Jing Fong, the largest Chinese restaurant in Manhattan, announced today that it would permanently close its dining room on March 7 due to business loss as a result of COVID-19. Following a growing trend during the pandemic, the restaurant has plans to continue operating as a ghost kitchen to fulfill orders for takeout, delivery, and outdoor dining on its patio.
“With our drastic decline in sales and mounting losses sustained over the course of a year, we needed to make the tough call to close our indoor dining space and redirect our resources in hopes to continue our operations,” the third-generation owner and manager Truman Lam said in a statement.
The iconic dim sum restaurant, which opened in 1978 but moved to its current location at 20 Elizabeth Street, between Canal and Bayard streets, in 1992, has worked out a deal with its landlord to use the kitchen rent-free on a month-to-month basis. A satellite location on the Upper West Side, which opened in 2017, is unaffected by any of the changes.
Sales at Jing Fong are down 85 percent year-over-year, which translates to a loss of about $5 to 6 million, according to Lam. But even before any mandates to shut down indoor dining, the restaurant saw its daily check totals plummet, mainly a result of diminished tourism but also because of racism and xenophobia surrounding the coronavirus. At one point in mid-February 2020, Lam counted just 36 customers in a room that can legally hold 794. The dip in sales forced Jing Fong to shutter its dining room on March 10, a week earlier than mandated by New York State.
Revenue returned with the addition of takeout and eventually outdoor dining, but the restaurant was never able to aggressively build out its patio seating like some other businesses around the city, perhaps in part because it is located directly across the street from the NYPD’s 5th Precinct station house. Even if the restaurant could have expanded its patio, it would have taken an empty parking lot to bridge the gap in the number of seats lost from pre-pandemic times.
In October, the restaurant tried its hand at indoor dining, but reception was lukewarm: the tourists that made up the bulk of the pre-pandemic business had not yet returned to the city. Even if those diners had returned, operating the Jing Fong dining room, with its dozens of dim sum carts being pushed around to various tables, was a losing proposition at 25 percent capacity. Large banquets and buyouts, which accounted for half of the pre-pandemic business, never returned.
“Our restaurant is not set up to serve 200 seats a la carte,” says Lam. “We’re super inefficient like that. It’s an atmosphere and volume game, otherwise it doesn’t work.”
For nostalgic New Yorkers, Jing Fong’s dining room will remain open until March 7, operating at 25 percent capacity per current state regulations. Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced today that restaurants can expand indoor dining to 35 percent beginning February 26, although it’s not clear whether the restaurant’s banquet hall setup will follow suit. Once the dining room goes dark, Jing Fong will only operate as a ghost kitchen.
“It’s really sad to see it go,” says Wilson Tang, owner of Nom Wah Tea Parlor, another Chinatown institution. “I’ve got a lot of memories there. That was a spot that I went to as a kid before Chinese school. Too many weddings to remember. It’s such an out-of-this-world experience.”
While the neighborhood will lose its most iconic and largest dining room for now, much of the restaurant’s dim sum carts, tables, and even the golden phoenix mounted on a red wall will go into storage for a potential reopening in another location. No plans have been finalized.
“This is not the end for us,” said Lam in a statement. “We are actively and quickly searching for a new location in Chinatown and look forward to welcoming the community inside of our doors soon.”