Even before the novel coronavirus claimed any lives in King County, the hint that the outbreak would forever alter the course of Jing Wetzel’s livelihood came much earlier, when two customers walked into her Zheng Café one January afternoon and noticed sesame paste noodles, a signature dish of the city of Wuhan, China, on her menu. They asked if she was from that region. When she answered yes, they turned around and left.
For Wetzel, being born in Wuhan and opening a restaurant in Seattle to showcase her native cuisine is, well, not ideal at a time when that Chinese city is at the center of the novel coronavirus outbreak, and anti-Chinese sentiment appears to have spread around the globe.
That xenophobia has affected the businesses of many Chinese restaurant owners in the Seattle area.
The once-thriving Zheng Café that Jing and her husband, Greg, own in South Lake Union sits mostly empty during the Amazon lunch rush now. Adding to her stress, Jing has family in Wuhan whom she hasn’t seen in months, and she can’t reach her aunt and uncle who tested positive for the virus back home. Her parents also have been quarantined in Wuhan for the past 40 days as a precaution.
Then on the eve of Lunar New Year, after only two customers dined in their corner restaurant, “we looked at each other and said, ‘why not just close it,’ ” her husband said.
Sales had been plummeting for many local Chinese restaurants even before Tuesday’s news that at least 19 people in Washington state had tested positive for coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2. On Saturday, the Greater Seattle Chinese Chamber of Commerce called an emergency meeting to announce it was canceling this year’s Lunar New Year gala at China Harbor that was expected to draw 300 to 400 people.
Although health authorities have said that it’s unlikely the virus can be spread through food, and none of the deaths in the greater Seattle area has been linked to a restaurant, many Chinese noodle shops and hot pot restaurants report that their sales have nose-dived since the outbreak of the virus. At least one major opening is on hold as a result of the virus scare. China-based Da Long Yi, with 200 branches worldwide, was expected to open a 320-seat banquet restaurant in Kent this spring but will now delay it because of the alarming reports of declining business at Chinese restaurants across the country, said Michelle Zhang, Da Long Yi local franchise owner.
Even its own data shows that in Seattle, where Da Long Yi opened in Green Lake last year, sales at that branch dropped 20% last month, Zhang said.
In the Lake Union area, the China Harbor Restaurant reports that six different parties that rented out its banquet hall have canceled their reservations, and several tour groups from China, Korea and Japan have nixed their lunch and dinner reservations as well in part because of the travel restrictions, restaurant management said. The restaurant now worries about summer, when it usually does brisk business, especially with wedding parties.
The fallout is most notable around the Chinatown-International District, where there are about 100 delis, bakeries and restaurants — the highest concentration of Asian restaurants in Seattle.
“We generally have seen lower foot traffic, especially around lunch time. A lot of businesses say traffic and business have gone down,” said Monisha Singh, executive director of the Chinatown-International District Business Improvement Area.
At Tai Tung, the oldest restaurant in Chinatown, third-generation owner Harry Chan said he feels lucky his family’s 85-year business has seen a drop of “only 20%” in sales since January. “I can’t afford more bad news,” Chan said. “I’m trying not to lay off employees who have been loyal to my business.”
Around the corner, Honey Court Seafood Restaurant owner Juan Liang reported sales were down 40% in February and said she may ask her staff of 43 to work fewer days if this crisis lingers another two months.
“My big tables are empty. People aren’t coming out,” Liang said. “I don’t know how I am going to pay for all of this.”
In a show of public support, Mayor Jenny Durkan ate dim sum at Honey Court last week and met with several restaurateurs who are worried they will go out of business if the low foot traffic in Chinatown gets any worse.
Last week, on and off the main drag of South Jackson Street at night, blocks of dining rooms sat half-empty, several with servers just sitting and folding napkins or checking their smartphones. Workers seemed to outnumber customers in some instances.
“It’s eerie; it looks so empty at night,” said Eric Banh, a Seattle restaurateur. He doesn’t own any businesses in Chinatown but frequents restaurants there to support his colleagues. “I used to have to drive four to five times around here to find parking, and now I can park anywhere, just like that.”
One big-name restaurant, Chengdu Taste, hasn’t opened yet because a container of furniture from China has been held up at U.S. Customs — a delay management suspects is related to the coronavirus.
Getting a branch of the hip California based-chain was a coup for Seattle’s Chinatown. Six years ago, when Chengdu Taste debuted in San Gabriel Valley to rave reviews from the Los Angeles Times’ late restaurant critic Jonathan Gold, the wait for a table was as much as four hours.
But in this climate, no one knows what kind of reception awaits Chengdu Taste whenever it debuts in the Publix building near Uwajimaya.
Sean Xie, who owns five Chengdu Taste restaurants and seven other Chinese hot pot restaurants and noodle shops around the United States, said the only businesses that have suffered dramatically are the four he owns in the Chinatowns of different cities.
“Our data shows businesses at our [three] restaurants in Houston’s Chinatown” have dropped at least 50 to 60%” and sales at his Chengdu Taste in Las Vegas’ Chinatown has dropped 30% to 40%.
“The ones we don’t see as much impact are the ones not close to Chinese neighborhoods,” he said.
Two miles north of the Chinatown ID, the Wetzels are trying to hang on to the remaining restaurant they run near the Amazon campus. Greg Wetzel is the cashier while his wife cooks. The Los Angeles native taught elementary school in Wuhan in 2010, where he met his wife. The couple moved to Seattle in 2014 and opened a food truck, and then they upgraded to a 17-seat Chinese restaurant near the Space Needle, catering to the lunch crowd and tourists from nearby hotels.
Their Wuhan-inspired noodle spot, Zheng Café, drew lines during the Amazon lunch rush in the last two years, the couple said, so they expanded along Aurora Avenue North last spring. However business wasn’t booming up north, so they closed that branch nine months later, figuring they had reliable income at their South Lake Union spot.
But after news of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, sales at their restaurant in South Lake Union petered out. Greg says his wife was also stressed out and crying, not knowing the fate of her relatives in China, and staring at the empty restaurant all the while.
In mid-February, the couple reopened the restaurant because they needed the income to support their 13-year old son. The lunch crowd has slowed to a trickle, and if business doesn’t pick up, Greg Wetzel said, they may just make noodles and baos out of a commissary kitchen and focus on deliveries.
They “didn’t want to stay home and hide” when they have done nothing wrong, he says. “We want to save the business.”