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Episode 999: The Restaurant From The Future

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Episode 999: The Restaurant From The Future

Episode 999: The Restaurant From The Future

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF COIN SPINNING)

AMANDA ARONCZYK, HOST:

When I pulled up in front of his restaurant, Yong Zhao came out to meet me in the street.

Hey. How's it going?

YONG ZHAO: Good, good. How are you?

ARONCZYK: I'm all right. Nice to meet you.

ZHAO: Yeah, thanks for coming.

ARONCZYK: Yeah. I was like, where am I going to park?

ZHAO: Yeah.

ARONCZYK: I was late because I had spent 25 minutes driving around trying to find legal parking. Yong helpfully was like, it's fine. Just park in front of the restaurant even though the sign says otherwise. Yong gave me permission because there was no one else around to say no. Recently, he's become kind of like the boss of West 41st Street in Manhattan.

MARY CHILDS, HOST:

Yong Zhao is, in fact, a boss. He's the CEO of Junzi. It's a small chain of Chinese food restaurants that serve not fast food, not casual dining but the offspring of those two things known as fast casual.

ARONCZYK: When I walked up to the door, I wasn't sure if he was letting customers in.

Do you let people in or no?

ZHAO: We let people in.

ARONCZYK: You do?

ZHAO: Yeah.

ARONCZYK: OK. So they come in to pick up.

ZHAO: Yeah, they come pick up.

ARONCZYK: OK. All right, I'm going to follow you in.

We walk in. And it's like being transported in time way, way back to March.

Oh, my God. You know, I think your restaurant's the last place I ate before the lockdown.

ZHAO: (Laughter). Really? Wow.

ARONCZYK: Yeah.

ZHAO: Yeah.

ARONCZYK: My son and I would, like, come here.

CHILDS: Inside, it looks the same as it did pre-pandemic - tables up front, at the back. Behind glass are rows of bean sprouts, roasted tofu, scallions all laid out in an assembly line.

ARONCZYK: And the whole place is bright, painted in light tan and white. It looks like an angelic Chipotle - minus the customers.

ZHAO: Sixty percent of people is gone, right? They're not here because...

ARONCZYK: Office crowd, the tourists, the students - gone.

CHILDS: And people don't really live in midtown in normal times. So now, even though restaurants are essential services and can still do takeout or delivery, they're less essential when no one's around.

ARONCZYK: Most of the restaurants around here just locked their doors.

ZHAO: So we're the - very few open. If you look around here, nobody else is open.

ARONCZYK: I noticed that.

ZHAO: Yeah.

ARONCZYK: Like, Chopt is gone.

ZHAO: Yeah, just us.

ARONCZYK: Everything's closed. Just you guys.

ZHAO: Yeah, just us.

CHILDS: The pandemic has devastated the restaurant industry. Five-and-a-half million employees have lost their jobs or been furloughed. It's more than any other industry.

ARONCZYK: And for Chinese food restaurants, it's been particularly brutal. As early as January, as news was coming out of Wuhan, they started losing staff and customers and revenue. Many closed.

Did you think about closing?

ZHAO: No.

ARONCZYK: You're like - that never crossed your mind to close?

ZHAO: No.

CHILDS: There is a reason Yong's place is the only open restaurant on this block. It's that Yong isn't thinking about just the restaurants on this block. He's thinking about tens of thousands of restaurants that have already figured out how to survive a pandemic.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHILDS: Those restaurants are in China.

ARONCZYK: Yong knows that if he can figure out what they did in China, then he can survive, too.

Hello and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Amanda Aronczyk.

CHILDS: And I'm Mary Childs. Yong's restaurant is the hardest-hit industry in the hardest-hit city in the hardest-hit country.

ARONCZYK: But Yong has a crystal ball because his friends and family in China, they're months ahead of us. So even before New York City shut down, Yong was making emergency plans based on a blueprint that he borrowed from them.

CHILDS: Today on the show, how one restaurant chain is looking to the future to survive, maybe even expand at the worst possible time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHILDS: Yong Zhao grew up a few hours northeast of Beijing. He came to the U.S. to get a degree in environmental science. But along the way, he got distracted by this question - why aren't there more Chinese restaurant chains in America?

