As part of our special Special Sauce series on the pandemic's effects on the various constituents of the food community, I reached out to Xi'an Famous Foods co-founder Jason Wang. Jason had told his remarkable story previously on Special Sauce, so I was confident that his experiences as a Chinese-American, his knowledge of financial matters, and his experience as a restaurateur serving his justifiably famous hand-pulled noodles would give him a unique vantage point on the pandemic.
As you'll hear, I was right on all counts. Jason shut down all Xi'an Famous Foods locations a few days before he was mandated to, and his previously healthy cash flow was reduced to zero immediately. And, unlike many of his colleagues, he isn't serving take-out or doing delivery in an attempt to survive. That doesn't mean he's short on ideas about how to create a sustainable business model in the future. But you'll have to listen to the episode to hear about why he's not doing take-out and what his ideas for the future are.
His take on the situation he and his fellow independent restaurateurs are facing is a must-listen for anyone interested in the future of restaurants like Xi'an Famous Foods.
I feel compelled once again to underline the perilous plight of independent restaurants during the pandemic. If you want to make your voice heard on this issue, please contact your representatives in Congress. And, if you can afford to, give what you can to one of the many terrific organizations that have been formed to support the millions of restaurant workers that have already lost their jobs, like Jose Andres's World Central Kitchen.
Production note: With everyone hunkered down in place we are no longer able to record Special Sauce in a fully equipped studio with an experienced and skilled engineer. So if the sound quality of this episode isn't up to snuff, know that we are working on all aspects of the production within the context of the new reality we're all living in. Better things and better sound lie ahead.
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Ed Levine: I'm Ed Levine, and welcome to another special edition of Special Sauce dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. On every one of these episodes, we'll be hearing the stories of food folks who are trying to adapt to this increasingly calamitous situation. Today, we're very pleased to welcome Xi'an Famous Foods co-founder, Jason Wang. Jason's small casual restaurants in New York City are all shutdown as he deals with the pandemic. As someone who is equally steeped in both financial matters, and his justifiably famous hand-pulled noodles and chili oil, I thought he would bring unique perspective to this fateful moment.
Jason Wang: Hi, Ed. How are you?
EL: Good. How are you?
JW: Yeah, just trying to figure things out.
EL: I think that's what we're all trying to do. I don't think there's a person alive that has it figured out.
JW: It's very different for everyone business-wise, personal-wise. It's just very confusing and scary times.
EL: Yeah, for sure. For sure.
JW: Just getting day-by-day and just watching the news, and keeping an eye on everything to make sure we know what's going on. That's pretty much the name of the game and just staying at home as much as possible.
EL: All right. So what we're going to do is you're going to just tell us who you are, and then we can go from there.
JW: Okay, great. So my name is Jason Wang. I'm the CEO of Xi'an Famous Foods. We are based in New York City operating about a dozen restaurants in the city. Basically, we were, obviously, heavily affected by the pandemic in all sorts of ways.
EL: Even before the shutdown order, were you already seeing a tremendous decline in business?
JW: Yeah, absolutely. Even the beginning of the year towards the end of January when this was just starting out in China, oh, actually probably more the beginning of February. Our stores were already being affected because a lot of our customers are Chinese. A lot of our employees are Chinese. So employees are very cautious at that time because they were hearing the news from back home, or from their relatives, et cetera, friends and family. And people that are guests, they're also being cautious because some of them also have family or friends in China that tell them of these, of what's going on over there, how scary it is over there.
JW: So everyone's very cautious. I think a lot of that affected our business even in February and, of course, in March and now. But as early as early February, we started to see a pretty dramatic decline and just got worse and worse in terms of the business, just not as much traffic to our stores. Surprisingly, though, at that time, the traffic to our non-Chinatown stores are actually holding okay at that point. It was still down, but it wasn't down as dramatically as our stores in Flushing in Chinatown. For various reasons, people just didn't go out as much as the people were more sensitive to the pandemic in those areas, I think.
JW: That really was basically the beginning of everything. We made a decision one day to close down preemptively precautiously to make sure that we're not going to risk anyone getting affected, whether it's our employees or our guests. We made that decision to close on March 14th, which is a Saturday. So we decided on Friday to do so. And on Saturday, we just closed our doors. All the stores were shut. That was, I believe, a few days before the city shut down the restaurants to go in delivery-only.
