How One Restaurateur Managed to Open a Chinese Restaurant Amid a Pandemic and Political Turmoil
In February of 2020, Vincent Lin signed a lease on a two-floor restaurant space right in the heart of midtown, between fifth and sixth avenue. It was to become the site of his latest restaurant, Blue Willow. At over 150 seats and a bar, it was the largest project he’d ever taken on in his career. Just a few weeks later, on March 20th, Governor Cuomo issued orders to close the doors on all nonessential businesses. The order included restaurants.
Like many businesses that launched in 2020, Blue Willow did so primarily out of necessity. “We’d already invested over $150,000 into the business, building it out and getting the right paperwork,” Vincent explains. It was too late and too expensive to turn back. The lease was signed. The renovations had already started. Vincent and his partners decided to forge ahead.
In those early weeks, it was hard to imagine that this pandemic would draw out for months on end.
“We kind of downplayed it a bit.” As many Americans believed, Vincent and his partners figured this would all clear up in a couple of months.
Instead, it got worse. By June, New York was not only in the grip of a global pandemic with almost no federal support, it also faced a surge of protests against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and increasing tensions between progressive and far-right groups.
Amid all of this, Blue Willow had its grand opening—a grand opening to empty streets behind police barricades. “We’re on 56th Street, a block away from Trump Tower,” Vincent says. “They blocked off the roads with cement barricades.”
The tourists Blue Willow hoped to attract were already few and far between due to COVID-related travel restrictions. Having armed guards on the street corners didn’t help. Meanwhile, the office workers on 6th avenue—Blue Willow’s other target customer—were largely working from home.
With the loss of both of their key customer bases, Blue Willow had to pivot and they had to pivot fast.
Adapting to a New Reality
The original plan for Blue Willow was to create a high-end, fine dining experience. It was going to be a place for professionals to come in for lunch meetings and businesses to host company dinners; a place for international tourists to end their day of exploring the city with a glass of Maotai.
However, with the loss of foot traffic and the shift to online outreach, the audience Blue Willow was reaching skewed younger. This younger crowd required a change in concept.
“We changed the design to have a more playful and welcoming atmosphere for the younger crowd we were reaching on social media.” They changed out their expensive wine menu for a more expansive cocktail menu. They swapped elegant design features for a homier feel.
The restaurant may not match his original vision of a fine-dining refuge for busy professionals and hungry tourists, but what it’s become to survive the pandemic is still something Vincent and his team are proud of.
“At the end of the day, our whole team is feeling very positive,” Vincent says of his partners and staff at Blue Willow. “I’m hopeful for the future.”
The Decline of New York’s Vibrant and Diverse Small Business Landscape
The unprecedented challenges of 2020 required an immediate pivot from Blue Willow in both restaurant design and marketing strategy. Fortunately, Vincent and his partners were quick to react and adapt but not every restaurant has this kind of flexibility.
“In the harder hit neighborhoods like Chinatown, the restaurants are struggling,” Vincent says. “They’re not these big restaurant chains. They don’t have industry connections and they certainly don’t have a social media strategy.”
In March, a lot of restaurants took a hit when the order to close came, but false claims about Chinese immigrants bringing the virus with them lead to Chinese restaurants being hit even harder.
The disproportionate effect this had on Asian American-owned businesses is staggering. While there was an overall 22% decline in the number of active, independently-owned small businesses between February and April of 2020, Asian American-owned businesses suffered a 26% drop in the same time period.
Other minority-owned businesses suffered similarly staggering declines. 36% of New York’s immigrant-owned businesses have closed their doors as well as 41% of black-owned businesses, 32% of latinx-owned businesses, and 25% of women-owned businesses.
These numbers are due to a number of factors, including the discrimination described earlier. They’re also the result of the lack of an effective plan to support small businesses through this crisis as well as the poor distribution of funds from the Payment Protection Program (PPP). More than 44% of PPP funding went to just 4% of loan recipients. Another 25% went to a handful of medium-sized businesses, leaving just 30% of PPP funding for small businesses.
“It’s so important to support these businesses,” Vincent emphasized, especially in those harder hit neighborhoods like Chinatown.
How Can You Support Your Neighborhood Businesses During This Pandemic?
For those who were hit hard by the pandemic themselves, ordering takeout from every local eatery within delivery distance might not be in the cards. Even if you can’t afford daily takeout orders, there’s still a lot you can do to support your neighborhood businesses:
1. Choose Local
When you do splurge on takeout (or venture out to a restaurant’s socially-distanced sidewalk seating), opt for a local eatery instead of a chain. When you’re doing your normal grocery shopping, choose independently owned grocers. You can find the grocers nearest you on the Associated Supermarkets website, a group of independent grocers in New York.
Choose local for as much of your spending as you can, even if your budget is strictly limited to essentials.
2. Leave Reviews
Make a list of all your favorite restaurants, bars, and shops that you’ve been to and take some time to leave thoughtful Yelp and Google reviews for them. Even if you can’t afford to support all of them right now, your reviews will encourage others to do so.
This is especially helpful for smaller, mom and pop restaurants and businesses where owners have little to no digital presence. In a time where storefronts depend on a robust social media marketing strategy to reach their home-bound customers, this lack of digital marketing know-how can be an added burden to businesses that can’t afford to invest in big social media campaigns. Your reviews will help connect that online audience to their business.
3. Contact Your Local Representatives
Call or write to your local representative to demand better support for small businesses that are struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic. The #SaveOurStoreFronts campaign is currently petitioning the New York City Council to pass legislation that would provide rent relief to small businesses and nonprofits using a mix of state funding and rent stabilization programs. New Yorkers can find their local representatives here.
Follow Blue Willow on Instagram here and remember to support local businesses!