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Kevin Liang, CEO of Southeast Asia Food Group, in his warehouse
Kevin Liang, CEO of Southeast Asia Food Group, in his warehouse
Gary He/Eater

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Meet the Front-Line Workers of NYC’s Food Supply Chain

Here are the people hustling to continue feeding New Yorkers, starting from the raw ingredients to the final dish

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Even ghost kitchens in a ghost town need supplies.

New York City’s restaurant supply chain continues to chug along, even with drastic cuts in business and restrictions amid a stay-at-home order to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. Deemed by the state as having “essential” workers, many industries — hospitals, law enforcement, and restaurants — are exempt from shutting down, and operators are retaining skeleton crews to do delivery and takeout. The entire infrastructure is run by workers who put their health at risk every day to make sure the city’s food supply continues flowing unabated.

To see all the people who continue to work in food as New York becomes the epicenter of the pandemic, Eater tracked a dish from Taiwanese restaurant Ho Foods in the East Village — starting from when it’s just a bunch of raw products sitting in a warehouse, all the way until it’s a finished meal delivered to its consumer. Every person that crossed paths with the food has some fears about COVID-19, but throughout the supply chain, people demonstrated resolve and determination to do what the government has deemed to be an essential job.

Truck Driver Rodney Allen with a hand truck, wearing a face mask

The Truck Driver

Rodney Allen

Almost every ingredient of every dish served in New York City enters the city in a truck, whether it’s from the ports in New Jersey, a remote warehouse, or loaded off a plane at JFK. The pallets end up at distribution centers like Southeast Asia Food Group in Gowanus, Brooklyn. The company, which has been in business since 1988, splits the pallets up into individual orders to suit the needs of restaurants, kitchens, and specialty food stores.

“It’s a chain effect,” said CEO Kevin Liang when asked why he was keeping his food distribution business open during the COVID-19 crisis despite the drop in business. “If we remain open, then the restaurants will feel a sense of stability and normalcy, and every person ordering from the restaurants and supermarkets will feel a sense of normalcy.”

It isn’t business as usual at Southeast Asia Food Group, however. Where there were once 60 employees in a bustling warehouse, now only eight remain.

“All the drivers except for maybe two of them quit. A lot of guys feared for their health,” said Rodney Allen, a logistics manager who used to run a team of 30 drivers at Southeast Asia Food Group. He now makes many of the deliveries himself.

“I just take every precaution that I can,” Allen said. “I wear my mask. I wear my gloves. Keep my distance. Just do what needs to be done, and keep on working.”

Stockist Peter Caballero in a fork lift with a face mask

The Warehouse Stockist

Peter Caballero

The job of managing the inventory of over a thousand items in the warehouse and making sure that orders get fulfilled correctly falls to the stockist. “I’m the last line of defense for the customer before the items go out to them,” said Peter Caballero, one of two people left running warehouse operations at Southeast Asia Food Group. It is here that a small restaurant like Ho Foods gets its pantry items at wholesale prices without having to buy more than it has room for in the store.

Caballero lives in Sunset Park with his grandmother, close enough to walk to work and avoid the subways that other front line food industry workers face on a daily basis. The warehouse is also fairly isolated and leaves him with minimal exposure.

“The money keeps me going, but I feel like I’m essential to the community,” said Caballero. “I have people walk in here and say, ‘Hey, my supplier’s closed.’ I tell them no matter what, we’ll be open. If one person needs us, we’ll be there for them.”

Store manager Aidan Lee wearing a face mask in H mart

The Retail Employee

Aidan Lee

Staff at chains like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods are among the most visible food workers during the novel coronavirus shutdown, but there are also thousands of other retail employees in bodegas, supermarkets, and gourmet food stores across the city who come in contact with hundreds of customers a day, often in close proximity in cramped aisles or face-to-face at the checkout counter. They are the most exposed workers in food service.