ZHAO: Only one brand had 1,000 stores. That's Panda Express.

ARONCZYK: Panda Express. There's also P.F. Chang's, but they only have a few hundred outlets. Most Chinese food restaurants are family-run.

CHILDS: So Yong drops out of his grad program, starts taking business classes. Now he has this dream - a new kind of Chinese restaurant chain - super hip, super modern. In 2015, the first Junzi restaurant opens.

ARONCZYK: Right now, how many outlets are there?

ZHAO: Right now, we have five. But this one's designed for 1,000 stores. And it takes time to become 1,000-store store (laughter).

ARONCZYK: What do you - this was designed to become 1,000 stores?

ZHAO: Yes.

ARONCZYK: What does that mean designed to become 1,000 stores?

ZHAO: Location, staff, the management - everything is scalable.

ARONCZYK: The idea is to build a scalable brand, not just a restaurant. So they have a research kitchen in the basement where they try out new recipes. One of their locations is what's known as a ghost kitchen. You can't eat there. It's a kitchen that exists just for delivery. Overall, Yong is trying to build this beautiful restaurant chain. And it was going pretty well.

CHILDS: Until earlier this year around the Chinese New Year in late January. Yong starts hearing from his friends and family in China about this new virus. He was in China for the last coronavirus outbreak - SARS in 2003. This one sounded worse.

ARONCZYK: And he ends up getting into this funny situation with masks. They were selling out all over China.

ZHAO: First couple of weeks, I actually started buying face masks. And then, I shipped them to China to give to some friends.

ARONCZYK: So wait, you had friends in China who were like, we can't get N95s. And you shipped it to China?

ZHAO: Yeah. But that was, like, February.

ARONCZYK: February, OK.

ZHAO: Yeah. But then take a long time for the shipment to arrive in China. So when they get it, they're just like, I don't need it (laughter).

CHILDS: Then, the virus hits the U.S. And Yong is like, wait, about that mask, do you mind?

ZHAO: Yeah, I need it. Ship it back.

ARONCZYK: So when I meet Yong in person, he's wearing a mask that crossed the ocean three times.

CHILDS: Obviously, Yong was ahead of the curve. He's been watching Chinese media and hearing from his friends this pandemic was coming. Things were going to change.

ARONCZYK: So on March 5, more than two weeks before New York City went into lockdown, Yong gets his team together. And he says, look, sales are dropping. We have to lay off staff for now. But I have a plan.

ZHAO: Hey, this happened. But we know we are, you know, 100 days away from recovery. So we just get through this.

CHILDS: He's like, our customers will need new things from us. For a while, they're not going to be coming into the restaurant. They're going to be at home, stockpiling.

ZHAO: First two weeks is a panic. We get a lot of instant noodles, get a lot of frozen dumplings. Just do that.

CHILDS: Remember, Yong has been talking to people in China for months. He knows that pretty soon, people will be tired of instant noodles and frozen dumplings. They're going to want takeout again. So he tells his staff, we need to be ready. He starts removing the chairs from his restaurant. Customers can come in and pick up, but they can't stay.

ARONCZYK: He sets up the space less like a restaurant and more like a logistics center for spicy mushrooms and pickled cabbage. It's optimized for speedy takeout. Delivery bags are placed in small groups, like preschoolers, waiting for GrubHub and Seamless to pick them up.

CHILDS: And that works. But he also starts realizing that he's going to have to change the meals themselves. The whole restaurant concept was fast, healthy individual servings for office workers and students.

ARONCZYK: Now his customers are trapped in their homes. And their food needs are becoming refrigerator centric. How much food can we stuff into our fridge? How long will it last? What can I make from leftover Szechuan chicken and half a burrito?

ZHAO: People stuck at home - right? - with their family members every day. So people don't order single meals because they want to reduce contact with society.

CHILDS: So Yong's restaurant buys bigger containers and starts offering family meals, enough food for three or four people or for three or four days.

ARONCZYK: Then he takes some high-cost items off of the menu, so there's less pork hock and beef shank. Those are hard to get, hard to cook. And he puts more chicken on the menu.

CHILDS: By March 18, the virus is pummeling New York. So Yong sets up an option on the order form. Now you can order for yourself and send a meal to a hospital.

