It’s been nearly a month since the state halted indoor dining across Illinois, and restaurants continue to figure out ways to survive as the logistics of starting a takeout operation aren’t as simple as just finding to-go containers and disposable bags. For example, venerable fondue restaurant Geja’s Cafe has started an at-home operation in Lincoln Park where the staff provides customers with pots and other equipment which need to be returned within 48 hours of a takeout order.
The pots are essential to replicating the restaurant experience at home. In Bridgeport, the owners of Qiao Lin Hotpot find themselves in a similar situation. Unlike Geja’s, which has been open for 55 years, Qiao Lin, 2105 S. Jefferson Street, only opened over the summer, part of a rehabbed warehouse development called Jefferson Square and anchored by 88 Marketplace, the pan-Asian grocery store. Many of the proper utensils are available next door at the market, but without indoor dining and servers to help guide novices, Qiao Lin faces an uphill battle. They’ve continued to operate these last few weeks with a “bare minimum staff.”
“The problem with takeout and delivery for hot pot is if you don’t have the basic equipment, so to speak, you’re not able to enjoy the meal,” says Qiao Lin co-owner Anne Gao.
Takeout hot pot isn’t new, but it’s hard translate the same experience as cooking food in boiling broth with friends. It’s a communal activity when health experts advocate for social distancing. Another concern for Gao stems from how Chinese restaurants in America market themselves. While Facebook and Instagram (Qiao Lin uses both platforms) are standard marketing tools for most restaurants, those that serve Chinese food have come to rely on WeChat, a messaging app with more than 1 billion users (many of who are members of the Chinese community). Restaurants form WeChat groups for customer and post menus so customers can use the app to place orders. In his ongoing trade battle with China, President Donald Trump signed an executive order in August to ban the app in America. Court challenges have prevented the ban from taking hold. Gao says the restaurant counts about 500 in its WeChat group.
Gao and her partners are fell in love with hot pot while in China where the Qiao Lin brand has existed for 25 years. This is the company’s first in America and the location is a little more upscale than most hot pot restaurants are in America. Gao says they were poised to turn the corner before the state shut down indoor dining. Gao hopes to expand her customer base as 90 percent of her customers were Chinese or another member of the Asian community.
Qiao Lin specializes in hot pot from Chongqing, the sprawling city in southwest China. There are other restaurants that serve that style of broth in Chicago, but Gao feels that most Americans consider Mongolian-style hot pot as the default. Chongqing-style hot pot is spicier and Gao says her restaurant specializes in quality cuts of meat. Fancy folk can find Kobe beef, short rib, and chuck roll. Other options include tripe, ox tongue, sliced ox aorta, chicken liver kabob, and marinated pork intestine.
Right now, Gao and her partners are tying to find their footing in this business environment. They aren’t bundling burners with orders, but Gao wants to eventually offer branded pots, so customers can at least have that if they can’t sit inside the restaurant’s dining room. Ownership spent time and money on the dining room’s design to attract customers, and to set it apart from others. Gao says “we’re the first hot pot restaurant in Chicago that offers an open-kitchen concept.”
While many Chicago restaurateurs have made a big deal about buying fancy ventilation systems to make their spaces safer during the pandemic, only to feel that money was wasted after the suspension of indoor dining, Qiao Lin already installed such a system for its high ceilings. When dining at a hot pot restaurant, much like Korean barbecue, smoke and aromas tend to follow diners after their meals.
New restaurants are at a disadvantage during the pandemic as they haven’t built a core group of regular customers. Still, Gao is optimistic her restaurant can survive to when governmental officials restore indoor dining. She has hopes.
“I think one day hot pot can be as popular as ramen noodles,” Gao says.