The Changing Future of Chinese Restaurants in America

How generational shifts affect certain family businesses

Chinese restaurant
The world of Chinese restaurants in the United States is in the midst of a significant change.
Tobias Kleinlercher/Creative Commons
By Tobias Carroll / December 26, 2019 8:03 am

Are we in the midst of a significant contraction in the number of Chinese restaurants in the United States? Data cited as part of a new report by Amelia Nierenberg and Quoctrung Bui at The New York Times certainly suggests that this is the case — but what that signifies might be less catastrophic for one corner of the food industry than you might think. 

Nierenberg and Bui cite data from Yelp on the declining share of Chinese restaurants in the nation’s top 20 metro areas. Taken alone, that looks alarming:

Five years ago, an average of 7.3 percent of all restaurants in these areas were Chinese, compared with 6.5 percent today. That reflects 1,200 fewer Chinese restaurants at a time when these 20 places added more than 15,000 restaurants over all.

The article notes that some restaurant owners are aging — with their grown children uninterested in going into the family business. Journalist Jennifer 8. Lee is quoted in the Times article arguing that this is a sign of economic mobility. “These people came to cook so their children wouldn’t have to, and now their children don’t have to,” Lee said. 

Operating a restaurant is no small task: the Times article opens on Tom Sit, the owner of Eng’s, a restaurant in Kingston. He’s 76 and works 80-hour weeks — exhausting work for someone half his age. A recent Eater article by Nina Yun explored the efforts that go into serving Christmas dinner at the Kansas City restaurant Princess Garden, an extensive process all its own.

Normally, most tales of declining restaurant numbers are cause for alarm. Nierenberg and Bui make a convincing case that that’s not the case here — and that sometimes, the ups and downs of the restaurant business aren’t the only stories in play.

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