As I donated supplies to my hometown to aid their fight against COVID-19, I quickly found myself in a fight for my own survival.
More than just a movie, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is a Chinese idiom, emphasizing the importance of waiting for the right moment to strike. At no time have I, the owner of a chain of Chinese restaurants, felt like that applied to my life more than during this coronavirus outbreak.
In January, close to the start of the Chinese Lunar New Year, the coronavirus epidemic was identified in my hometown of Wuhan, and it rapidly spread throughout China. Immediately, a state of panic hit Chinese communities and businesses throughout the United States.
Not only were long-awaited Chinese New Year reunion dinners canceled, but fear caused people to significantly cut back on dining at Chinese restaurants. As was the case for other Chinese businesses, sales plummeted at my eight Maryland and Virginia locations.
Though business was slower, for a while, a few guests from various backgrounds continued to show up. Many specifically told me: We know that your business is suffering because of this epidemic, and we are here to support you.
In the midst of winter, I was touched by the incredible warmth of these strangers’ kindnesses.
Our restaurants persisted. And my family and I went all in to support my hometown against the epidemic. We donated medical supplies to hospitals in China and gave money to fight COVID-19 in Wuhan.
Very quickly, however, we found ourselves in a fight for our own survival. On March 16, all restaurant owners in Maryland were ordered to close their dining areas to slow the spread of coronavirus. This week, Virginia owners were ordered to do the same.
As an old Chinese saying goes, “What at one point in your life is only a grain of dust falling on your head becomes a mountain at another time.” Who could have ever imagined that the coronavirus mountain could fall so quickly, and in such a terrifying way?
During these difficult times, I could barely sleep for more than five hours every night.
After a short period of sheer panic, I realized what I needed to do for myself and for the employees. We formulated special measures and guidelines to help employees protect their health during the epidemic, thereby also protecting customers’ health. We set up hand sanitizing stations, and we had ongoing training to emphasize the importance of proper hygiene.
At the same time, I devoted enormous effort to revamping our business model, shifting to takeout orders. We have managed to not only keep the company afloat but also keep our employees paid.
It has also been encouraging that our past efforts are paying dividends, helping us manage the crisis today. Since 2018, I have diligently managed marketing sales in the Chinese community, expanding from only one group in WeChat — an app developed in China that allows users to, among other things, message and make payments — to 10 today, considerably growing our follower base.
Customers used the app to place orders for delivery, adding a high carry-out volume to our business.
By continuously creating new recipes, hosting tasting events and advertising dishes by explaining their cultural history and how they are uniquely made, we have cultivated a positive image of the restaurant business in the Chinese community.
In the meantime, the employees have been exceptionally supportive. Our work has been widely praised, and I have been told that we have both bolstered many families’ dining tables and protected those families from the epidemic. I cannot thank our loyal customers enough for their help in this time of need.
From the first hints of a restaurant slowdown to now, many have asked how our family members are doing in Wuhan. Their concern shows a sense of community strength in a time of potential division.
Not a single winter is insurmountable, and spring will always return.
Today, the cherry blossoms are blooming, and I am ready to leave this winter behind and embrace spring.
To be sure, I still feel overwhelmed by the pandemic. The doors to our restaurants remain closed. Employees’ salaries face challenges and employee turnover is inevitable. I still have no firm answer as to how the company will survive.
Even so, I keep reminding myself to stay as low and alert as a crouching tiger, waiting for the epidemic to pass. If I do my best and work hard, the spring will inevitably come.
Peter Chang was born in China’s Hubei province and attended culinary school in Wuhan, the provincial capital. This column was translated from Chinese by Hongzhong Shang.