Go on a food crawl in Manhattan's Chinatown to help mom and pop businesses stay afloat

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Send Chinatown Love aims to bring more foot traffic to Manhattan's Chinatown by highlighting 13 small businesses in a self-guided food crawl. (Photo: Emily Faber, Sinclair Broadcast Group)

NEW YORK CITY (SBG) — In February of 2020, a tiny cafe specializing in Malaysian desserts opened in Manhattan's Chinatown. Called Kuih Cafe, the eatery offered a rotating menu of different variations of kuih, a broad category of sweet or savory treats usually steamed and made from glutinous rice. Prior to the opening of the storefront, Kuih Cafe's owner, a Malaysian immigrant named Veronica Gan, had spent years perfecting her recipes and selling home-baked pastries to customers across the city. Upon opening, business took off, as customers flocked to try authentic desserts that were previously difficult to find even in the culturally diverse New York City.

But when the pandemic began just a month after Kuih Cafe's debut, Gan had to temporarily shut the doors of her newly opened business. She failed to qualify for a Paycheck Protection Program loan and had to lay off her small team, taking on all of the responsibilities by herself when she was eventually able to reopen for takeout. The demand for kuih is still going strong, as passionate customers frequently request menu items and inquire about the ordering process in Kuih Cafe's Instagram comments, but Gan can barely afford to cover expenses right now.

Kuih Cafe was far from the only business in Chinatown to suffer at the start of the pandemic. In fact, plenty had already begun to feel the effects of COVID-19 well in advance of any confirmed cases in the United States, with anti-Chinese xenophobic attitudes reducing the amount of foot traffic to the neighborhood. When restaurants were ordered to close, it was another blow to the many old-school, cash-only establishments whose lack of digital presence kept them from reaching customers and receiving the aid available to more modernized businesses. Online payment platforms like Square provided resources and feature updates to assist their sellers in navigating the pandemic, but no one was looking out for mom and pop shops in that way.

Even before the mandated closures, software engineer and Chinatown resident Justin McKibben noticed that several of his favorite spots were halting operations indefinitely due to the sudden decrease in foot traffic and their lack of utilization of electronic transaction methods and delivery apps. McKibben's concerns about the future of the neighborhood inspired him to put a team together to provide relief to struggling merchants. With that, Send Chinatown Love was born.

"We want to create a digital community for Chinatown’s restaurants to sustain themselves during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond," reads the organization's mission statement. "In short, we want to give merchants an online platform who otherwise wouldn’t have one. In the long term, we hope to build a community of Asian American restaurants that can become self-sustaining digitally."

Marcia Hu knew that she wanted to get involved with Send Chinatown Love from the moment she discovered the cause on social media, just two days after they formally launched. Born and raised in Flushing, Queens, Hu is particularly aware of how online reviews could popularize a business, and she wanted to give Asian-owned businesses the opportunity to tell their own stories to the internet. After joining the organization, Hu, along with McKibben and the rest of the Send Chinatown Love team, began to seek out business owners to ask if they'd like assistance in raising money, not exactly sure of what they ultimately wanted to build.

Their initial efforts were met with numerous obstacles. Reaching the owners of closed businesses was difficult, unless they had a personal connection, and when they were able to communicate with merchants, there was often skepticism and resistance to their offers of help from the hardworking and prideful immigrants. Having to explain technology to those unfamiliar with it was another barrier that Send Chinatown Love had to overcome. From the start, bilingual team members played a vital role in explaining the organization's goals, as well as the digital resources that may be available, to Chinatown merchants, many of whom are not English-speaking.

"As we began working with these merchants, we really wanted to figure out what exactly it was that they needed, and all of them were coming to us with the same feedback. They were saying that they didn’t just want a handout. They wanted customers. They wanted food traffic," said Hu.

