In mid-February, Stacy Jamieson, the general manager of Tian Fu restaurant in Seattle’s Northgate neighborhood, surveyed his 4,000-square-foot dining room at what was usually the dinner rush time. Every table was empty. Where the popular Szechuan restaurant had been enjoying 45-minute waits on weekends, now it was lucky to serve 10 tables in a whole day.
At the time, Covid-19 was still something many Americans had only heard about: It had killed thousands across Asia, but the U.S. was relatively unscathed. But anti-Asian sentiment, a racist backlash to the developing pandemic, was already bubbling across the country. Americans not only quietly judged Asian Americans but also physically attacked them: In New York, a man assaulted a Chinese woman for wearing a mask; in California’s San Fernando Valley, bullies beat up an Asian American boy and accused him of having the coronavirus.
“Chinese restaurants were perhaps the first place that Covid-19 racism was visible,” said James Boo, the managing producer of podcast Self-Evident, which focuses on Asian American stories. In New York in early March, for example, even before the first reported coronavirus case in the city, business at Chinese restaurants dropped 60%. “Some local restaurant owners even stopped operating,” Boo said, “because their employees were too scared to come to work — not because of Covid-19, but because of the hate incidents that had already started to spread.” By April, unemployment claims filed by people of Asian descent in NYC had increased 6,900%.
As other restaurants across the country saw huge huge upticks in delivery and takeout orders, for Tian Fu, Jamieson says at first there were very few people placing orders. “The immediate impact would be not only the sales and ability to pay rent,” she says, “but also, how do we pay salaries to our employees?”
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Like many other Chinese restaurants during the pandemic, Tian Fu soon was relying almost completely on a delivery app called Chowbus. The app works similarly to Grubhub or Seamless: It allows users to place orders at restaurants and sends gig workers to deliver them, charging restaurants up to a 20% commission. But unlike other delivery apps, Chowbus was initially designed specifically with Asian restaurants in mind. Founder and CEO Linxin Wen created the app in 2016, after realizing that none of the other delivery apps focused on Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, and other Asian cuisines, and it has since carved out a niche offering food that often isn’t available on Uber Eats or Seamless. It’s had a major impact on Asian restaurants, creating an entire ecosystem and a feeling of support that mainstream apps haven’t.
I first noticed it while eating in a favorite food mall in Flushing, one of New York City’s Chinatowns: Every single stall had a Chowbus sticker on it. (Other common apps are Fantuan and Hungry Panda, which are both in Mandarin — no English in sight.) Not just any restaurant can join Chowbus, though more than 3,000 have: An employee must taste-test the cuisine first to make sure it’s high quality and authentic. Restaurant owners and employees are able to communicate with Chowbus employees in both English and Mandarin, a plus for those whose first language may not be English. And most of Chowbus’s customers are also Chinese. A spokesperson for the app says while it doesn’t collect data on race ethnicity, it does “guess if users are Chinese or American Chinese based on their last name, and [estimates that] the ratio of Chinese to non-Chinese is 7:3.”
“Chinese restaurants were perhaps the first place that Covid-19 racism was visible.”
Before Covid-19 hit Seattle, Tian Fu used only Chowbus to accept orders outside of dine-in, and only sparingly. “For us to do takeout or deliveries, it would actually slow down our kitchen,” Jamieson explained. When the restaurant closed its dining room, the app became a lifeline. Tian Fu already had name recognition and a following on the app: Chinese Amazon employees at the nearby office had been ordering their lunches from Tian Fu for a while, “because they tasted food that reminds them of home,” Jamieson said. “Since Covid-19, those employees continue to order through Chowbus after their offices were shut down.”
Where delivery used to be a nuisance and barely 20% of Tian Fu’s business, now Jamieson said it makes up 80%, with 70% coming from Chowbus and the rest from Fantuan, another Asian food delivery app, and Grubhub.
According to Chowbus, there’s been an 80% increase in delivery revenue from January to May for most of its restaurants. In early March — as Chinatowns across the country essentially became ghost towns — Chowbus expanded its delivery radius in each of the 20 cities in which it operates. It has also hired more than 40 additional customer services representatives to handle inquiries about cancellation and refunds.
Specialty stores common in the Asian community, like dumpling shops and bubble tea cafes, in particular have relied on Chowbus’s bundling feature — designed with them in mind — which allows a customer to order items from multiple restaurants for one delivery.
Jack Shi, the owner of Tsaocaa, a bubble tea cafe in Chicago, said his beverages are most often bundled with other popular Chinatown restaurants like Golden Bull and Szechwan JMC. “Both restaurants have high-volume orders,” he said. “By bundling with them, our sales are going up too.” During the pandemic, his shop’s sales have increased more than 30%, with Chowbus alone generating 40%.
Chowbus’s focus on Asian restaurants does not necessarily solve common criticisms of delivery apps. As stay-at-home orders have increased all types of restaurants’ dependence on delivery apps, their business models have come under scrutiny for high commission fees, with several cities setting maximum fees apps can charge restaurants at between 15% and 40%. Delivery apps have also come under fire for classifying their couriers as independent contractors, which means they aren’t covered by minimum wage laws, workers compensation insurance, and other workplace protections. Restaurant owners who use Chowbus do, however, say that the approach is more community-oriented than they’ve experienced with apps aimed at a broader audience.
Chowbus’s commission is all inclusive, whereas Grubhub, for example, has said it charges around the same amount for commission but actually bakes in all sorts of extra fees. Some restaurants perceive Chowbus to be more responsive. Jamieson said Uber Eats, for example, has never returned calls or emails, whereas Chowbus’ “guest and merchant services are always available.” Chowbus also sends photographers to all of the restaurants on the app who want them, which helps close the gap between mom-and-pop restaurants and big-budget locales that can afford to hire professional PR firms, photographers, and so on.
For some restaurants, the app has played a crucial role in survival. One Szechuan Cuisine in Chicago, for example, has only five tables. During the pandemic, its revenue from Chowbus has increased 360%.
Jamieson said like many restaurants, Tian Fu has had to redo its menu to accommodate takeout orders. Gone is the popular boiled fish, which didn’t travel well. It’s been replaced with beef in hot and sour broth (thin slices of beef in a special pumpkin broth) and yummy spare ribs (a half rack of spare ribs sautéed with garlic, scallion, and chilies).
Though delivery is still the majority of Tian Fu’s business, diners are starting to sit down at tables again. Has Jamieson’s job gone back to normal?
“No,” she laughed. “I’m now the general manager slash kitchen manager slash cook slash delivery driver.” Oh, that’s right: In this new era, she’s started driving for Chowbus too.