Hard Hit by Coronavirus, AsiaTown Restaurants and Markets Adapt, Pivot and Endeavor to Stay Afloat

click to enlarge EMANUEL WALLACE
Emanuel Wallace
Almost from the moment they opened their doors in AsiaTown three years ago, LJ Shanghai has been beloved for their xiao long bao, delicate steamed dumplings filled with ground meat and hot broth. But like a lot of foods, soup dumplings do not travel well. So the restaurant began selling a steam-at-home version of the popular menu item that requires little more than a few minutes in a steamer to reach perfection.

That tactic is just one way that restaurants and grocery stores in that neighborhood are adapting to the current climate, one where Asian-owned businesses seem to be suffering more than most.

“All restaurants are struggling right now, but the AsiaTown restaurants have been struggling a little bit longer,” explains Karis Tzeng, AsiaTown Project Manager at MidTown Cleveland. “Business has been down since the beginning of February just as outbreaks began happening in China and people were affiliating that with AsiaTown.”

Of the 22 Asian-owned restaurants in the neighborhood, only three have remained open throughout the pandemic, making survival a day-by-day situation. As more begin to reopen their doors, they are doing so with a greater level of anxiety and caution than other restaurants throughout the city.

“Now as they’re reopening there is a lot of fear,” reports Tzeng. “The business owners are taking this very seriously and are concerned for the safety of their workers and the safety of the community as they’re seeing the number of cases still go up. Some of the restaurants I’ve talked to recently have been really hesitant to reopen right when they’re allowed to.”

Since the dawn of chop suey, Americans have had a love affair with Asian takeout. That predilection might have provided a lifeline for the eateries that opted to remain open – or recently reopen – during the Coronavirus ordeal. Most of these restaurants are set up to swiftly prep, cook and package complex orders and are taking advantage of that dexterity to stay afloat.

Today, 19 of the 22 restaurants have reopened for takeout. Most have taken steps above and beyond the commonplace to ensure the safety of staff and customer, while fostering a sense of confidence when needed the most.

Wonton Gourmet and Emperor's Palace have reconfigured their physical spaces to bar entry into the restaurant while creating efficient – if makeshift – pick-up stations. By repositioning tables, constructing barriers and relocating the cash register, many restaurants have managed to reduce transaction time while continuing to safely serve the community.

At the same time, many, like LJ Shanghai, are getting creative with food options. Bo Loong has launched a bulk-ordering program where a customer selects a price point per person and the restaurant prepares any number of meals, each packaged separately with napkins, chopsticks and cookies. Pho Lee takes pains to separate the noodles from the hot broth so they don’t get soggy, while keeping cold garnish items away from the hot ones.

LJ Shanghai recently (finally!) debuted a brand new website, but others in the neighborhood are woefully behind the times, technologically speaking. While that’s a hindrance in the best of times, it’s disastrous during a pandemic when every order counts. Language and cultural barriers hamper efforts to reach a broader audience through social media when so many of us are glued to our phones.

“There are businesses that have the technical savvy and have been able to promote themselves on social media, but my concern is for the ones who don’t have that,” says Tzeng. “We’ve been trying to lift up those especially that don’t have an active social media presence or even a website or haven’t updated hours on Google. The technical divide is really strong in a lot of immigrant-owned businesses.”

All five grocery stores in the neighborhood managed to stay open throughout the pandemic by embracing online ordering, curbside pickup and delivery through WeChat, a Chinese messaging, social media and mobile payment app. Others stay safe and instill confidence by adopting measures like checking temperatures at the front door and requiring masks on all who enter. Kim’s Market has a box of gloves hanging outside for customers.

Despite fearing for the safety of themselves and others, most Asian-owned restaurants in the area have made the decision to reopen not because they want to but because they have to in order to survive.

“All of the business owners have a positive outlook and have expressed the desire to weather this,” notes Tzeng. “It’s been encouraging to see more activity and traffic in the neighborhood. I think that is uplifting to the different businesses.”

About The Author

Douglas Trattner

For 20 years, Douglas Trattner has worked as a full-time freelance writer, editor and author. His work on Michael Symon's "Carnivore," "5 in 5" and “Fix it With Food” have earned him three New York Times Best-Selling Author honors, while his longstanding role as Scene dining editor garnered the award of “Best...
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