ARONCZYK: While I was at the restaurant, these two guys popped in.

Oh, hey guys.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hello.

ARONCZYK: This was exciting.

You guys are the first people I've seen besides my family in, like...

(LAUGHTER)

ARONCZYK: ...Two months.

Two staff members - Andrew Chu and Justin Udry were taking food to hospitals in the company's newly repurposed delivery vehicle.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It's just a Subaru Outback, you know? It's a pretty standard civilian vehicle. It's mostly to bring the team around and go to special events...

ARONCZYK: You know, usually just used for civilian missions.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: ...That we do. You know, last-minute runs.

ARONCZYK: And then around the end of March, the Junzi team borrows another idea from China. They've been watching the rise of pandemic livestreaming there.

CHILDS: One of the most popular things that people are watching is a live feed of a construction site. China was racing to build two new hospitals. And people started to tune in more and more until, allegedly, some 40 million people were watching along.

ARONCZYK: If you missed it, you can watch 10 hours of it on YouTube.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARONCZYK: It's been scored. A troupe of bulldozers crisscross the site. Cranes gracefully dig holes. In the comments section on the side, you can see people cheering on the cement king and a truck called the Big White Rabbit.

CHILDS: It became China's hottest new reality show. And to Yong, it showed how much people wanted to see something outside their homes, something that was actually happening, not a scripted TV show, not a video game that could restart - real life. So Yong thought about what he could do, something real that people could tune in to that combines livestreaming and food.

ZHAO: So probably, most American people look at sandwiches and pizzas (laughter). So...

ARONCZYK: You have a very sad impression of what Americans eat. But OK.

ZHAO: Yeah, exactly. So, of course, our food compared to the food they can cook from fridge is more exciting.

ARONCZYK: His team calls it distance dining. And here's how it works. You order an elaborate three-course meal. The food arrives cooked but cold.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LUCAS SIN: Hey, everybody. My name's Chef Lucas Sin.

ARONCZYK: And at 7 p.m., you go on Instagram.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SIN: We're going to walk you through how to plate your meal now. Thank you for being patient.

ARONCZYK: And their chef demonstrates the best way to reach and plate what you find in that delivery bag.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SIN: But you're going to open it. And inside, you're going to find a chicken wing that is naked and a glaze.

CHILDS: It's the closest you can get to a restaurant experience while still in quarantine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SIN: This naked wing is cooked and ready to go. But if you want to get it crispy, what we're going to do is we're going to toss it in a little bit of the glaze and then put it in a 375 or 400-degree oven.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHILDS: Two months into the lockdown, Yong and his team have kind of figured out how to survive. The family meals, the deliveries to hospital workers, the three-course dinners - it's keeping the business afloat for now.

ARONCZYK: But Yong is not thinking about now. As usual, he's focusing on what happens next when the lockdown is lifted, when he'll have to face the single most dangerous thing in this pandemic - people, people starting to eat at his restaurants again.

CHILDS: Dining out won't be the same. He knows that. But what will it look like? After the break, we peer into the future. We go virtually to a restaurant in Beijing to see how they're letting diners back in.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARONCZYK: It's 8 a.m. on a Thursday. And we're on a video conference with Yong. We chat for a little bit. And then there's that awkward moment where we go from being audio only to adding video.

Oh, my goodness, Yong. Look at your office.

ZHAO: Sorry, my background is a mess (laughter).

ARONCZYK: What's going on back there (laughter)?

ZHAO: It's my home. I share my office with my wife so (laughter)...

ARONCZYK: Wait, are you blaming this on your wife that it's a mess?

ZHAO: Yeah (laughter). Anyway...

CHILDS: So the point of this call is for Yong to introduce us to his friend, Na Chen (ph) who's in Beijing.

ZHAO: (Non-English language spoken).

NA CHEN: (Non-English language spoken) Hello.

ZHAO: (Laughter).

ARONCZYK: Hi, how are you?

CHEN: Hi (laughter).

CHILDS: Na runs marketing for a chain of over 150 restaurants called Yun Hai Yao. She and Yong have known each other for a little while. Yong is a huge fan of their food. And the restaurant is one of the places he keeps tabs on as he tries to figure out what to do next.

