My Chinatown Restaurant Was on the Brink of Collapse. Then the Community Stepped In.

This story is part of Heads of the Table, our celebration of 12 restaurants, people, and organizations that led the industry through the pandemic and beyond. Meet all the winners here.

When I first came to the U.S. in 1994, I always worked in restaurants. English was a barrier, so this was one way of making a living. The village I lived in, Ting Jiang [in China’s Fuzhou province], didn’t have many opportunities. I saw a brighter future in the States. First I worked at a take-out restaurant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, then I ran my own take-out place in Syracuse, New York. Once my children started going to school, I sold the restaurant and opened a gift shop. But once the whole financial crisis hit in 2008, I shut down the shop and went back to restaurants. We were living in New York City, so I worked at Noodle House in Queens Center in Elmhurst, Queens. Sometimes I was the cashier. Other times I took orders over the phone and packed them.

But I wanted to make more money for my children’s college tuition. On a friend’s recommendation we visited a Korean fried chicken restaurant in Flushing. We enjoyed the food so much that we connected with the owners. They said, “You can open a restaurant like this too.” They trained us for a small fee and sold their secret sauce to us. In 2012 we opened BocBoc Chicken Delicious in Queens Center.

When I was working at Noodle House, which is now run by another family member, I realized that the mall is a good location because customers come in to shop. It’s very busy. But BocBoc had a rocky start because people were unfamiliar with our restaurant. So we handed out samples—my husband gave it his all to get people to try something new. A taste was all they needed to start lining up. Soon we had a lot of regulars. They loved the fried chicken breast since it could be used in wraps and salads. We made around $2,500 a day in sales. Customers always came back.

I first heard about COVID in January 2020. Within the Chinese community information was being passed along. At that point none of the domestic airports here had shut down and people were coming in and out, so I knew that it would come to the U.S. And New York.

By March 12 we started wearing masks at the restaurant, and we put up a sign, saying, “We want to keep everyone safe, so at BocBoc, wear a mask.” However, we had already been seeing business go down for a couple months at that point. By March 17 we couldn’t even make $200 a day. On March 19 the mall closed. Then the citywide shutdown happened.

Li frying the chicken

Photo by Isa Zapata

The beloved fried chicken sandwich at BocBoc Chicken Delicious

Photo by Isa Zapata

We were closed from March to September last year, almost half a year. Whereas other restaurants could do takeout, we couldn’t since the mall was closed. No money was coming in, so we couldn’t pay our employees or rent, which was the most nerve-wracking thing. Our rent is $23,000 a month, and we were behind on several months of rent, which added up to around $100,000. Luckily, the mall waived rent from April through August, but we didn’t know this until October. It was the scariest time, the not knowing.

I was able to reopen the restaurant last year in September. The entire sitting area at the mall was still closed at that time, which hurt business. Since I have a fast-food restaurant, the food is best ordered and eaten right away. I had applied to PPP [Paycheck Protection Program], which helped with rent and payroll, but it was running out. I considered closing the restaurant.

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