Gift cards were one of the ways that Send Chinatown Love responded to the merchants' requests. Because mom and pop shops often do not have payment processing systems that support the use of gift cards, Send Chinatown Love acts as a middleman. On their website, they provide participating small businesses with individual pages to accept donations and sell vouchers; they then pay those businesses in cash, freeing them from the need to set up new point-of-sale systems to accept purchased vouchers and creating more transparency in the fundraising process. Each page tells the backstory of that particular business, and most include photo galleries that spotlight tasty-looking dishes.

Even as New York City has begun the process of reopening for outdoor dining and soon will allow for indoor dining, Chinatown has still been disproportionately impacted by the lack of tourism, according to Send Chinatown Love. Wanting to further draw people back to the once-bustling sidewalks of Chinatown, the team started to think that some kind of event would benefit the restaurants in the area. But holding a one-day event seemed irresponsible, given the necessity for social distancing in the current times. "We didn’t want to do something that could potentially attract a lot of people, because COVID is still very real. We don’t want to put lives in jeopardy," said Hu.

Instead, the organization set up a self-guided food crawl throughout the entire month of September.

"We’re giving people ample time to do things at their own pace and hit up all the spots, instead of crowding in one neighborhood for one day," Hu explained.

The food crawl features 13 different stops in the Chinatown area, ranging from bakeries to restaurants to stores. At each vendor, you'll receive tickets with unique QR codes in exchange for just a $5 purchase. Scanning the code will unlock your "Passport to Chinatown," which logs everywhere that you've visited thus far. Three tickets will unlock a number of local rewards, like deals on haircuts and free jewelry cleanings; three tickets plus an Instagram post, either in-feed or a story, will grant you an entry into the weekly digital giveaways. Visiting all 13 spots makes you eligible for a grand prize.

My first stop was Kuih Cafe, where Gan changes the menu weekly, offering three different $10 sets that can be preordered via Instagram DM. I had ordered Set C, which came with two types of kuih, the day prior to my visit. In Set C, there were three pieces of kuih lapis, a colorful snack made up of layers of rice flour pudding; this particular kuih lapis got its brilliant hue from blue pea flower. The set also included four pieces of kuih talam gula melaka, a steamed palm sugar cake with a sweet layer and a salty one. Other sets include savory options like nasi lemak, a Malaysian dish consisting of rice cooked in coconut milk with pandan leaves, and nasi kunyit, a plate of glutinous rice seasoned with turmeric that's typically served at celebrations in Malay culture.

Currently, Kuih Cafe has received nearly $2,500 in donations through the Send Chinatown Love website. That's not counting the money that Gan has made and the new customers that she has acquired, myself included, as a direct result of the food crawl.

Packing away my kuih for later, I then made my way to Tonii's Fresh Rice Noodle for lunch.

Liz Yee's family has been in the Chinatown restaurant business for close to 30 years, and Yee worked in her father's restaurants as a teenager. She now manages Tonii's Fresh Rice Noodle, a hole-in-the-wall spot specializing in Cantonese rice noodle rolls called cheung-fun. Another popular item at Tonii's, and the inspiration behind their adorable cartoon logo, is the sponge cake from sister bakery Kam Hing; its recipe originated with Yee's grandfather and has been passed down through her family. I personally ordered the chicken rice noodles and felt fully satisfied with my choice. The freshly made dish was filling and flavorful with the addition of hot sauce and soy sauce, and the outdoor seating area was a delightful place to people-watch as I ate.

Though business seemed steady during my visit, Yee has faced her share of challenges since the pandemic hit. She's had to navigate a significant staff shortage due to coronavirus-related fears, as well as the difficulties of setting up an outdoor seating area on a busy street near a construction zone. In addition, the health of her parents and sister is of concern, as all of them have underlying conditions that put them at higher risk for severe illness.

But to Yee, continuing to operate Tonii's Fresh Rice Noodle is, no matter what COVID-19 throws at her and her business, absolutely crucial to maintaining her family's legacy and preserving their heritage for generations to come.

