In a normal year, Joyce Chiu and her family spend weeks in the kitchen making large quantities of traditional Chinese baked goods ahead of Chinese New Year. But this year, the longstanding cultural holiday that starts Friday, also called Lunar New Year, is taking a different turn due to the pandemic.
The Chiu family, owners of 35-year-old Chiu Quon Bakery, the oldest Chinese bakery in Chinatown, is among the many Asian restaurant owners who have turned to takeout and delivery to make sure people can celebrate the new year from home.
“We’re still making traditional Chinese New Year pastries, but less, because people are not visiting other people [or] gathering,” Chiu says.
While some Asian restaurants around the city have seen an uptick in Chinese takeout during recent months, others, like Chiu Quon Bakery, are still losing revenue but surviving on a relatively even line.
After Facebook launched an ad campaign in late summer in an effort to help bring business to independent restaurants, including Chiu Quon, Chiu says the bakery and dim sum spot saw increased orders. But now that winter is here, business is quiet again.
However, the bakery began making Lunar New Year treats at the end of January and has seen a good response. Items such as the fortune cupcake (fa gao), a traditional steamed cupcake-like pastry; the puff pastry, a sweet ground peanut wrapped with crispy pastry shell; the rice cake (nian gao); and a sugar and sesame turnover are popular items that have people excited.
“There are still traditions to be kept even amid the pandemic,” Chiu says. “If anything, [the new year] provides us with whatever normalcy we can’t get in other aspects of our lives.”
Emma Yu, executive director at the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, says some restaurants have done better than others in recent months by latching on to takeout and delivery options and offering new combo meals and choices at affordable prices.
While premier sit-down restaurants have lost income, as they’ve generally been slower to adapt, she says the transition for smaller restaurants, especially those that already offered carryout, has been successful. A big help has also been Chinese food-service apps and WeChat, a messaging app with more than 1 billion users (many of whom are members of the Chinese community) that restaurants are using to keep orders coming in during the pandemic.
“People can order Chinese food easily with discounts because there’s lots of competition,” Yu says. “It also depends on the owner’s strategy — if they want to attract more Chinese consumers, like students and people who work here, they will use WeChat. And other people look at non-Chinese clients.”
Chicago-based food delivery app Chowbus, which provides cuisine from locally owned Asian restaurants — places like Qiao Lin Hotpot, MCCB, Taipei Cafe, Four Seasons Dumplings, Mango Mango, and Meet Fresh — and grocery stores to 23 cities nationwide, has seen high demand locally during the pandemic, according to co-founder Linxin Wen. He says the takeout boom is citywide, particularly in Chinatown, West Loop, and River North, as more Chinese and Asian fusion cuisines pop up. Chowbus’s lure is that it has a larger delivery radius compared to DoorDash and Grubhub. Reps speak Mandarin and other languages to forge relationships with restaurant owners, and its couriers can deliver to customers in the suburbs and on Chicago’s North Side. Customers can also mix and match, ordering from more than one restaurant per delivery.
In the last year, the app has seen massive growth in Chicago. From 2019 to 2020, orders grew 110 percent, more than doubling from the previous year, he says. When the pandemic hit, the company hired new staff to keep up with demand and helped restaurants that had to reduce staff when dine-in service first closed in October.
“We sent out people to help package the food just to try our best to accommodate changes,” Wen says. “Restaurant [staff] and drivers are more reliant on you, so it’s just more responsibility, and we try our best.”
Keeping up with the takeout increase, Chowbus is preparing for what could be a busy Lunar New Year while also giving back. The app will donate $5 for every $60 spent to the Chamber of Commerce’s Emergency Food Distribution efforts. It’s also partnering with local restaurants to launch special Lunar New Year meal combos to emulate the family tradition of the holiday, Wen says. He’s originally from Liupanshui, a western Chinese city of nearly 3 million people that he jokingly called “a small town.”
“Back in the hometown, normally we celebrate with the family with a combo of meals and we want to bring this kind of feel here,” he says.
However, for newer restaurants, like Qiao Lin Hot Pot in neighboring Bridgeport, it’s been a challenge courting customers — they haven’t had a chance to build a base of patrons. It’s especially daunting as the hot pot experience is meant to be enjoyed on premises. The restaurant is finally able to welcome guests with a 25 percent capacity limit.
In West Town, Asian-American restaurant Mott St has also seen an uptick in takeout, both from third-party apps and directly from the restaurant’s website. The latter option is increasingly popular as diners become more aware of the damage caused to restaurants from third-party apps, which co-owner and managing partner Vicki Kim says is a big difference from the start of the pandemic — and very appreciated.
Although it’s difficult for owners to decipher whether the uptick in Asian takeout is due to their menus or because everyone now relies on takeout, Kim says Mott St and its Logan Square spin-off, Mini Mott, have seen “a strong uptick in takeout sales,” with a menu focused on carryout-friendly comfort foods. Kim, who is Korean American, credits this to a healing aspect of Asian cuisine — its blend of complex flavors, textures, and spices, and simple ingredients that aren’t messy, Asian food is imbued with love — a particularly needed feeling during the pandemic.
“It’s a type of soul food,” Kim says. “The food we put out [has] a homemade quality to it. Asian food hits that note. Even if you didn’t grow up Asian, everybody has had exposure to Asian takeout.”
As in the Mott St kitchen — which wasn’t big on takeout prior to the pandemic — Sun Wah BBQ in Uptown edited its menu to make it takeout-friendly. Over the holidays, the James Beard Award-winning, family-run Hong Kong restaurant in Uptown partnered with Longman & Eagle — the hip Michelin-rated restaurant in Logan Square to offer Chinese takeout at Longman. General manager Kelly Cheng says that didn’t yield extra orders, but working with the popular restaurant helped expose both businesses to new customers.
Sun Wah is prepping for a different kind of Lunar New Year, which Cheng says was planned in July because she knew a traditional sit-down meal wasn’t going to be an option. The restaurant’s Year of the Ox feast takeout menu features a Hong Kong dish called poon choy, which roughly translates to “basin food.” All the food is cooked, layered into a large full-to-the-brim hot pot with various meats, seafood, and vegetables.
“It’s soupy enough that you could drink it, but saucy enough that it will hold up while it’s cooking,” Cheng says, “and you will definitely get another meal out of it.”
While Lunar New Year will hopefully bring in needed revenue for Chicago’s Asian restaurants, takeout is not enough. Cheng says the new dine-in rules have slowly brought customers back in person. In Chinatown, businesses endured a hit when the coronavirus first emerged last February, in part because of xenophobia and paranoia about the disease. Since then, the Chinatown Chamber has been active in combating the drop through fundraisers, food crawls, and social media campaigns.
Although the neighborhood’s famous Lunar New Year parade, which has taken place for over 100 years, is canceled this year, the chamber’s executive director says unity, prosperity, and abundance will persist during distress.
“Whatever happens, Chinese people will celebrate the new year,” Yu says. “Hopefully we enter the new year and will drive off all the bad luck and give hope to the Year of the Ox.”