EL: Yeah. So at that point, did you have to furlough all the employees because that was even before you knew they could get extended unemployment benefits, right?
JW: Sure, yes. We didn't know that. Actually, maybe it was our naivety. But when we closed down, we didn't think it would be that bad yet. I mean, not necessarily that bad, but we were hoping it would be resolved rather sooner than later. So we pretty much just told everyone, "Look, we're probably going to be out for a couple of weeks." And we also offered our employees to use their paid time off that they have accrued to have some income before the weeks that we were going to be shut because that's what we anticipated.
JW: But a few days in towards on the 18th, we started realizing this thing is not getting any better. And that was when we decided we had to let go all of our staff because it was just ... They can't collect unemployment benefits at that point before the CARES Act and all those benefits the extended things happen yet. We realized they can't get unemployment unless they were unemployed. So as much as we could with our paid time off, we have limited resources to provide a continuous benefit to make sure people have some sort of income.
JW: So we had people opt to use their paid time off. And then we just said, "Look, because of the situation, we have to let everyone go." So basically, everyone was let go minus just one or two people, and then one person accounting, one person HR, just to keep the boat afloat during the transition, and to provide people with paperwork, and to pay the people we need to pay. Just the very bare minimum staffing at that point. And then we pretty much went into hibernation after that until this day. That's what happened to us around that time.
EL: Got it. And you made a decision then early on not to just try to do takeout and delivery?
JW: Right. So takeout and delivery is something that a lot of our guests requested. They're always saying, "Why aren't you doing takeout and delivery? It'll be so good for your business to have some income." But the whole essence of us closing in the beginning was to prevent spread. It's not about like, "Let's find another way to make money." We're going to suffer regardless. Whether we do takeout or delivery, it's going to involve putting people on the line to do the work, and that's a risk. It's not going to help with the financial situation because our business won't be able to be sustained just from those takeout orders. It's a lose-lose situation. So it really didn't warrant the risk or try to chase after any benefits of that.
EL: Yeah. And so, now, you've been shut down for a little over a month. Have you found that any of the legislation has helped your employees and helped pave the way for a future reopening? Or, have you found many of the same problems that the Independent Restaurant Coalition has outlined?
JW: Right. So I haven't kept up with the coalitions. I kept up with all these alliances and coalitions in the beginning. But to be honest, a lot of those have felt the deaf ears of feelings before our industry. I think that there is some... Obviously, the stimulus packages they've helped. It's not that they didn't do anything, of course. For the employees, although myself I'm not taking unemployment of course. I'm just getting by with whatever I have already.
JW: But my employees, from what I understand, is they're able to go on unemployment, even though the system is still buggy. They're eventually able to get it and they're able to get the extended unemployment. I think that is helpful, but we don't know how long the pandemic is going to last and et cetera with that. So that's from the employee's perspective, I think. I think that did help them, but I'm not sure how fast they're able to get the funds, how accessible, and each person's individual situation.
JW: But of course, for us, our employees are all documented employees. So we don't have some challenges that other restaurants have. I can't name specific restaurants off the top of my head. But I feel like a lot of restaurants are forced to just stay open just so they could provide for their undocumented employees because the government's not going to be able to give them anything so far as I know. And they can't just make money out of thin air. So they have to keep open at the risk of infecting people just so that they could help their undocumented employees in a way and stay afloat. So I think that's a very difficult situation, especially for undocumented workers. For us, we haven't had that issue because we just don't have those employees. But I definitely hear that in the industry. It is definitely an issue. I'm sorry I'm droning on about this, but there's a lot to talk about, you know?
EL: No, you're not droning on. This is great. This is great. This is exactly what I wanted. But what about for you...
EL: What about for you as a business?
JW: Of course. Yes. For us as a business, we ran out of money very fast. I never thought it was something that would happen to us. We're a very small business. If you're not familiar with us for your readers, we do have a very strong background albeit we don't have investors. We don't have that cash reserve to burn. We were strong in a sense that we had great cash flow, great business. But as soon as that stopped, we ran out so fast that it was unbelievable. Because just from sheer numbers, just think of it, we have around 12 locations we're paying rent to, and that's about $220,000 a month for rent.
