Chengdu Taste, LA's Premier Sichuan Restaurant, Fights To Survive
This story is part of a series focusing on how restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley are coping with the COVID-19.
Sean Xie had big plans for 2020. In March, he and his business partner were going to bring the first Chengdu Taste — the beloved Sichuan restaurant they founded in Alhambra in 2013 — to Seattle. Working with restaurateur Bill Chait, they had planned by the summer's end to open two locations of their Sichuan noodle house, MIAN, on the Westside of Los Angeles.
Then coronavirus became a household word.
Xie knew something wasn't right as early as January, when sales at his restaurants took an unexpected nosedive. "The Chinese restaurant industry was joking about it, that there's a first-half and a second-half of the virus," he says. "The first half was when the virus broke out in China and Wuhan was locked down."
That was January 23, two days before Chinese New Year, when some 11 million people went into mandatory quarantine 6,200 miles from the San Gabriel Valley. Still, Xie's restaurants took an immediate hit.
"Our customers thought that we had a lot of travelers during Chinese New Year that could be potentially coming from China. Even though that wasn't the case, mentality-wise, people were afraid to go out," Xie says.
At the time, Xie was in his hometown of Chengdu, where he experienced the seriousness of the situation firsthand. No one went out, everything was closed. He ended up spending some 20 days with his parents and family behind closed doors. He also started talking to his business partner about contingency plans for the dozen restaurants they own in the San Gabriel Valley and beyond. Besides Chengdu Taste and MIAN, they also operate XiaoLongKan, a popular hot pot brand they imported from China.
Toward the end of February, sales at his restaurants ticked back up for about a week as the situation in China stabilized. Then, what Xie calls the pandemic's "second wave," arrived, flattening the economy of the San Gabriel Valley — and beyond. When news broke in March about a coronavirus outbreak at a Seattle nursing home, leading to multiple infections and deaths, everything changed.
"For the Chinese community, that was it," Xie says. "Our Chinese customers, they saw the outbreak in Seattle, then cases in New York, and they knew it was just a matter of time for L.A. to get hit."
By the time Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced his stay-at-home order on March 19, Xie had reduced the hours of some of his staff. The mandate forced him to make another decision.
"It's easy to shut down. We just shut it down and all the expenses we'd have to deal with is rent, some of the utilities and insurance bills. But that means none of the staff would have any income," Xie says.
So the Rowland Heights outpost of Chengdu Taste went takeout-only. With a skeleton staff (Xie sometimes served as deliveryman), the operation was sustainable.
"It was a fun experience for me. Customers were giving out really nice tips. I had a customer who wrote me a note saying, 'Thank you for delivering to us still in this difficult time,'" he says.
The restaurant was making enough to break even but some of the employees expressed concerns about the risks of working in public. So after two weeks, the experiment ended and Xie shut down Chengdu Taste.
With the world on hold, Xie and his business partner are spending their downtime planning. They secured rent breaks from the landlords at all of their spaces. They struck out on their application for a federal stimulus loan to small businesses and are now waiting for Congress to approve a second round of funding.
Recently, they received some good news. Five of their restaurants received a $10,000 loan via the Economic Injury Disaster Loans program from the SBA.
A testament to the touch-and-go nature of running a restaurant during COVID-19, Xie decided last week he will re-open all of his Chengdu Taste restaurants in the U.S., including the two in the SGV, plus MIAN in San Gabriel, for take-out on May 1.
"It seems the virus is not going to be fully contained in the near future, so we need to adjust ourselves and learn to operate in the new environment," Xie says.
That means rethinking their business model and back-of-house operations..
"We have to plan. How are we going to change the way we prepare our restaurant? How are we going to implement procedures to make customers who come in feel safe, be it extra cleaning or distancing between tables," he says.
But no matter how much he plans, some things are beyond his control. "My biggest fear is that when we resume operation, customers are still scared to come out because the virus is not completely resolved globally," Xie says. "Nobody is thinking profits right now. The idea is survival."