by Sharon H. Chang
It is a gratefully busy afternoon at Dim Sum King in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District (ID). After months of being closed, a steady flow of customers comes in for takeout, following tape arrows on the floor to maintain six feet of distance. Michelle Cai is explaining how she drew reopening plans for her parent’s restaurant, which included directing foot traffic. Cai’s extroverted mother, Amy, is happily serving food and chimes in to emphasize how helpful her children have been during the pandemic. “My son and my daughter is very good!” Amy beams. “They give me a lot of idea. They very smart too.”
Michelle Cai’s parents immigrated to the U.S. from Guangzhou, China, over two decades ago. Cai was a 7th grader when they opened Dim Sum King and she would help out after school, filling soy sauce bottles or cleaning floors. After graduating college, Cai moved to Southern California. But this spring Cai flew home when her parents temporarily closed their restaurant so she could be with family and eventually support her parents in reopening.
Over the last five harrowing months of coronavirus outbreak and quarantine, first- and second-generation children of immigrant restaurant owners have helped keep their parents’ small businesses afloat, doing everything from boosting digital presence to applying for loans and providing moral support. Now, as the state emerges from quarantine under Gov. Inslee’s four-phase plan, restaurant kids are helping their parents creatively adapt to a new business normal and keep positivity in plain sight.
Carol Xie was a high school sophomore when her father, an immigrant from Guangzhou, opened Purple Dot Café in the ID. Xie sometimes helped at the restaurant on holidays and weekends or if someone called in sick. But running the business was mostly a one-man show for her industrious father, said Xie, until the pandemic hit. International District restaurants were impacted early because of coronavirus stigma, a full month before spread began in Washington. Purple Dot saw customer dropoff in January after the first U.S. novel coronavirus case was reported in Snohomish County.
Just a few blocks away, Dim Sum King and New Star Restaurant experienced the same plummet in January sales. Elaine Pang’s parents, Hay Pang and Mui Chu, own New Star Restaurant, which has been in the ID since 1998. The family immigrated from Hong Kong when Pang was seven. For years, New Star has served tourists and downtown workers, but that customer base vanished seemingly overnight. Pang had never seen her parents’ restaurant that empty. “It was so bad,” Pang said. “You can’t do anything when there’s nobody ordering. You sit here and wait for the phone to ring.”
Weeks passed and business worsened. On March 16, Gov. Inslee restricted all restaurants to takeout to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Pang’s parents were forced to close New Star because it was too expensive to stay open. Michelle Cai’s parents decided to close Dim Sum King for the safety of its employees and customers.
Meanwhile, family-owned restaurants in Snohomish County, where the first COVID-19 case was recorded, began to also feel harsh impacts. Supo Techagumthorn’s parents, Jas and Pete, have owned Chili Basil Thai Grill in Lynnwood for a decade. The family immigrated from Thailand to the U.S. for better opportunities. Techagumthorn grew up in his family’s restaurant, helping out on weekends and summers. Chili Basil saw an unprecedented plunge in sales when restaurant restrictions were issued. “We knew it was coming,” said Techagumthorn, “but didn’t know it would be that quick.”
T&T Seafood in Edmonds saw their customer base evaporate as well. Wilson Chan’s parents, Tony and Theresa, immigrated from Vietnam thirty years ago and worked hard to start their own business. Chan, who was born in Washington, grew up in his family’s restaurant, as did Techagumthorn. T&T Seafood’s business did a nosedive at the end of March. “It was just hard,” said Chan. “We had to decide: do we close down for a month and see what happens?” Over two decades, the family had never closed their doors for more than 30 days. Ultimately, Chan’s parents had to shut down the restaurant because they weren’t making enough money to stay open.
Stepping in to Help Out
After weeks of struggling, Carol Xie’s father wondered if he too should close Purple Dot’s doors. But Xie told him to let her try social media first. Xie created an Instagram account and a Facebook page for the restaurant, posting regularly. She partnered with the Intentionalist and famous Instagrammer @seattlefoodieadventure, and gave multiple media interviews. With Xie’s help, her father has kept Purple Dot Café open throughout quarantine.
Chili Basil Thai Grill has kept their doors open as well. Techagumthorn helped his parents set up deliveries and doubled down on online ordering. He made supply runs for the restaurant to reduce his parents’ potential exposure to the coronavirus. He also helped his parents apply for and eventually receive a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, a process he described as a “nightmare.”
By May, restaurants that had closed were ready to reopen for Mother’s Day takeout. New Star Restaurant reopened May 1. Elaine Pang is incredibly busy with two young children and a full-time job as manager for a Seattle parking operator. “But my parents needed help,” she said. Pang built a website for her parents’ restaurant, set up online ordering, and expanded delivery service. She also created a New Star Facebook page and an Instagram account.
T&T Seafood reopened May 5. While continuing to work his full-time job as an engineer, Wilson Chan helped his parents advertise on social media and revamp their website. He re-arranged the inside of the restaurant for safety, taping the floor and hanging signs to direct foot traffic. He also drove to the International District once a week to pick up supplies.
Dim Sum King reopened on May 10. Michelle Cai has continued to work her full-time California marketing job remotely while supporting her parents. Cai built up Dim Sum King’s digital and social media presence. Before reopening, she spent two weeks helping her parents prepare, drawing out plans for installing safety plexiglass and directing customer flow to minimize the risk of infection.
Phase 2: What’s Next?
Today, King and Snohomish Counties remain among the hardest hit by coronavirus and the slowest to reopen. Snohomish County was allowed to enter Phase 2 on June 5, and King County did the same on June 19. Restaurants can resume dine-in services at 50% capacity or less (depending on fire codes). How this new normal looks for each restaurant varies. No adaptation is easy, but everyone is trying to keep hope in sight.
T&T Seafood is the only restaurant that has reopened for dine-in so far, starting on June 15. Chan continues to help his parents keep T&T Seafood organized and safe. There are now 14 tables in the restaurant for diners, yet sales are still only half what they used to be. Meanwhile, Dim Sum King, Purple Dot Café, New Star Restaurant, and Chili Basil Thai Grill have decided not to reopen for dine-in yet. Dim Sum King was already set up for takeout and business is down only slightly compared to pre-COVID. Cai and her brother have helped their parents supplement the difference with Uber Eats and Grubhub. “I would say my parents have been pretty fortunate,” said Cai.
Over at Purple Dot Café, despite all Carol Xie’s efforts, the restaurant is not making as much as it used to. Xie has gone back to work and is not able to help her father as much. Still, Xie stays positive. “We’re scraping by. We’re able to stay open at this point and that’s all we can ask for.” At New Star, business is slow too, but since infection rates are rising the family won’t risk dine-in. Pang is focusing instead on improving online ordering. Similarly, diners won’t be allowed at Chili Basil until Phase 4 to protect Techagumthorn’s parents. Takeout orders are improving, though weekdays remain slow. At the end of the day, however, Techagumthorn is unwavering — like all the restaurant kids have been since the start of the pandemic. “You can do a lot when you care for somebody,” he said. “Restaurant and family comes first and it’s always been that way.”
Sharon H. Chang is an activist, photographer, and award-winning writer. She is the author of the acclaimed book Hapa Tales and Other Lies that reflects critically on her Asian American, Mixed Race, and activist identity through the prism of returning to Hawai‘i as a tourist. She lives in the Columbia City neighborhood.
Featured image: Michelle Cai with her parents, Amy and Yong, at their restaurant Dim Sum King in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District (Photo: Sharon H. Chang)