JW: So that is just so much pressure. Obviously, we're struggling to pay the rent without considering any other costs. Just rent. We're not even talking about payroll. We're not talking about insurance costs and all of that, any residual bills that we were not able to cut off on time, et cetera. So that's a lot of pressure. So we ran out of money so quickly. The next thing we could do is just really just try to get as much money, any receivables that we were supposed to be getting, any sort of refunds we're getting from insurance, et cetera, any things we could defer. That was our next week of rushing to try to stop any utilities, any services that we don't need and just to see, "Hey, are we owed any money from anywhere else?"
JW: I think that's what a lot of businesses start doing at that point, just to get as much money as they can. And I think a lot of our vendors were doing that as well at that point. They were emailing and sounding very desperate like, "Hey, you've got this outstanding." The bills are coming in and it's just like a rush for money, really, at that point. Fast forward another week, we got our eyes over the stimulus package. I watched on Capitol Hill, they're voting the yays and nays and all that fun stuff.
JW: Finally, we were able to pass CARES Act. That was very important. At the same time while watching those, we started looking into the SBA disaster loans for the COVID-19 portion and just applied and applied. I have applied, gathered all our files, which we keep good documents. I can't imagine for a mom-and-pop shop who has never thought about collecting all of these documentations in order to submit for a loan. This was a very difficult thing even for me who comes from an accounting and finance background while I was in college. It was still a lot of accounting talk and a lot of finance talk in order to gather all these documents in order to submit as quickly as possible for disaster loan. And then the system crashed, and I just submitted the second time.
JW: And there was no confirmation that anything was received, other than automatic confirmation number that was generated. So that was the disaster loan while the CARES Act was being debated on the floor. And then after the CARES Act got approved, then it was a scramble for the PPP because that was what was highly anticipated. The banks, our bankers were communicating with us in order to keep us updated, telling us ahead of time the money's going to run out in a day. That's what they thought.
JW: So everyone's probably getting those calls and everyone's just waiting by the computer literally waiting for an application to come online and then just start applying. And that's exactly what we did as well. I literally sat there waiting around noon. It was online. I kept clicking, refresh after the page, came up, and then just start applying because I had all my PDFs ready to go. That took me a few days to prepare corresponding with my office, my accountants. We were able to submit that.
JW: But again, no response. And we're just left in the dark waiting until one day the money just showed up in our account for one of three loans that we applied for, which is not that significant, but it's enough for us to at least start thinking of who to pay first. That's the key here. It's not even about paying off everything we owe. It's about what can we use this money for to pay what? A lot of our bills are actually food invoices. Can we actually use the PPP loan to pay food invoices because it's designed for payroll? So there's a lot of questions still about what we can do with these things. We got to get some guidance, that's what I'm trying to do now. Like I said in the beginning of our call, it's a lot of figuring things out.
EL: It's the wild west out there, Jason, isn't it?
JW: It is. It's just crazy. No one really knows the answer to any of the regulations. The banks have no guidance from what I hear from the SBA. And the SBA probably has little guidance from up top. So it's just a mess. It's just really a mess everywhere. Everyone's just trying to scramble. Everyone's confused and scared rightly so. We were one of the lucky ones to get part of what we applied for at least. But of course, I hear stories about bigger businesses getting a lot more money. Right now, I'm not going to point fingers to be honest, I just think that the system could be better. But given how it is the wild, wild west, these things will happen, unfortunately. And things will slip through the cracks when legislation is now accounting for every possibility under the sun. There's going to be loopholes. And at the same time, everyone's trying to figure out a way to survive. So bigger business, smaller business, I think everyone wants to save themselves as much as possible. I don't know the specifics, but right now I'm not as upset and whatnot. I'm just hoping for the next thing really to just figure out what we can do. Because right now the funding we got is not enough to cover ... I don't think it's enough to cover February and March.
EL: Right. And one of the things that Colicchio said that I wanted to see if it applied to you too, which is they're giving you two months run rate. That's not going to help because you're not going to be able to reopen in two months.
