[Bon Appétit]: "Reopenings, Resistance, and PPP Loans: How Food Businesses Nationwide Are Handling Coronavirus"
Article link: Read it at Bon Appetit here
Originally posted: May 20, 2020
"We're focused on really small restaurants in Chinatown that are being forgotten."
Justin Mckibben, Send Chinatown Love, New York City: So I’m a software engineer at Square, which makes point of sales (POS) for restaurants and other businesses, and I work on the restaurants team. Around late February, Jack Dorsey, the CEO, held a big meeting because of the impact he was seeing on merchants using Square. We were trying to figure out how we could help small- to medium-size merchants, mainly by creating a donation system and gift cards. Our entire organization moved to doing that.
I live in Chinatown and, at the same time, I started noticing the effects of COVID-19 on the neighborhood. A lot of restaurants were closing down, which you wouldn’t notice until you tried to go in. The thing that got me was trying to pick up dumplings from 88 Lan Zhou. They posted a sign saying they lost a lot of business, so they were temporarily closing down.
I realized that what Square was doing wouldn’t translate to Chinatown because Chinatown businesses don’t have POS and are cash-only businesses. I remember talking to my uncle, who’s also a software engineer and volunteers often with Habitat for Humanity, about what was happening in New York. I joked that, back during World War II, you’d be considered a hero if you went to war, but now you’re a hero if you stay at home, eat Hot Cheetos, and watch anime all day. He didn’t find it very funny, and instead gave me a really long lecture. He told me there are two types of people: lifters and leaners. Lifters are the ones who go and try to help people however they can in a crisis. Leaners are the people who sit back and wait for everything to subside. He was like, I’ve seen you as a lifter, not a leaner. So we started brainstorming the idea for ways to support mom-and-pop spots in Chinatown, and I posted our conversation on my Instagram stories. A lot of people DM’d me, friends of mine who were engineers, designers, or personally affected by COVID-19 and friends of friends who were like, “Hey, I’m down to help and I speak Chinese.” So we all got on a call and started Send Chinatown Love.
We have a four-part process, and it starts with our seller empathy team. They’re fluent Chinese speakers, so they reach out to mom-and-pop restaurants and shops, who are usually off the grid without phone numbers or websites. We figure out what they need help with. A lot of merchants don’t feel comfortable with donations but are okay with gift cards. So we build out a gift card system for them, knowing that they don’t have POS, and create a website for them where anyone can buy a gift card and be sent a five-digit code. We email the merchants all the gift card codes and amounts attached to them. They print this out, so anyone can walk into the restaurant with their gift card code and the merchant can match it up with what they have. It’s a completely analog system they trust. Once we do this, we can convince merchants to accept donations, since they’re comfortable with our process. Our design team also helps them with social media and marketing. And finally, we hand-deliver the checks from the gift cards and donations. We’re willing to do things that big companies can’t do, and we want to be present with our merchants through each step of the process.
So far, we’ve reached out to over 60 restaurants and onboarded about eight of them. We’re not in this for the numbers; otherwise, we would reach out to restaurants with phone numbers. We’re focused on really small restaurants in Chinatown that are being forgotten. Now we’re getting DMs on Instagram from people who are reaching out on their own to tell a merchant they know about us. We’re also starting to build new things, like a resource center in both English and Chinese that hand-holds a merchant on how to reopen and restructure their business model post-COVID-19. We’re encouraging merchants to pivot to delivery since they can’t rely on walk-in customers and need to diversify their revenue streams. We’re also making merch for every merchant, using the logo and assets we created for social media. We’re telling our merchants, if people love your dumplings, they might like a tote bag or t-shirt. And then we’re also working on a gift-a-meal plan, so people can buy a meal for someone else. For these meals, we want to target the elderly community in Chinatown, since they can’t go out and buy groceries like they normally do, and families who have lost work due to COVID-19.
Our team is about 30 people strong, and we all work on this after our normal jobs. It’s the small things that keep us going. When we launched Shun Fa Bakery, they wrote us a cute note, thanking us for helping them through the hardest of times. If through this effort, we help one or two mom-and-pop restaurants survive COVID-19, then it’s all worth it.