Just steps away from Tonii's is Alimama, a tea and dessert shop that's known for sparkling mochi donuts that are as tasty as they are aesthetically pleasing and massive boba-filled cream puffs. The mochi munchkins, served fresh and hot, are positively mouthwatering. Whatever dessert you choose, you can wash it down with one of their stunning teas, most of which have vivid hues and are embellished with carefully adorned garnishes. Thanks to the focus on mochi, much of the menu is gluten-free, a nod to owner Janie Wang's own gluten intolerance, and vegans will also find suitable options at Alimama.

Having first tried a mochi donut in Taiwan and finding herself surprised by the donut's chewy texture, Wang was inspired to bring the dessert to New York City. Selling something different from what was currently available in the city was very important to Wang, and her creativity quickly paid off, as the eye-catching treats helped Alimama to quickly gain recognition from foodies.

But despite its following, Alimama was far from immune to the effects of COVID-19. The shop closed for over two months, and Wang found it "nearly impossible to reopen," according to a plea posted on Instagram in mid-June. In the post's caption, Alimama asked customers to consider purchasing gift cards, offering a 10% discount with no expiration date in exchange for the support needed to keep the business running long term. The dessert shop said that the pandemic had made it "almost impossible" for them to afford the rent, the food cost, the bills, and the salaries of their employees.

"Unlike resourceful major corporations, small businesses like us, especially small businesses in NYC, can only benefit from their communities rallying around them," the establishment wrote.

For my second day of the crawl, I took one of Hu's suggestions. "If you’re looking to try something new and very interesting, QQ Cafe specializes in southeastern Chinese food from the Fujian province," she had told me. "The region is known for fish balls and peanut noodles, and QQ Cafe kills it at both of these dishes. I highly recommend the peanut noodles over there."

QQ Cafe is certainly the definition of a "hidden gem," with a fairly nondescript storefront next to a large fruit stand and its entire internet presence consisting of a handful of good reviews on Google and a brand-new Yelp page. Unfortunately, during coronavirus, these secretive spots that rely primarily on foot traffic have found themselves at a disadvantage compared to the myriad of restaurants that are perfectly easy to find on the web, whether through social media, Seamless, or otherwise. By including more underground eateries like QQ Cafe in the food crawl alongside iconic Chinatown institutions, Send Chinatown Love is making certain that the entire neighborhood is included in their mission.

It's also a way to increase QQ Cafe's exposure, which is a more sustainable strategy to keep businesses alive in the long term than fundraising alone. While I may have never discovered QQ Cafe on my own, the memorable peanut noodles and fried vegetable cakes that I ordered from the restaurant's temporary window (the inside is currently closed to customers) will keep me going back even after the food crawl is finished.

In just the first two weeks of the food crawl, Send Chinatown Love's event had put over $5,500 back into the 13 participating vendors, and more than 900 tickets had been redeemed — impressive numbers that still don't reveal the true impact that the crawl could have on the neighborhood. The social media aspect ensures that word about the food crawl spreads beyond Send Chinatown Love's reach, as giveaway entrants have enticed their followers to check out the area as well by posting countless photos of pastel tie-dye mochi donuts, heaps of noodles enjoyed at outdoor tables, and display cases filled with mooncakes.

A mooncake is a traditional Chinese pastry typically consumed during the Mid-Autumn Festival, a celebration that falls on the 15th day of the eighth month of the Chinese lunar calendar. According to folklore, Chinese military leaders long ago smuggled hidden messages within or embossed on mooncakes. The delicacies, most commonly filled with red bean or lotus seed paste and often containing a salted duck egg yolk, have since become a symbol of familial unity and a customary gift given to relatives, friends, and business clients during the festival. This year, the Mid-Autumn Festival falls on Oct. 1, but at one Chinatown bakery, mooncakes can be purchased year-round.