JW: Yeah, that's the key. That's something that we ... So basically, giving us all this money that we're supposed to use on payroll. But how are we supposed to use on payroll when everything is still shut down? Rightly so. I'm not for rushing to end the health crisis when we don't have a vaccine, when we don't have viable solutions. I don't want to burden the healthcare workers, the hospitals, all of that. I agree with all that completely personally. But at the same time, we have the regulations for PPP basically telling us, "Hey, you have eight weeks to use this money for payroll."
JW: Great. I cannot wait to hire people back. But you know what? My employees are scared of work, to come out to work. They don't want to risk it. Guests are not coming out to eat because they don't want to risk it. The government's telling everyone to say home, but you're giving me a deadline of eight weeks to use this money. So what am I supposed to use this money for? It's great. It's sitting in my bank account. I feel like I have all this power, but I can't use it. And then at the end of the day, it's still low. Even though it's at a low interest rate of 1%, it's still low. It's a liability. I'm going to have to pay that back somehow.
EL: Or even if it's forgivable.
JW: Forgivable only if you use it on the right expenses, which as outlined, I just can't use right now because we can't open fully back to the state that we've worked before. The situation is not the same. So the timeline is all messed up. It doesn't match what was actually going on. So it's frustrating.
EL: Yeah. One of the other things that Tom and the other IRC chefs were saying, they wanted to up it to three months. But even if they can get you to when you can reopen, it's going to be a long time before people feel confident about eating in restaurants again. It's going to take you a while to build up your business again.
JW: Exactly. A lot of folks in the industry have been saying this and commenting on this, and it's true. I think that the business is going to be changed. We're all forced to be different now whether it's the food business, the restaurants need to be different. Or whether it's the consumer is being different. Because from consumer's perspective, they've been locked in their homes for a good while. Maybe locked isn't the right word for some, but a lot of folks have been staying home for a while.
JW: And personally, I have as well. So I've been doing a lot of cooking at home. It's enjoyable in a way and it's nice. I get to eat what I want to eat and the way I prepare it. So I don't have to wait on wait lists. I don't have to make reservations. I just do that. And I think a lot of people are discovering the joy of home cooking. So I think that market demands are going to change for demand for restaurants. I don't know. Maybe when everyone gets busier again there's going to be room for casual dining and take out et cetera. Who knows?
JW: But still it's going to be some lasting impact of this pandemic for the demand of restaurants. Now, for restaurants too, I think that this social distancing and the habits that people have, it will change the way that the restaurants or dining restaurants are going to be and their seating might be changed. For us, when we have our guests lined up to make or place their orders, that may need to be changed and we got to consider it if the lines get too long. Maybe we need to finally consider mobile ordering, stuff like that.
EL: Yeah, because your spaces are mostly pretty small, and it would be really hard to imagine social distancing.
JW: Oh boy. Some of our smaller stores I think maybe two to three guests can go at the same time if we're following the rule strictly. And now I see lines for the grocery stores stretching down the block. We have lines like that in Midtown just on a good day regularly one after another. So I can't imagine what that'd be like. I can't really think about that right now because it feels like it's so far down the road that we're not ready for that yet. Right now I'm just anxious to see there's actually a health solution, like a medical solution to all this because all of this is for nothing if we can't get the health perspective things under control.
JW: Confidence for business won’t come, it won't last even no matter how many stimulus types you throw at it. So that's really the big thing right now. But one thing I wanted to mention is that in terms of pivoting, we have started thinking how to pivot in order to stay viable in this environment. So recently... I do apologize. I'm going to send you a little bit of something, a little bit of chili oil, I promise. We just had a small delay with shipping supplies and scheduling that. It's just been very hard.
JW: But all in all, we've been shipping out a lot of our chili oil orders. Our fans have been missing our flavors. So our chili oil. A lot of restaurants are actually doing this. They're selling their sauces online. Our chili oil has just been so well received. We've been hit with so many orders. It's becoming a possibility for something that will continue on and go back on.
EL: Right. That could be a real revenue stream.
JW: Exactly. And now this is, you're the first person I'm telling to publicly is that we're looking into noodle kits. So everyone's always talking about meal kits and being able to have, like Blue Apron has food you could cook at home. You get the produce and the meat and have the recipe. Ours would be a little bit different where we will bring the noodle pulling experience into people's homes, but with our flavors already brought in.
