Restaurants are desperate for business during the pandemic, and Facebook knows it. The social media network has launched an initiative, complete with TV ads, to bring attention to small businesses like restaurants. Chinatown’s venerable Chiu Quon Bakery is part of the national campaign, which launched in late August.
Business in Chinatown has been down during the pandemic thanks to a mix of xenophobia aimed at China and fewer visits due to stay-at-home orders. Delivery courier services, particularly ChowBus — which counts a large roster of Chinese restaurants from Chinatown on its roster — have prospered. The city has also closed Archer Avenue, near Chinatown Square, on weekends for street dining.
The family-owned bakery has been around since 1986 and is marketed as the oldest in Chinatown. There’s also a North Side location in Uptown. In both locations, you can find savory buns, sponge cakes, and more. Joyce Chiu, who runs the bakery with her brother Matthew, says she’s never seen Chinatown this quiet. Even in the dead of winter, with sub-zero temperatures, people still come out and shop stores and eat at restaurants. But as December approaches, Chiu says “they will be even less” people out compared to past winters.
Fewer folks are celebrating so cake sales are down, too. Before they closed at the end of March, sales had sagged by as much as 60 percent, Chiu says. The bakery reopened in June and Chiu is seeing some positive signs. Sales have rebounded in recent weeks. They’re now down by only 30 percent, which Chiu considers a win.
There are numerous factors for fewer customers. Bigger stores have provided competition as Chiu’s customers are making fewer stops, choosing instead to go to one store for all their shopping needs. That’s why the bakery opened a location at 88 Marketplace in Pilsen. More locations in stores are on their way. Chiu says she thinks more and more about the future of the business, and how the bakery will survive for future generations.
Facebook approached Chiu Quon Bakery to be one of the businesses featured in its campaign. Although the bakery has its own marketing team, Chiu was happy to participate. Chiu says, however, that she was surprised by the images the campaign photographer found interesting. For example, the preparation of egg tarts is not something the bakery would normally feature on its social media channels. (Egg tarts are an item that don’t elicit a lot of excitement from Chiu.) But outside Chinatown, they’re viewed differently. Recall the buzz around the Bakery at Fat Rice when it offered the item in Logan Square. Chiu is hopeful that a different perspective can help her bakery’s marketing.
“Every little bit helps,” she says.
Facebook is touting its suite of small business offerings to restaurants which include digital gift cards, online ordering, and fundraisers. The company is promoting synergy with Instagram and trying to drive traffic to restaurant pages by positioning Facebook is the best place for COVID-19 updates on hours.
Chinatown is transforming, as long-time Chicago food writer Kevin Pang notes in a piece posted on Resy. Pang notes Chinese cuisine is now joined by Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese options. He also mentions that everyone wears a mask. It’s routine in Asia, as ”part of day-to-day life, without the political pushback.”
Chiu says the neighborhood looks different than it did March. New restaurants are opening that beckon for a visit: “It’s changing, it’s not like it was when you last visited,” she says. “It’s still worth it to come down and explore.”