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The pandemic wreaked financial havoc on restaurants and food merchants across the country. Between labor shortages, higher food costs, and a dip in diners, it’s been a rough two-plus years for restaurant owners and workers.
The first to acutely feel these impacts were food merchants in Chinatowns across the country. Xenophobic and racist ideologies grew as some world leaders wrongly vilified mainland China as a dangerous “other” place. As a result, the owners, cooks, servers, and delivery drivers at Asian-owned restaurants felt a crushing blow to business before the words “social isolation” were even a part of our daily vocabularies.
Send Chinatown Love, a growing organization based in New York City with big impact, was founded by Justin McKibben in March of 2020 to help struggling business owners in NYC’s various Chinatowns.
In addition to direct financial donations, Send Chinatown Love provides business development consulting for the owners, and an impactful gift-a-meal program that works with Chinatown restaurants to feed underserved and vulnerable communities. In 2021, the organization directly generated $593,207 to New York’s Chinatown’s merchants, and with the help of donors, gifted 15,252 meals and provisions to people in need.
Although the need for immediate, emergency aid is less acute, Send Chinatown Love has long-term goals for supporting the Asian and Asian American population that feeds Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. We spoke with the organization’s TikTok and YouTube lead, Michael Corcoran (and got a tour of some of his favorite Chinatown eats!) about what Send Chinatown Love has accomplished, and what’s next.
Send Chinatown Love provides aid and relief through a few different initiatives: financial donations, business development consulting, and the gift-a-meal option. How are donations most directly felt by merchants?
We have a general pool fund on our site for donations. Most of the money generated there goes to the Gift a Meal program; that’s our way of working with merchants, and connecting donors to them. We’ll use those donations to work with a specific vendor and say, “Hey, we’ll purchase 500 meals from you this weekend,” then work with a nonprofit to distribute them. It’s a win-win. But you don’t have to just donate; you can visit the restaurants. All of our partnering merchants can be found on a map, so you can check that out and choose where you’re going to have your next meal.
How do volunteers factor into the success of the program? What roles do they fulfill?
People in the immediate New York City area can always dine at these Asian American small businesses. There’s obviously a lot going on around the world—inflation, and other external factors—but these businesses still need support. This month, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, in particular, we have a signup form on our website for volunteers who want to get involved in meal distribution. If you follow along on our social (@SendChinatownLove), we regularly share opportunities there, too.
Beyond the tangible impacts—financial aid and the like—how has Send Chinatown Love impacted the merchants and their communities?
We’ve gained a lot of trust from our merchants. When traumas happen, like the recent shooting in Sunset Park, we reach out to the merchants to make sure they’re feeling okay, and have all the support they need. We are a big family, and we all do rely on each other.
I also think that diners in the city are more open-minded and open. I’ve seen creators on TikTok and Instagram, for example, coming into our Chinatowns and sharing affordable, authentic eats.
What are the qualities that make Chinatown restaurants and businesses unique from other NYC establishments?
I have an outsider's view because I didn’t grow up in the city—I moved here during the pandemic and joined Send Chinatown Love during the pandemic. New York City as a whole is a very resilient place. The business owners have had to go through a lot. When I talk with people in the Asian American community, and Chinatown specifically, [they share that] they didn’t get a lot of government relief. So for these generational businesses to come through the other side, that’s such resilience. I don’t know if that’s specific to Chinatown business, but it is felt there.
While you continue to address short-term needs for merchants, what are the long-term goals of Send Chinatown Love?
That’s for our business development. These owners survived the pandemic, but we want to make sure they thrive. That means a lot of business owners are better acquainted with delivery partnering services, or helping them boost their online presence. We’ve done website redesigns for merchants, helping with branding—even updating their Google listings to accurately represent hours.
Every merchant has a point of contact within the team. When you’re any business owner, you’re in the trenches and it’s easy to get tunnel vision. So the BD team provides another perspective; they can bring up issues and help make them aware. From there, the restaurant owners and merchants can decide if they want further help, at which we’ll provide it or guide them to the right resources.
How can people who aren’t located in New York help?
Look around your own community; visit the Asian-owned businesses there. Keep an open mind and try something new. Take a pause and think about how you can make an impact where you are.
- Best late-night snack? Ramen. Whatever flavor’s in my cabinet.
- Your use-on-everything condiment? Hot chili oil or sriracha.
- Would you rather cook for someone or be cooked for? I like hosting; I’d cook for someone.
- Finish the sentence: The most-memorable meals are…The ones with people you love.
- How do you satisfy sweet tooth cravings? I go to my local bodega and get homemade Rice Krispie Treats.
- The one thing you’ll always get seconds of—even if you’re stuffed: Dessert. Specifically ice cream.