The impending closure of one of Chinatown’s largest and most popular restaurants is more than just a loss to the community, but a financial setback for the many employees who depend on their jobs there and a blow to the local economy, said a representative for the restaurant’s union.
Last month, the owners of Jing Fong banquet hall announced their plans to close March 7th after 49 years, citing the pandemic-driven loss of revenue and the inability to pay rent on its 20 Elizabeth Street lease.
The restaurant owners said in an Instagram post that they plan to continue delivery and takeout service as well as outdoor dining at its Elizabeth Street site as they look for a new Chinatown location. But that will leave dozens of employees without a job and only grim prospects in the city’s struggling food service industry, a union representative said.
The restaurant owners haven’t paid rent since New York City initially suspended indoor dining in March 2020, according to Eric Phillips of Edelman who was representing the landlord Jonathan Chu.
“The owners of Jing Fong decided that this type of extremely large space is no longer sustainable for their restaurant,” Chu said in a statement. “Nobody has tried harder to keep Jing Fong in this space than we have. Jing Fong's base rent has remained the same since 1993 – and the restaurant hasn’t paid any rent for the last 12 months. My family has been loyal patrons of Jing Fong for decades, standing shoulder to shoulder with employees on holidays and during important life events. We are saddened by this pandemic and the unemployment that has resulted from inadequate federal, state and local support for workers and small businesses.”
While the monthly rent wasn’t disclosed, the current 30-year-lease was around $70,000 a month, said Nelson Mar, president of the 318 Restaurant Workers Union. On Tuesday, about 70 members of the union protested outside Chu's office.
“Our understanding is that the restaurant owner wants to continue operations, but he's been given no choice,” Mar said in a phone interview.
“It seems like the landlord is refusing to cut Jing Fong a break when it comes to rent and he's one of the largest property owners in Chinatown and owns a number of other businesses,” said organizer Caitlin Kelmar of the Youth Against Displacement advocacy group in a phone interview. “So there's no reason why he couldn't choose to keep Jing Fong as a tenant if he wanted to.”
An email request for comment sent to the Lam family which owns the restaurant was not immediately returned Wednesday. Their director of marketing and PR, Claudia Leo, told Grub Street that their understanding was that the landlord wanted the space back: "According to Leo, the owners paid some rent through PPP loans, and the Chus worked with them on partial rent relief. The Lams have also been paying real estate taxes."
With the increasing vaccination rollout in New York City and the return of limited indoor dining, Mar said the restaurant could recover and repay its debt, and called the timing of the closure “rather cruel.”
“This is particularly terrible that the decision is now, because we're sort of turning the corner on the pandemic from all respects, with the rollout of the vaccines, three of them now, and with the case numbers coming down, and with the reopening of indoor dining up to almost 35% capacity,” Mar said. “It seems like things can get closer to normal where some of the business will pick up, and they'll be able to meet some of their rental demands going forward.”
Beyond the estimated 100 employees who are currently furloughed and will lose their jobs, the closure will have “significant downstream effect” on Chinatown, Mar added, estimating the restaurant would draw nearly 10,000 customers a week in pre-pandemic times.
“Jing Fong is really the heart of the Chinatown economy,” he said. The customer base was both locals as well as “outside visitors from other boroughs, even outside of the city, and that type of foot traffic is irreplaceable,” he said.
The fate of the space at 20 Elizabeth Street remains unknown, Chu said.
“While this has all happened so fast and while the continuing effects of the pandemic provide for an uncertain future, what I can tell you is we care deeply for this community. The future of the property will contribute to the vitality and health of our community and we hope this pandemic will be behind us soon,” Chu said in the statement.
Jing Fong's Upper West Side outpost—a small fraction of the Chinatown restaurant's 20,000 square foot—will remain open.