Feature: Chinese restaurants in U.S. feel "quarter pinch" amid trade disputes

Source: Xinhua| 2019-06-18 19:59:28|Editor: zh
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by Xinhua writers Xia Lin, Zhang Mocheng, Zhang Yichi

NEW YORK, June 18 (Xinhua) -- The prolonged, U.S.-initiated trade disputes with China have cast a shadow over U.S. businesses, among them some 38,000 Chinese restaurants that are suffering from inflated prices of materials and ingredients.

"We call it 'quarter pinch,' a 25-percent climb across the board bulging the face value of our daily necessities from soy sauce to decoration tiles," said Lily Zhao, a catering industry insider of Chinese descent in Baltimore, Maryland.

In an escalation of the trade disputes, Washington on May 10 increased additional tariffs on 200 billion U.S. dollars' worth of Chinese imports from 10 percent to 25 percent, and has threatened to raise tariffs on more.

Zhao planned in 2018 to install 14 kitchen cabinets for her own restaurant, but balked at the 5,000 dollars proposed by the contractor who imported materials mainly from China. In June, she picked up the idea again, but was told that the price was up by around 1,500 dollars.

"That is 25 percent, right?" Zhao said with disbelief and angst. To her knowledge, the trade disputes also augmented the costs of granite counter tops which came from China, and air conditioners whose spare parts were manufactured in China.

For each air conditioner, a must-buy that would also be renewed regularly in every dining spot, one now has to pay an extra 1,000 dollars, she said.


Samuel Wang owns two restaurants in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania's largest city. His establishments feature the cuisine of Shaanxi Province, his home province in China.

Some 30 percent of the ingredients, sauces and beverages he and his chefs use every day are imported from China. No substitutes found in the United States can have the same effect. Chinese imports were part of the magic with which Wang could whet his customers' appetite and retain their loyalty.

This was also why the ongoing trade disputes matter a lot to him.

"We Chinese restaurateurs are extremely sensitive to price rises, which often come as you have to choose from imported spices and ingredients for your kitchen," said Wang, who has been in the restaurant business since 2013.

Since February, Wang has seen bottled coconut juice from China's Hainan Province up by 5 dollars a carton, a large bag of rice from Jilin Province up by 4 dollars a bag, and vinegar from Jiangsu Province up by 3 dollars each carton.

The made-in-China plastic snack boxes, used for takeout, have seen a price increase of over 10 percent.

"I have seen an overall price increase for the imported-from-China things that we use in our kitchen and dining hall ... The margins are different but the tendency is uniform: up, up and up," said Wang.

Industry rules stipulate that with the materials and ingredients becoming more expensive, food and dish prices must go up as well, else a business would not survive.

However, Wang chose to pay the extra costs himself.

"I don't want to frighten my customers away. I have no choice but (to) bring it on later when a more suitable juncture comes up. This just tells how hard it is to maintain a food business here, especially a Chinese one right at this moment," he said.

"I hope that the trade war ends as soon as possible, which will be the greatest news for businesses and consumers. If it can't be contained, the catering industry and all other businesses will receive a further blow or impact, and those who lose the most are the U.S. consumers," he added.


Yang, who would not give his full name, is attached to his family business -- a chain supermarket in the United States featuring Chinese products, most of which were on the purchasing lists of nearby Chinese restaurants.

"Due to the tariff war, our wholesaler has told us most Chinese commodities are turning more expensive, but there will be only staggered increases, not hikes, like three to five percent a month within a period of six months. In the end, they will add up to around 25 percent," said Yang.

A friend in need is a friend indeed. After years of working together, the wholesaler once again won Yang's heart by choosing staggered increases over a hike.

"This means that we share the burden. The wholesaler diverts some pressure to us, and retains some for himself. We are common destiny. Bitter and sweet, we are together," he said.

Yang said that using both experience and intuition, the wholesaler was still judging the situation with a grain of salt. The trade disputes could stretch or terminate, and one should be prepared for either outcome. Acting with such a mindset, gradual increases would be a realistic option.

"We should avoid eating crow. There is no need to rush. If the war terminates, it will be easier to return to normal; if it stretches, it will not be hard for us to reach a new high," Yang said.


In downtown Manhattan, New York, Arielle Haspel and her husband run a Chinese restaurant called Lucky Lee's that has attracted locals of many different ethnicities around the neighborhood, including some Chinese.

However, potential trouble still lurks in Haspel's mind -- her building contractor recently came to show her the bills and try to sort out the payments. Some of the building materials were from China and their prices had climbed.

"Our contractor told us that some building materials are more expensive because of the tariff war," Haspel said, believing that the burden would be greater when spices and ingredients were factored in.

Figuring that her business had just run for two months, Haspel was still unsure whether it would affect the costs and operation.

"We don't know yet whether the change of ingredient prices will affect our business," she said.

Asked how she would cope with the situation if the trade disputes lasted long enough to affect her business, Haspel remained silent for several seconds before giving her answer. "We support peace, and we support other countries and their businesses as well," she said.