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Recap: Takeout Trials: Lessons from the Chinese Restaurant Frontlines, 4.14.20

Recap: Takeout Trials: Lessons from the Chinese Restaurant Frontlines, 4.14.20

On April 14, China Institute hosted our second virtual program in the ‘Beyond COVID-19’ series on “Takeout Trials: Lessons from the Chinese Restaurant Frontlines,” exploring how Chinese restaurants are responding to the current health crisis, potential long-term changes to the industry, and what Chinese food loving Americans can do to help.

Featuring Panwen Chen, Global Head of Strategy at HungryPanda, and Yong Zhao, Co-Founder and CEO of Junzi Kitchen, in a conversation moderated by Jiayang Fan of The New Yorker, you are invited to dig into this full-meal of insights and analysis.

Selected Quotes From the Program

Jiayang Fan (JF): The industry is going through some very big changes. The Coronavirus is causing all kinds of havoc in general, but it has a convoluted relationship with the Chinese food industry given the origins of the crisis. That is what makes this conversation particularly fascinating and very multi-faceted.

Yong Zhou (YZ): Junzi has thought about a new idea of Chinese food, to feature high quality food, operations and design. It is more intended for a modern lifestyle…a new fast-casual brand. Now we have 5 stores, 4 brick and mortar.

Panwen Chen (PC): When it comes to food, Chinese customers wanted authentic flavor from home. We are trying to build something for all users to provide authentic Chinese delivery for our users. We are bringing our restaurant partners a large number of orders which will help them grow.

YZ: Chinese food started in America during the Gold Rush and the Transcontinental Railroad. After the Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese folks stuck in America were forced to open restaurants. …First generation dishes were Egg Foo Yung and Chop Suey. There was a lack of sincerity in the cooking, because chefs were cooking not for passion but for survival. They made food they thought Americans liked. They thought, “I don’t like that food, but I’ll make it.” The golden time from the 1960s-80s saw a spread of restaurants. After the 80s, the third wave started to arrive, and they were more around mom and pop takeout. These menus evolved to a more American-style Chinese food like General Tso’s Chicken (which doesn’t exist in China). The fourth wave, after 2006, there were a lot of young Chinese professionals who came to the U.S. for studies and there was a demand for authentic dishes. Xi’an Famous Foods is a good example. These people had more money, and lots of new restaurants popped up in Flushing: You could easily pay $50 for a dish in some of those restaurants.

(Now,) in New York, there is a rise and expansion of Chinese food concepts. The most recent data shows a few things: (When coronavirus started,) Chinese food demand declined about 30%. After the virus started breaking out in America, there was a rise in demand.

JF: One of the distinguishing features of HungryPanda is the friendly user interface for people accustomed to life in China. What distinguishes Chinese food in China from Western Chinese food?

PC: If you think about how people eat in China, when they go to restaurants, Chinese food is sharing food versus the format with Western audiences where they order one dish and rice to go with it. The format is different, and in some cases the flavor is totally different as well. Take Hot Pot: There are a lot of chiles in it and it is oil heavy—not something that people in the West prefer. Some of the meats we use are not widely accepted. On top of that, I notice that there are always two types of menus—one in Chinese and one in English. The English menu is a simplified version of the Chinese menu, it’s totally different. There are all these secrets that are hidden…

JF: Yes, a lot of the offerings that are available in Chinese are not available to Americans. Chinese can do with more spicy flavors, and heavier flavors. A lot of the American dishes are sweeter.

YZ: We are trying to create a new generation of Chinese-American restaurants. We consider American Chinese food its own entity and a distant cousin of Chinese cuisines.

JF: I have a real attachment to Chinese cuisine and visiting Chinatown a month ago was really devastating…our cultural soft power is our food. How has the coronavirus changed HungryPanda’s business?

PC: The first thing that the COVID-19 hit was the supply side. In NY, the ban on restaurant dining, smaller restaurants cannot operate with the ban in place. The online orders are not sufficient enough to survive. So we see a wave of closedowns, some temporarily and some permanently. The second side, on the demand side, there was a sharply increasing demand for food deliveries- both takeaways and home deliveries. This creates a unique operating challenge. We’re all close to China, so we knew it was going to happen here. So we hired more drivers in January before the outbreak so now we can meet demand. The grocery demand is increasing exponentially so whatever stores are still operating, they will stay around. We are working with grocery stores to connect them to supply chains to make sure the basics are available.

YZ: We also knew it would happen here. We had the playbook from our colleagues in China. So we started an action plan in March. We saw a decline in demand, so we knew we need to move to a refrigerator-centric experience, with meal kits and food you can cook together with whatever else is in your fridge. We are creating donation options so people can donate meals to hospitals and maintain jobs. That is one area where you can create demand. And in the meantime, while other restaurants are closing, we are trying to open a new one! Every crisis brings new hope.

Full Video of the Virtual Program

The Beyond COVID-19 series presents expert perspectives on the impact of COVID-19 on the global order, the restaurant business, and the world economy.

Join us for a live virtual program with leading public intellectuals on COVID-19 and the shifting global order

Join us for a FREE, live online program about how Chinese restaurants are responding to the health crisis.

Join us for a FREE, live online program with top experts on U.S.-China efforts to boost the world economy.


Visual reporting by artist Sophie Ong.

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