ARONCZYK: Na told us that the worst part of the pandemic for her restaurant happened back in January after a lunar new year.

CHEN: (Non-English language spoken).

ARONCZYK: That's when they had to shut down completely.

ZHAO: So the government doesn't - basically shut down everything. So they closed.

ARONCZYK: But now, Na is living in a post-lockdown world.

ZHAO: In February, they started reopen.

ARONCZYK: Recently, her restaurant started letting people back in to sit down and eat with a very specific set of regulations, which is why we asked her to give us a tour so we could see into the future.

ZHAO: OK, I can make her show you around first.

ARONCZYK: That would be great.

ZHAO: (Non-English language spoken).

CHEN: Oh.

CHILDS: The restaurant is a big open space, a few thousand square feet inside of a shopping mall. There's fabric draped from the ceilings, all grays and green and bright light. There's an open kitchen in the middle.

ARONCZYK: Na shows us the menu. It's like a thick, glossy magazine. There's a map of Yunnan Province where the food is from. There's lots of mushrooms and pineapples and handmade tofu and their famous steamed-pot chicken. As Na flips through the menu, Yong fanboys over the logistics of it all.

ZHAO: So they have 70 to 80 dishes. Think about it - handle 80 dishes in a chain restaurant in 100 locations. That's insane, right? That's crazy.

CHILDS: Looking around the restaurant, it seems like things are pretty normal. But when you start to look more closely, it's like a blurry image coming into focus. You see all the ways in which things are not normal.

ZHAO: So look at that table.

ARONCZYK: At the entrance right in front of a stack of metal pots with chicken steaming inside, there's a table covered with a bunch of stuff. There's a little bowl of candies. There's some hand sanitizer, box of tissues, and this big list on a notepad.

ZHAO: On the - on that table is their tracking of the customers.

CHILDS: If you want to eat here, you have to show them this app that tracks where you've been. It's tied to your national ID number. And that gets written down on this list.

ZHAO: So you have to tell who you are to be able to eat. It's almost like you go to a building in New York. You have to put your name on it.

ARONCZYK: So you put your name down.

ZHAO: Yeah.

ARONCZYK: And then what is that little gun-looking thing? Is that for temperatures or is that for a tracker?

ZHAO: For temperatures, for temperatures.

CHEN: Temperature.

ARONCZYK: OK, so they write down who it is.

ZHAO: Yeah.

ARONCZYK: They write down their temperature.

ZHAO: Yeah.

CHEN: Yeah.

ARONCZYK: And then, they know what table they're sitting at.

ZHAO: Yes.

CHEN: Yes.

ZHAO: And also...

ARONCZYK: And why so many details?

ZHAO: Well, if you want to track, that's how they do it (laughter).

CHILDS: So you can track who has had contact with whom. And then there's this big poster-looking thing taped up to a piece of glass right by the table.

ZHAO: So that's basically showing the record of the disinfection in the store - sanitation in the store and also the employee's temperature, everything. That's in the front of the restaurant.

ARONCZYK: Right. Like, this is basically the ad for the restaurant because it's what you see when you're walking through the mall.

ZHAO: Yeah.

ARONCZYK: So you get to look and say like, OK, they cleaned every two hours.

ZHAO: Exactly.

ARONCZYK: And also, everybody on the staff doesn't have a fever.

ZHAO: Exactly.

CHILDS: So you walk in with two other people maximum. Only groups of three or fewer can enter. And every other table is off limits.

ARONCZYK: Sitting on the table is a sign with a bright red hand, and it says...

ZHAO: Yeah.

ARONCZYK: ...Don't sit here.

ZHAO: Yeah, yeah.

CHEN: This table, don't sit (laughter).

ZHAO: Yeah.

ARONCZYK: How many people are in the restaurant right around now? Like, I thought I saw...

CHEN: Now?

ARONCZYK: Yeah, roughly.

CHEN: Maybe 10.

CHILDS: Ten customers.

ARONCZYK: OK. And it seems like totally normal day. Like, the restaurant...

ZHAO: Well, no, no. Definitely for 8 p.m. normal days, they're packed.

ARONCZYK: Oh. So it's more empty than usual?

ZHAO: (Non-English language spoken).

