“We’ve All Been Through It This Year”
Survival stories and silver linings from one of the restaurant industry's toughest years ever.
Her father’s rise to fame is well known. After leaving what seemed to be a plum position as chef of the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., Peter Chang hit the road, popping up in various kitchens from Virginia to points south. Soon, the itinerant chef from China’s Hubei province had developed a cult following. He went on to open a slew of eponymous eateries along the East Coast with his wife, Lisa, an award-winning chef in her own right. Their daughter, Lydia, who holds a master’s degree in international business from King’s College London, now heads up business development for a growing empire that includes nine Peter Chang restaurants, as well as Q in Bethesda, Mama Chang in Fairfax and NiHao in Baltimore. Lydia Chang lives in Arlington; her parents live in D.C.
We felt the effects of Covid before other restaurants. In January 2020, every Chinese person was gearing up to spend Chinese New Year with family and friends. It’s a tradition, and many of our restaurants are designed with large banquet rooms. When the story of the coronavirus broke in China, people knew it was serious. They were aware of the risk of contagion, and aware it could come here. The night before the Lunar New Year was to begin, we received a 90% cancellation rate.
Going into February 2020, our business revenue dropped anywhere from 20% to 50%, depending on the restaurant location and its clientele.
We go into the deep valley and slowly make our way up. In March 2020, we were preparing to open NiHao in Baltimore’s Canton neighborhood. We finally opened in July after significant delays, changing the whole business model to carryout. That meant shifting the concept to think about packaging, the menu and which dishes would offer people comfort—noodles, dumplings, Peking duck.
We tried some ideas that didn’t work, like offering the duck carcass with onions, carrots and mushrooms, for customers to make into a beautiful noodle soup the next day. People were doing more home cooking and posting amazing pictures on Instagram, so the soup kit seemed like a good idea. But we got all kinds of questions—from how much water to use for the broth, to even how to boil water. We ended up making the broth and providing ingredients for customers to add to it.
In Arlington, the biggest change was no indoor dining. The dining room is too small for social distancing, so we won’t reopen it until we can return to full capacity. Before Covid, takeout at that location accounted for 30-35% of the business. Then it became 100%. We’ve been offering everything on the menu—even the scallion pancake. It’s not the same, presentation-wise, but it’s still being ordered. I like snacking on it with curry sauce.
When we went into lockdown, we had to let go all of our front-of-house staff. We created a few rotating positions with people answering phone calls and packing orders so they didn’t lose all of their income, but with dining room service not happening at all, it was hard. It was really difficult to see them struggle.
In Baltimore, we saw just how contagious this virus is. We were working holiday shifts at NiHao when a member of the kitchen staff got sick. In the end, 70% of the staff there tested positive for Covid. We had to close until we tested everyone. Fortunately, no one was hospitalized. But thinking that they could bring it home to their vulnerable family members was so stressful.
The backbone of our business is our cooks and their talent. The company is our work family. Our executive managers eventually become business partners. We’ll open a new restaurant, and once it’s in good shape we pass on the ownership to the core staff there.
My dad is not a stress-free person, but he shifts that stress into motivation. We all agree that 2020 was the year we worked the hardest without seeing any progression. We kept trying things and still felt like we were going nowhere. It was just full circle and repeat every day. But doing something is definitely better than doing nothing.
The U.S. was not on board with containment early on, like many Asian countries. I hear from friends in Singapore, China, Taiwan, where everything is normal now. They get to eat out, hang out, have a normal life. In a future pandemic, can we do better in the U.S.? Can we be on the same page? Wearing a mask is mundane, but not optional.
The news reports of violent attacks on Asian people, especially the elderly, make me so sad. Is this happening because of Covid? Are people blaming Asians for the virus? It’s hard to imagine if my grandma was in that situation.
Our Bethesda restaurant, Q, was vandalized in December. They broke the glass on the front door and took the cash register. In March, NiHao was broken into. It’s not the worst thing that could have happened, but I still wonder why it happened to us. It makes you question: Where is safe? For the elderly? For minority business owners? I look at the age of my parents and wonder if they could become targets. I don’t know how to process that.
When we opened Mama Chang in 2019, the idea was to focus on Chinese homestyle cooking. To me, the best chef in the family is my grandma. Her food is not as extravagant or elaborate as my dad’s, but it reminds me of my childhood and brings me comfort. It’s regional cuisine incorporating flavors like black fermented beans and pickled chilies.
Our next concept will be a prix-fixe concept in D.C. focusing on food that’s culturally rooted in Chinese fare, reimagined. I think of all the times I’ve traveled to Asia or to the West Coast and explored amazing food and thought, Can I bring that to D.C.? Especially in terms of Chinese cuisine. There is a void and we are trying to fill that void.