JW: So it's a very foolproof type of a meal kit and I think that will bring the freshness of noodles. We're not delivering already cooked noodles. You'll get dough that you'll be able to pull and have fun with and enjoy at home. So I think that will go along with the whole shift in the industry. I think just looking in China these days, relatives of mine, people I know my father has talked to, the restaurants over there, obviously, it's different over there. People didn't get a stimulus package for this type of deal. So everyone’s just trying to do whatever they can to get by.
JW: But restaurants are changing gears. There's not a lot of people dining in. So they're doing all a lot of kits as well or things that are just ready to take to go. So I think that's going to stay. I really think that has to stay, at least for the foreseeable future, because this virus has changed our way of living.
EL: I agree.
JW: And the restaurant needs to adapt to it.
EL: I agree. So have your landlords been accommodating, or are they still like, "Hey, Jason, where's our rent?"
JW: Yeah. I mean, landlords are people too. They’re businesses too just like us. We like to think that landlords have deep pockets. Some of them probably do. But I think our landlords are a mix of both. And even ones with deep pockets, they also have liability. Obviously, we would want our landlords to be as accommodating as possible. So obviously, I've sent messages to all my landlords requesting some sort of abatement but to little avail. Truthfully, it's not something that people agree to right off the bat. But although some have agreed to limited abatements and some deferrals as well.
JW: But right now, I'm not really engaging too much in conversation with them. I think everyone understands, at least my landlords understand what the situation is, is that there's just no money. There's no point in them sending any link to notice this too at this point because it's just not productive. I think a lot of people understand that at this point. I don't know what's going to happen once everything goes back to "normal" though. Because I don't know if at that point that's when the landlord starts sending me overdue bills from this period. I don't know that. There's no legislation blocking that possibility, and it just really depends.
JW: So right now, we've been getting statements as we usually do. I think landlords have to send those out in order to say that they are owed this money just to make a record of it. But I don't think anyone's really enforcing at this point, at least for my landlords. But I don't know what the situation is going to be once we return to "normal." And at that point, depending on the pressures from the landlord, we may have to consider if we need to exit any of our locations because the financial pressure is just too much.
JW: I'm hopeful that my landlords will be understanding and we don't have to be forced to that point. But at the end of the day, it's just ... While I understand the pressures our landlords face, we also have our own pressures. So that if we get to a point where we can't compromise, we have to do what we have to do and then that's pretty much all we can do. So yeah.
EL: So the pandemic is going to radically change your business.
JW: It will. It will. I can say right now it will. I don't know exactly how. We're still trying to figure that out. But yeah, it will.
EL: And so, I was going to ask you, let's say they give people permission to go back to eating in restaurants June 1st.
JW: Hypothetically, let's say June we reopen. At that point, hopefully, the curve is flattened to a point where we're very comfortable and people are more comfortable. At that point, really, we're not going to be able to open all of our stores at once, nor do we want to. So from a safety and a risk perspective, we don't want to do that. And also from a market perspective, I think, because not everyone's going to rush out, I think, at this point anyways to go to restaurants. People will be cautious. This is what we've been seeing in China as well.
JW: We really look over there in order to see how things have been developing ever since things got a little bit better over there because the same similar thing is probably going to happen here. So that's really just the prediction of what's going to happen. What's been happening over there is that people are very cautious still. Even when the government says you can go out, people are still very wary of that. So I don't think the demand is going to be there for dining restaurants even if the government says you can go.
JW: So I think we'll see a slow, hopefully, a slow increase in sales and people coming out to have food. For us, we'll open slowly one at a time at the same time working with landlords to see how that's going to work. If need be, we'll shut down some locations and just really focus. If it turns out well, we'll focus on other avenues where we can share our food more efficiently versus just having people line up and get food on a traditional sense.
JW: So that's all the moving parts right now we're considering from our end. I think one difference is maybe between us and fine dining restaurants is that when everyone was pivoting towards takeout and delivery, even though we never considered delivery, but takeout is natural move for us because dining restaurants on the other hand, they have to really try to change their business in order to fit that model. But for us, we already are very close to that.
JW: So for us to pivot into something that is more to go, if our food agrees with that, meal kits, ingredients and such from our central kitchen, which is already there. It's not too difficult of a thing for us. And as long as we're comfortable with the flavors and that it won't compromise anything, we'll do it. We're very fast to react to things. So that’s what I'm hopeful for. The pandemic helps us see some opportunity we didn’t see when everything was going smoothly.