“As a store manager, I cannot show my team any fear,” said Aidan Lee, the manager for H Mart in the East Village. The store, part of one of the country’s largest Asian supermarket chains, usually serves the retail customer who cooks at home, but Ho Foods chef and owner Richard Ho often runs over to fill shortages in his orders with suppliers, as he did this week for Savoy cabbage.

Since the hordes of New York University students who normally shop at the store have been sent home, and much of the other well-to-do East Village residents have decamped for out-of-state coronavirus shelters, business has dipped. But loyal customers continue to come in for Asian condiments and snacks that are just not available anywhere else in the city. Lee feels a sense of duty despite the hurdles and the risk.

“We are going to stay open, seven days a week,” he said.

Line cook Trevor Liu wearing a face mask and holding a knife in the kitchen at Ho Foods

The Line Cook

Trevor Liu

By most accounts, New York City restaurants that have remained open during the COVID-19 crisis are only making a fraction of their usual profit — and many restaurateurs say they’re doing takeout and delivery primarily to keep a few of their neediest (and often undocumented) kitchen staff employed.

“[Kitchen workers] are and always will be the backbone of the hospitality industry of New York City,” said Trevor Liu. A few years ago, Liu came to the United States from Taiwan with aspirations of being an actor. But after a tour in the kitchens of restaurants like the Tang and 886 (and a few less-than-perfect auditions), he is now working for his friend Richard Ho at his eponymous restaurant.

In a tightly clustered kitchen with two other people, Liu prepares bento boxes with roasted Savoy cabbage, yakitori tare sauce over rice, and sweet soy potatoes, topped with pan-seared chicken thigh. Thanks to food safety practices that involve blowing through boxes of polyurethane gloves and now face masks, line cooks are theoretically among the best suited to keeping themselves safe from COVID-19. Theoretically.

“I’m not really scared. I know that if i’m being smart and safe then I don’t have to be scared,” said Liu. “I feel like life has to go on.”

Delivery man and 886 owner Eric Sze wearing sunglasses and a face mask putting boxes of food in the back of a car

The Delivery Guy

Eric Sze

Though many restaurants rely on third-party delivery workers, a slew of business owners are also making deliveries and exposing themselves in the same way. Linden Pride of acclaimed Greenwich Village cocktail bar Dante and Simon Kim of the Michelin-starred Korean barbecue restaurant Cote have been known to personally roll up with the food when the queue is backed up or there is an error that needs to be fixed.

“It is a job that somebody has to do,” said Eric Sze, head chef and owner of Taiwanese restaurant 886 in the East Village. “We’re just in the beginning of this.”

In a car with his business partner Andy Chuang, Sze does bulk deliveries not only for 886 but for udon shop Raku and Ho Foods as well. Like many owners, the duo is making no money during the crisis, but they continue to put themselves on the front lines of exposure to keep their businesses afloat.

“There is a fear of getting the virus of course,” said Sze. “But that’s also what makes me a lot more careful every day.”

Surgical technologist Henry Chung receives a boxes of food while wearing his scrubs and face mask

The Customer

Henry Chuang

The bento boxes that Sze delivers for 886, Raku, and Ho Foods are not customer orders — they’re financed by donations and feed front line medical workers like Henry Chuang, a surgical technologist at NYU Langone Orthopedic Center. For the past month, his job has been a little different.

“This is usually an orthopedic hospital, but since space is limited in New York City hospitals right now, we’ve changed it to a COVID patient intake,” said Chuang. “It’s a lot of patients here right now. It’s the whole hospital.”

The food is a huge morale booster for hospital staff, who Chuang said are working backbreaking shifts caring for patients infected with a virus about which much is still unknown. “We’ll normally order out from places, but right now all the restaurants are closed,” said Chuang. “There’s hospital food, which is good too. But, it’s always better to get 886. I eat there once a week at least.”

Sze said that based on current donation levels, the three restaurants can make 270 meals a day and distribute them across three hospitals. The plan is to hit 400 meals a day by next week.

“New Yorkers as a whole, the whole nation, we’ll get through this,” said Chuang. “We just gotta stick together.”

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