Chinese restaurants struggle with race-related attacks

Restaurants around the country are still struggling a year into the coronavirus pandemic. The National Restaurant Association estimates that as of last month over 110,000 businesses have temporarily or permanently closed because of COVID-19. But Chinese restaurants are being hit especially hard as race-related attacks on Asian Americans further complicate the issue. Xi'an Famous Foods CEO Jason Wang spoke with "CBSN AM" about his restaurants and how his employees are feeling after two of them were attacked.

Video Transcript

- So restaurants around the country are still struggling a year into the pandemic. The National Restaurant Association estimates that the number of tallied-- the numbers tallied last month over 110,000 businesses have temporarily or permanently closed because of COVID. But Chinese restaurants are being hit especially hard, as race-related attacks on Asian-Americans further complicate the issue.

So we want to talk a little bit more about this and bring in the CEO of Xi'an Famous Foods, Jason Wang. Thank you so much for joining us. So people need to know that you and your father, your restaurants are sort of famous for-- its kind of like Chinese comfort food. It's these great noodles. And you went public recently about not only what the pandemic is doing with your business, but also the way it's impacted your employees.

Specifically, you were talking about race-related attacks. And, you know, you talked about how two of your employees have been attacked. And you're closing-- the restaurants that you do have open, you're closing them earlier because you are concerned about their safety. You know, people are going to see you, and they might be familiar with your cookbook. They might have seen you on TV. And they're going to think, this guy is successful. This is the American dream.

First off, I want to ask you, how are your employees doing? And can you just paint a picture of, you know, what it's like right now, sort of the current state of things when it comes to Asian-Americans and a concern about just your safety and your welfare?

JASON WANG: Sure. Thank you, Anne-Marie, for having me. My employees are-- first of all, my employees are OK, but they are physically OK now. But they're very traumatized by these experiences that they've faced. And that sort of leads into my answer to your second part of the question, is that, you know, what's the state of things for Asian-Americans? Oh, well, they're afraid. They're concerned for their safety.

They're concerned for their safety in a city that is known to be safe, usually, during normal times. You know, I was speaking to an employee yesterday about the incident, once again, getting more details, since at the time I didn't actually pry too much into it. And, you know, he mentioned to me that these days, he's still very much traumatized.

Every time he's gone into a train, where he was attacked, he's always looking around. He's not entering trains with no people in it or very little people in it out of concern for his own safety. And, you know, it's just-- it paints a picture of how things are really for a lot of folks. Seeing these attacks, having these attacks happen to them directly, they're just very concerned for their safety right now.

- You know what I was thinking about when I was reading what you wrote and about how successful you are. And I thought to myself, this can't be a better sort of American story, right? Hard work. Your dad is sort of grinding away, away from his family as you're growing up. He establishes a business. You join him, father and son working side by side. This is as American as it gets.

And I can't imagine how disheartening it must be, not just for your employees and you, but Asian-Americans across the country to be suddenly told, you are the other. Can you talk a little bit about that?

JASON WANG: Yes, well, you know, being an immigrant, there's-- there's the fact that you were from another country, for us, anyways. But I know a lot of Asian-Americans that are born in America. For me, I was raised in America, so this is home to me. You know, our livelihood is here. I speak English much better than I can speak any other languages. And, you know, culturally, I understand America better than any other cultures as well.

So, you know, this is home, pretty much. And we-- it is very disheartening to feel that-- to be reminded, like, oh, you're all-- you're the perpetual foreigner. And it's an issue that a lot of us face. For me, I've faced in my younger years in other parts of the country where I grew up, where I was the only Asian person there is. And of course, you know, facing actual verbal and physical attacks when I was younger. It became sort of a way of life, almost. That's just how life is.

But when one moves into the city, in New York City, where it's diverse and cosmopolitan city, you would expect that these type of things shouldn't happen anymore. It should be, you know, a place where we should feel safe. And that's what I used to as well. But nowadays, it would seem like there's nowhere that is safe.

- Yeah, you know, it's funny. There's an organization called Stop Asian-American Pacific Islander-- rather, Stop Hate against Asian-American Pacific Islanders. And part of the reason that that organization was actually put together is because there were no statistics on race-related violence when it came to Asian people. And they're sort of compiling it. And what they are finding is that-- and in a way, it's about the numbers-- but the largest number of incidents of race-related crimes with Asians being the victims, it's in California. It's in New York. It's in places where there are large, well-established Asian populations.

So here you find yourself sort of in the crosshairs of the pressure that this pandemic has brought. You are a restaurant owner. You're also Asian-American. What have you done? How have you pivoted to, A, keep your business afloat and also keep your employees safe?

JASON WANG: Right. For our business, we're a people business. And our employees' safety is always number one in our list because we have to be able to make our employees feel safe before we're able to do business. And, you know, some of the measures we've taken would be, like you mentioned, we are closing our restaurants earlier than usual, meaning before the pandemic.

We used to close at maybe 9:30 or 10:30, but now all of our locations close at 8:30. And that is something that's not usually seen in New York City, where we're known for late-night dining and just the convenience of it. Also we're closed on Sundays now, versus before the pandemic we were open seven days a week.

And this is really because, in terms of public transit, we wanted to at least decrease the exposure of risk to these type of violence for our employees, especially those who are Asian. And, you know, it's obviously detrimental to the business, but it's important to do. As for what we've done, the pandemic is obviously another big hit onto our-- our business. And we're still coping with it every day. We used to have 14 locations. Now we have eight. And we're trying to reopen more, but it's a struggle.

Our sales compared to 2019 are probably about 30% of 2019 when compared to 2020. So it's a huge decrease. So we really have multiple fronts in this battle.

- Yeah. If anyone knows anything about restaurants, the profit margins are always really slim, so any dip is a really big deal. But you're diversifying, and that's a good thing. But I want to thank you for kind of putting a face to this conversation that we have been having here on CBSN about race-related violence focused on Asian-Americans. I think that it's one thing to see a statistic or a crime story.

And even I've heard people sort of dismiss it as, well, these are just crimes that happen in the city. And it's really important for people to know that-- that the victims are people you know. They're people who are providing you with the food that you love. They're people who are providing you with the health care that you badly need, teachers. They're regular people, who are suddenly finding themselves unwelcome, and it's not right. Jason Wang, I want to thank you.

JASON WANG: Thank you, Anne-Marie.