there’s no evidence that the virus is affecting Chinese populations in New York more than any other group. In the past weeks, many major Chinatowns’ foot traffic has reportedly dropped more than 50 percent, including in New York. To remedy the loss and appease the fear of coronavirus exposure, owners of local Chinese restaurants are quickly coming up with new business models — with many restaurants doubling down on new delivery solutions.
Hot pot restaurants, which heavily rely on big dining parties, have even been getting into the game, though hot pot delivery has never taken off in New York the way that it has in China. In the last few months, Da Yu Hot Pot on Bowery and Da Long Yi Hot Pot in Chinatown have both added delivery.
Flushing’s Haidilao, the popular Chinese chain hot pot restaurant known for its attentive dine-in experience, launched its hot pot delivery service in New York just last week. The restaurant offers not only the broths and fresh ingredients, but also the cookware. Upon purchase, the app can deliver the actual pot ($16.99 per piece), portable stove ($22.98 per piece), and butane fuel (1.99 per piece).
It’s a system that’s been popular in China for years, where Haidilao has set up an independent delivery brand and even sometimes sends actual wait staff to customers at home. The chain offers similar in-house delivery services in LA and San Francisco.
But the decline in business has made launching delivery in New York more urgent. Here, Haidilao is using the third-party platforms Hungry Panda, an app mainly targets Chinese diaspora in America, and similar delivery company Chowbus for its delivery to get it online quicker. According to a WeChat article sponsored by Hungry Panda, Haidilao delivers hot pot across Queens all day and to the app’s several pick-up spots in Manhattan during weekdays.
Da Long Yi Hot Pot, which has seen a 50 percent drop in revenue since news of the novel coronavirus, launched a lunch delivery service earlier in February, according to owner Chen Ze. Besides delivery of traditional hot pot, the restaurant also offers mao cai (冒菜), a hot pot-like Sichuan cuisine that pre-cooks materials in the spicy soup. According to Chen, lunch delivery has been popular with white-collar workers in Manhattan, with 40 to 50 orders each day.
Other Chinese cuisines are scrambling to add delivery, too. Three Times (stylized as 3 Times), the acclaimed new dim sum restaurant with locations on the Lower East Side and near Union Square, has had a lull in recent business and has been forced to make layoffs and cut down on employee shifts, says owner Jason Zhu.
To address it, the restaurant announced last week that it would sell frozen dim sum online through Hungry Panda, with prices significantly lower than what it costs to dine-in. The frozen selection includes the restaurant’s signature soup dumplings (xiaolongbao), moon cakes, and fried dumplings. According to Three Times’s website, its xiaolongbao is priced at $1.15 per piece at the restaurant, whereas the frozen ones cost 70 cents, or 60 percent of the dine-in cost.
“It’s quite obvious that there are much fewer customers during dining hours,” says Zhu. “If people are afraid of eating in public space, how about letting them cook our food at home?”
The restaurants’ creative efforts to survive coronavirus are in line with the dining industry back in China, where many businesses have been seeking alternative revenue from delivery orders and, in some cases, live-streaming the cooking process to assuage safety concerns.
Food delivery platforms, facing the drastic drop of dine-in customers in Chinese restaurants, are the rare ones that find a boon in business.
Chowbus, another delivery platform focusing on Asian and Chinese diners, has seen steady growth in the past months. It has also sealed a partnership deal with Haidilao for hot pot delivery. It’s not clear if the growth in restaurant deliveries has been in response to coronavirus fears, founder Linxin Wen says. But the company’s grocery delivery service business has doubled since the Lunar New Year, which Wen suspects stems from panic.
“When something like [coronavirus panic] happens, we should think about how to help the restaurants to diversify the risks,” Wen says. After fears began to spread, both Chowbus and Hungry Panda launched campaigns to promote awareness to help Chinatown business and swiftly added more restaurants to their rosters.
“I don’t think it can be described as an ‘opportunity’; we really want to see Chinatowns thrive,” says Wen. He adds, “If the Chinese restaurants fail, we will definitely fail, too.”
When he’s not planning his next meal, Tony Lin makes videos and writes about food and the world around him.