CHEN: (Non-English language spoken) Yeah.

ZHAO: Yeah. If you're not packed at 8 p.m., the restaurant would be dead already (laughter).

CHILDS: So no, things are not back to normal at this restaurant in Beijing. It's open. There are people at tables. But it is just a fraction of the usual customers.

ARONCZYK: Can you ask Na if she's seeing in Beijing what we're seeing here, which is, like, anger and people fighting back and people refusing to follow the rules?

ZHAO: Na, (non-English language spoken).

CHEN: (Non-English language spoken).

ZHAO: The people actually follow the rule very diligently but not like people feel anger about it. They just feel, well, this has to be done, like, this way. So they're frustrated but not frustrated by the government policies.

CHEN: None of their - they're having less challenge (ph) (laughter).

ZHAO: Yeah. So those questions are actually hard to answer.

(LAUGHTER)

ARONCZYK: Which questions? The questions about whether people are angry?

ZHAO: Yeah.

CHEN: No, no, no, no, no (laughter).

ARONCZYK: Basically, Yong summed it up like this. No, people are not angry. But if they were, they would not tell the American media about it.

What did she say?

ZHAO: (Non-English language spoken) For other questions.

ARONCZYK: Move on to other questions, please.

CHILDS: This is kind of where Yong's crystal ball stops working because as people start eating in restaurants again in the U.S., the government is unlikely to require businesses to take down ID numbers and track fevers. Yong knows it's a trade-off.

ZHAO: So this is basically how much you have to do in China and keep it open.

ARONCZYK: Yong, does this make you kind of terrified because we are doing so few of these things and yet your restaurant is open?

ZHAO: Yes. I mean, to be honest, yes. I think even American want reopen. We don't want - have a table for a while.

ARONCZYK: Oh, really? You don't plan to have people sitting inside for a while?

ZHAO: Probably not. It's too hard.

ARONCZYK: Probably not. Too hard.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNIVES SCRAPING)

ARONCZYK: Back at Junzi, Yong still has no chairs. And they're not coming back anytime soon. But he has a lot of other plans.

ZHAO: We're still planning expansions.

ARONCZYK: You're still planning expansions?

ZHAO: Yeah.

ARONCZYK: Even in the middle of all this?

ZHAO: Yeah.

CHILDS: Yong says, think about it. Low labor costs, low rent costs, less competition, so if you have the resources, now's a great time to expand.

ZHAO: So that's why we should keep open, right? Keep open, you have more resources.

ARONCZYK: You're serious. Like, this is - like, you're going to expand...

ZHAO: Yeah.

ARONCZYK: ...During the pandemic.

ZHAO: Yes, I'm trying to expand. Growing is very important (laughter).

ARONCZYK: That seems crazy to me.

CHILDS: But Yong thinks about it with this metaphor.

ZHAO: It's a very tough environment. But it's like - it feels you are in a forest fire. You are the seed now that the trees have burned.

CHILDS: When there's a fire - in this case, a pandemic - it clears out all the big older trees which means the seeds - the little guys - have room to grow.

ZHAO: You know, it's time to grow because all the sunlight's there. There are no big trees blocking it. Why wait? We endure the heat. But we're still ready to grow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARONCZYK: Around 5 o'clock, the GrubHub and Seamless delivery guys started forming a line outside the restaurant. And Yong, he's got to run. He's got a call scheduled with a former financial director of China's McDonald's outlets. The guy lives in New York now, too. And he's got some ideas about where to put the next Junzi.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHILDS: Do you have a time travel machine that will take us away from this year? You can email us at planetmoney@npr.org. We're on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We're @planetmoney.

ARONCZYK: Today's show was produced by Liza Yeager, James Sneed and Nick Fountain. Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer. And Bryant Urstadt edits the show. Thanks to Derek Arthur at the NPR show Rough Translation for his help with translation.

CHILDS: Exciting news - this is our 999th episode. Depending on who you ask, 999 can represent completion, the end, or it can mean something that is everlasting. So this is either the very last episode of PLANET MONEY or PLANET MONEY will make episodes forever.

ARONCZYK: Check your feed on Friday to find out. I'm Amanda Aronczyk.

CHILDS: And I'm Mary Childs. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

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