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High Food Costs in New York’s Chinatown

Living in the Shadow of Recession

New America Media, News Report, Anthony D. Advincula Posted: May 27, 2008

Editor's note: The recession is hitting every community and Chinatown in New York is no exception. Restaurateurs have to raise prices while diners, who rely on the cheap food of Chinatown, are reeling from the effect. NAM New York-based editor Anthony D. Advincula, reports.

NEW YORK -- Climbing food and commodity prices are translating into higher prices at restaurants, and the trend is evident everywhere in New York’s Chinatown.

“We have no choice but to increase the price of our entrées, because the basic ingredients that we buy from our distributor have become very expensive as well,” Jian Xi, a spokesman for Wai La Restaurant on Mott Street,” said through a translator.

With prices that ranged from $7 to $10 dollars per meal a month ago, Mr. Xi said that now they have gone up between 30 and 50 percent.
ChinatownA street in New York's Chinatown
Photo by Oni Advincula

“We still have the lunch specials, mostly small meals for $5.99. But we have certainly raised the price for our dinner courses – chicken, beef, seafood, and even vegetarian food,” he said, showing the changes on the menu posted on the glass door of the restaurant.

The national consumer rate of basic commodities, like meat, vegetables and beverages, rose 0.4 percent in February, or a 4.4 percent hike as compared last year, according to a report released by U.S. Department of Labor.

Dairy products also climbed 0.2 percent for the same period, the report said, and bakery products increased 1.8 percent – the largest monthly advance since 1975.

“If restaurant owners like me will retain our old price, we won’t be able to earn a profit,” said Nin-ha Yang, a member of New York’s Chinese American Restaurant Association.

Ms. Yang, who runs a Cantonese restaurant on Baxter Street, said that she even had to adjust the price for wedding banquets and birthday meal packages to stay competitive.

“We used to charge $298 for a 12-course meal for 10 people. Unfortunately, we cannot do that now. For the same package, we have offered it for $500 since the Chinese New Year this year,” she said. “Everything – rent, gas, utilities – went up. Even our workers want a higher pay,” she said. “It’s difficult nowadays.”

The price for commercial and housing rent rose by 0.2 percent last month, and fuel also earned a 1.5 percent hike, the Labor Department report added.

While the bull market in commodities has been difficult for restaurant owners, it has been a boon for food distributors.

“I believe we have about 15 percent profit hike in the first-quarter,” a supervisor for DiCarlo Inc., one of the largest independent distributors in the New Jersey and New York areas, spoke on condition of anonymity.

Wholesale price increases and stronger distribution network boosted the quarter’s sales, he said. “We also try to get the produce from local farmers at cheaper rates. That way we have better price flexibility when we resell them.”

But for restaurant customers, who feel at the bottom of the consumer market chain, paying higher price for meals is disheartening.

“I still couldn’t believe I had to pay $10.99 for beef noodles. That used to be $5.99 two weeks ago,” said Patiricia Cadora, a regular customer in Chinatown.

Cadora who works a block from Canal Street, said that she has to minimize dining out with friends after work. “I think it’s time for me to learn how to cook.”

Photo by Oni Advincula

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