Wilson Tang: “$1 a Plate” Street Fair Won’t Help Chinatown

Flyers for this weekend's street fair have gone up throughout Chinatown.
Flyers for this weekend’s street fair have gone up throughout Chinatown.

Editor’s note: A couple of days ago we mentioned a street fair taking place Saturday to drum up business for Chinatown shops and restaurants struggling after Hurricane Sandy.  But not everyone thinks the event is the best way to make the neighborhood’s small businesses stronger.  Among them: Nom Wah Tea Parlor owner (and TLD contributor) Wilson Tang.   Here are his thoughts on the “Chinatown Revival Fair.”

Chinatown holds a special place in my heart.  It’s where I grew up, it’s where I work and own a business, and I’m proud to be part of this community.  Whether I’m pointing tourists in the right direction, seeing my doctor or dentist in Chinatown, buying produce or “pigging out,” I’m a big advocate for “keeping it local.”

From my vantage point, it’s not hard to see the obstacles Chinatown’s small business owners face, especially restaurant operators. They’re constantly chasing the dream instead of living the dream — with the lowest profit margins imaginable. Think about what it’s like making a living selling  $1 dumplings and $3 lunch boxes. I speak from first hand experience.  In 2004, I opened a bakery on Allen Street, near Hester, but eventually closed the place because I wasn’t getting the volume to survive on 60 cent coffees and 80 cent pastries. Working 80 plus hours a week wasn’t doing me any good either.  As fixed costs increase and rents continue to go up, you don’t have a chance in this neighborhood unless you’re doing huge volume.

Earlier this week, the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, along with the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, announced they were holding a street fair this weekend to help local businesses recover from the losses sustained during and after Hurricane Sandy. On face value, I thought it was a good idea to promote small business in my neighborhood during a really tough time.  It seemed like a great way to get people down to Chinatown to spend money and to help out the local economy.

But unfortunately, flyers are advertising the event as a street fair with $1 items all along the streets of “the original” Chinatown” (Mott, Bayard, Doyers, etc.).  This is not what the neighborhood needs.  It’s just stereotyping Chinatown as a place for cheap, greasy food. It’s not going to benefit local restaurants in the long run to sell $1 plates on the street, adding to the sidewalk congestion and garbage problems we see on the weekends already. It hurts every restaurant’s brand and it hurts servers, who are going to lose out big time on tips.

Here’s what I’d like to know.  When are we going to move past this sad story (in which businesses push prices lower and lower) and, instead, elevate Chinatown as a quality dining destination where you get good value and good service?  As it stands now, we’re killing ourselves.  It’s a vicious cycle that works something like this: Offer low, low prices… skimp on quality ingredients… work employees harder than ever… pay them less… barely cover your fixed costs… spend less on maintaining the restaurant… rack up fines from the health department… struggle to pay your bills… and, in the end, barely make a profit or struggle to break even.

So even though I appreciate any effort to bring more customers to Chinatown, I’m convinced this weekend’s street fair will do more harm than good.  On top of all of its other shortcomings, this event excludes a third of the Chinatown neighborhood.  I’m talking about all the merchants and restaurants along East Broadway and Division Street, where the Fujianese/Chinese community is centered.

So get this. I’m not here bashing on the “old school” peeps in Chinatown. I respect them. I’m merely trying to point out that trying to rally Chinatown behind this “$1 plate” promotion is really not a winning strategy. Doing so in such short notice on a December day is not the greatest idea either. It may offer immediate relief for businesses but it sends all of the wrong messages. There are many more beneficial ways that restaurants and merchants can go about building healthy businesses.

Here’s what I’d say to my fellow restaurant owners. Try offering deals on your web site or via social media.  If you’re not sure how to effectively promote your restaurant, ask the Chinatown BID for help in getting the word out.  If local organizations want to promote business, there’s a lot they can do to help. How about sponsoring a class to teach merchants and restaurants how to use social media as a marketing tool?  I have a coupon for a free item at my place if you subscribe to Nom Wah’s newsletter.  Past events have worked well, including Chinatown Restaurant Week and last weekend’s “Small Business Saturday.”  I mean seriously, a professionally run event for a small fee with “buy in” from a few restaurants offering a great value is a lot better then having customers come to Chinatown to slurp noodles on the street.

Long story short…  I am sitting out this weekend’s event and I encourage savvy entrepreneurs in Chinatown to do the same.  I’ve heard a lot of complaints from restaurant operators that the city’s not providing enough support in the way of hurricane aid for small business.  Enough bitching.  You’re in control of your own future. Do something about the bind that you’re in!  I encourage consumers to come to Chinatown, but skip the $1 dumplings and, instead,  actually order a real meal in a restaurant.  You’ll eat better food and enjoy a better experience.  And if you’re satisfied, leave a big tip!