As gentrification in Manhattan's Chinatown has driven a not insignificant number of Chinese immigrants away from the area, the iconic Golden Fung Wong Bakery has withstood the test of time, remaining true in an ever-changing neighborhood. They're known for their aforementioned mooncakes, of which they sell numerous varieties, their hopia, another type of filled pastry whose name translates to "good cake," and their Chinese bridal pastries, also known as "marry girl cakes." But even in a pre-coronavirus interview in 2018, Mrs. Wong acknowledged that it was "hard to make business," adding that the bakery relied primarily on tourists. Now, with far fewer tourists crowding the Chinatown sidewalks, Golden Fung Wong Bakery's inclusion on Send Chinatown Love's food crawl could play a pivotal role in keeping the old-school shop open for years to come and maintaining the authenticity of the neighborhood.

Across the street from Golden Fung Wong Bakery is another stop on the food crawl. 46 Mott is a Cantonese-style bakery with an enormous menu of items like tofu pudding, sweetened soy milk, and tea eggs. General manager Patrick Mock has lived in Chinatown for his entire life and has witnessed firsthand how Chinatown has changed in recent years. When he started working at 46 Mott, his goal was to bridge the old-school establishment with a new-school mentality. The combination led to a rise in sales — until the fear of coronavirus and anti-Asian sentiment caused a 60 to 70% drop in business during January and February of 2020, the months that should have been 46 Mott's busiest of the year.

Mock and 46 Mott owner Tony Chen decided to stay open even as most of Chinatown shut down in March, but they soon realized that simply serving their customers wasn't enough for them to feel like they were stepping up and doing their part during the pandemic. Instead, Mock was inspired to give back to his community by providing hot box lunches to all those in need. He worked with Send Chinatown Love to raise donations, and in just three days, they were able to raise $15,000. New York State Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou has also fervently supported the bakery's mission.

To Mock, community members helping community members is how Chinatown will find itself best equipped to survive the COVID-19 crisis, and Mock is determined to keep not only 46 Mott but the entirety of Chinatown and its old-school essence alive.

After the September food crawl ends, Send Chinatown Love plans to continue aiding the community in every way possible. "Our merchant outreach team is still reaching out to merchants every week and trying to introduce our product to them, because restaurants are still struggling to stay afloat," said Hu. "We’ll also continue our Gift-a-Meal campaign, a campaign that we started in March where we pair up one of our restaurants with a local nonprofit in their area and raise money to purchase food from this restaurant to be donated to the nonprofit."

She added that the response to the campaign, which supports both the restaurants and elderly or low-income New York City residents, has been incredibly positive thus far. "People really love to be able to support folks in their community from afar," she said.

In their five-month recap at the end of August, Send Chinatown Love reported $61,970 raised by 1,504 donors and 3,494 meals gifted through the Gift-a-Meal campaign. Those numbers have continued to rise steadily throughout the month of September, as the organization continues to support all of their onboarded merchants. Just a few days ago, Send Chinatown Love launched an emergency fundraiser for another one of the food crawl vendors, Grand Tea and Imports, who suffered extensive inventory loss and water damage in a three-alarm fire last week. "We believe in supporting our merchants through any and all hardships they may be facing — whether it's the pandemic or an unexpected crisis," they wrote in an Instagram caption.

Through their efforts to keep these mom and pop businesses alive, Send Chinatown Love is acknowledging that some level of change is necessary for the restaurants, bakeries, and shops to be able to thrive in a more modern world. But the organization recognizes that increasing the digital presence of cash-only, pen-and-paper establishments must be done in conjunction with maintaining the neighborhood's authentic, old-school vibe. The challenges created by COVID-19 have demonstrated that adapting with the times may be crucial in ensuring the longevity of Chinatown's spirit.

"Send Chinatown Love is a love letter from our generation to theirs — bridging the gap so that these iconic Chinatown businesses can continue to be passed down through generations to come," wrote McKibben on Instagram.