When several restaurants in Flushing, Queens, one of New York City’s largest Chinatowns, closed amid the pandemic, Yukun Shaobing quietly opened in a nondescript mall last September – a seemingly inconvenient start.
Even so, the cramped food stand of around 100 square meters with no English-speaking name or advertising has become a hit in a neighborhood plagued by Covid-19 and high rents.
The key to that success is an extensive menu of warm and flaky shaobing shobong styles, baked flatbreads filled with savory and sweet fillings that locals, some of the most discerning critics of Chinese cuisine, are looking for more.
In a room that is barely big enough for the two of them, Ruokun Yu and her business partner Chunmei Tong prepare classic Shaobing with pork and shrimp, cumin and peppered beef, as well as Western favorites like New Orleans Chicken – their version of a sweet and savory taste that was popularized by KFC in China.
One of the women controls the register while the other spoons pour filling into handmade dough and then bake it in a tiny oven. Everything is made from scratch.
The approach of the shop is a symbol of what it takes to survive in a restaurant business that was already ruthless before Covid-19: exhausting hours, tight margins and a do-it-yourself ethos that turns passers-by into regulars.
The virus has flattened businesses across the city, but its effects on minority-owned businesses have often been more insidious. Harassment and violence against people of East Asian descent have increased since the pandemic began, and Chinese restaurants, many of which are owned by immigrants, have been particularly badly racized, lost customers and suffered from vandalism.
The fact that this Shaobing booth relied mainly on patrons of Chinese origin speaks for the changing purchasing power of communities like Flushing. You can only find Yukun Shaobing in food delivery apps aimed at Chinese-speaking customers like Fantuan. On the counter there is a poster with a QR code for the WeChat messaging app, which is popular with Chinese speakers.
“It’s all through word of mouth,” said Ms. Yu. Every Chinese region has something similar, she said in Mandarin, referring to her menu of 17 Shaobing varieties. “We’ll take care of them all.”
Partners pay $ 3,000 a month for the booth and, because space is tight, an additional $ 200 to use the prep area for a neighboring company. The booth is located on Landmark Quest Mall, across Roosevelt Avenue from the popular New World Mall food court.
The two women work seven days a week and on a good day can sell around 200 to 300 shaobing for $ 3 to $ 5 apiece. They also sell two sizes of lamb soup, a common pairing, for $ 4 or $ 8. Frozen bags of homemade dumplings are available, Ms. Yu said, because they got bored at home one night.
The neighborhood restaurant business has slowed during the city’s two-month hiatus in indoor dining, which has curtailed tourism and reduced local pedestrian traffic along the avenue. To avoid the high costs of a wholesaler, the partners buy ingredients daily at a local Jmart, a popular supermarket for East Asian products.
Ms. Yu, 41, and Ms. Tong, 50, first-time business owners, live together in Flushing, where they share a single room for $ 1,000 per month. They have worked in a number of flushing restaurant kitchens, mainly making baked goods and dough the Nordic style, said Ms. Yu, who immigrated to New York from Qingdao, China in 2016 looking for work. Ms. Tong arrived from Liaoning Province in 2018. When the restaurants closed during the lockdown, roommates collected their savings and answered an ad to lease the tiny food stand.
Despite the pandemic, they were lucky in some ways. Barbie Li, the realtor at B Square Realty in downtown Flushing, said a number of businesses had been wiped out in recent months, so rents for new tenants could fall, if only temporarily. Prior to Covid, Ms. Li said, similar booths were renting for $ 4,000 a month or more.
The pandemic has helped smaller, take-away restaurants that can adapt to delivery service, Ms. Li said and in some cases improved their business due to decreased competition. And news travels fast – she knows the Shaobing booth well; Her favorite filling is spicy squid.
On a January afternoon, customers arrived at the mini mall to order from Joe’s Steam Rice Rolls, a popular Cantonese-style noodle spot that has the most prominent spot in the building. But some went to the Shaobing booth, where a predominantly Chinese clientele was browsing the menu.
“I was waiting for Joes and one lady bought 20 at a time – so I had to give it a try,” said Winnie Huang, a regular who happened to be a takeaway. She said that she and her mother, both of Taiwanese descent, had not seen this type of shaobing in Flushing in more than a decade.
“It’s rare to find it in Flushing,” said Ryan Chen, who drove from Long Island to pick up a cake but was also looking for good takeout options.
A recent wave of eateries in Flushing and other Chinatowns in the city tended towards spicy Sichuan dishes or hot pot. Several customers said northern-style street foods like shaobing had become rarer. Ms. Yu said she plans to expand into a larger room soon to meet the increased demand.
A masked woman hurried to the counter and asked, “Any cumin lamb?”
“Give us 15 minutes,” said Ms. Yu.
The woman said she would be back.
Yukun Shaobing, 136-21 Roosevelt Avenue, Flushing, Queens; 929-300-9118.
Dot Gong and Fabien Ma did the translation.