EL: I have one last question, which is, has the fact that you own Chinese restaurants made it more difficult, different, or the same?
JW: I think from the public, like from our guests, I think about the same. We are blessed with a lot of supporters of all sorts of people. I think that no one has really shunned us because we're Chinese food in any way. I think people have been very supportive. I'm very happy with the ways that people have been encouraging us. Even before we closed down, everyone was trying to get to our stores, encourage visiting Chinese restaurants, at least we get that. We're familiar with on social media and such.
JW: So I think that's all very positive. I'm very thankful of that. I think for us there is one thing that's not ... It's not anyone's fault really that, I think, that Chinese restaurants in particular are more impacted by than other restaurants. It's the fact that we have a lot of Chinese guests and at least for us we consider our food to be very authentic. So we have a lot of Chinese guests. And we also have a lot of Chinese employees because we started out in Flushing. And a lot of our old, the employees with the most tenure, are Chinese and they're the ones with the most expertise throughout the years as well.
JW: So that is a negative thing because of the way that the pandemic is seen in the Chinese population. So that fear of that virus was instilled in people that are close to that way before Americans or even Asian Americans like myself aware. I thought it was going to blow over, to be honest with you. Personally, I thought because of the numbers we were hearing out of China they're probably not very accurate. But to be honest, I was still over here in the West sitting even if we're Asian, we're still thinking, "Oh, this thing is going to blow over. It'll be fine." But then it wasn't, it’s much worse than what we thought.
JW: But what I think is that our employees, our guests are already sensitive to that. They know what it will be, how scary it will be. So they're more cautious. Since the beginning of February, everyone in Chinatown were donning masks. Everyone's wearing masks because that's what they do in China too. So then everyone in Chinatown and everywhere else follows suit. What I'm trying to say is that because everyone's more cautious, we have more pressure in terms of our Chinese clientele is not going to go out to eat anymore more than some other folks in the earlier days. And our Chinese employees are probably more cautious about returning to work.
JW: Because another thing is also in terms of Chinese culture and family structure, a lot of families live under the same household physically. So then you have the grandma and grandpa, and then like us we're two generations apart. Those older folks are more at risk so that you don't want to work and then bring home the virus. So that's something that's more Eastern because of just how the families usually live together versus Western as soon as you're 18, bye-bye. It's a stereotype. But it is a predominant culture of that because you typically live with family. So those factors kind of affect us a little bit differently than other restaurants. I hope that makes sense.
EL: Yeah, that makes sense. But they're extra careful. So you probably haven't seen a lot of employees or even a lot of regular customers test positive because of their cautiousness.
JW: Yes. I mean, it's great to be cautious. It's hard. It's a lot to get used to getting home and spraying everything down. Wipe your hands, wash your hands, and then wipe your hands, and wipe down everything you touch. It's a hassle, but it's something that's necessary these days. I am thankful for one thing, though. I'm thankful for the Asian tradition of taking off the shoes in the household because I think that is something that, you know it comes natural to me. But I think that definitely helps a lot with the sanitary...
EL: My wife's been on me, Jason, to take off my shoes when I come in the house.
JW: It's a good habit. Regardless of what culture you are, I think it's great. But I'm surprised that a lot of people don't do it. I feel weird walking, especially at a park or something, then in my house.
EL: All right. Well, thank you, Jason. I can't wait to get your chili oil, and this is going to be terrific.
JW: Absolutely. Sounds good. Let me know if you need anything else.
EL: Stay safe.
JW: All right. Take care of yourself.
EL: That was Xi'an Famous Foods co-founder, Jason Wang, giving us his take on the coronavirus crisis. And we should note that Congress just passed yet another piece of legislation that once again, steadfastly ignores, the financial realities the 500,000 shuttered independent restaurants in this country are facing. Serious Eaters, it is very likely that many of your favorite restaurants are in grave danger of never reopening. They need your help. So please, contact your elected representatives and let them know that independent restaurants need their attention. You've been listening to one of a series of special pandemic-oriented episodes of Special Sauce will be airing in the coming weeks. I'm Ed Levine. So long, Serious Eaters.
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