Hard times for Big Apple bakers

Xinhua
Rising rent, local taxes, staff costs and a lack of qualified bakers are worrying the Chinese establishments that have been a part of the New York scene for decades. 
Xinhua

When Fay Da Bakery closed its flagship shop on New York City’s Center Street on June 30 due to rising rents and local taxes, the news sent chills down the spines of other Chinese bakery owners.

Zhou Hanjie established the shop in downtown Manhattan in 1991 to support his immigrant family and his business had expanded to 12 more branches in Greater New York, which took the brand to a leading position over its Chinese peers.

However, 27 years later, the oldest outlet is no longer there. “I am trying to find another location nearby. This is the start-up land for Fay Da. We are not giving up,” Zhou told local media recently.

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Typing “Chinese bakeries in New York” into Google yields 6,840,000 results. These bakeries have become an irreplaceable link in the food supply chain in this behemoth city.

Rents and local taxes have had a serious impact on the daily operation of bakeries. Other problems for these small businesses are the lack of qualified bakers and the salary expectations of staff. 

Taipan is a Chinese bakery that serves New York’s Chinatown and Queens areas with a focus on buns and pastries. Its chairman, Wu Zhihui, told Mandarin daily newspaper World Journal: “Chinese bakeries are facing common challenges. The best location asks for rent and local tax the most exorbitant.” 

Wu said rents for Taipan had surged over 50 percent in recent years, forcing him to raise the price of bread and cakes over and over again, albeit by narrow margins each time for fear of losing customers.

A tuna bun from the Fay Da Bakery

Two blocks from Fay Da’s branch in Woodside, Queens, the Rainbow Bakery chain also has an outlet, beside Roosevelt Avenue. Its clerks and the baker are of Chinese descent.

 Neighborhood residents like to queue up inside its cramped space before 7pm to buy the bread and cakes baked in the morning at a discount price. They have noticed a change recently: US$1 for two items was changed to US$2 for three.

“They’re trying to stay afloat. It’s not easy to maintain a business here,” said a woman in the line, which has tapered off in the days following the price change.

Wu noted the inherent factors behind the increase in prices: hourly pay for an average clerk has risen to US$15, with US$1.5 added for overtime.

A selection of the goods on offer at Bake Culture’s new store in Manhattan. A-list actors were invited by the Taiwan firm to its inauguration in February to attract younger customers, build up word of mouth and help highlight the brand.

Meanwhile, young bakers are increasingly hard to find. The profession demands years of apprenticeship and hours of sweaty work in a searing environment early in the morning, he said. “People tend to make easy and quick silver,” he added.

Typing “Chinese bakeries in New York” into Google yields 6,840,000 results. These bakeries have become an irreplaceable link in the food supply chain in this behemoth city, where around 500,000 Chinese Americans make up about 6 percent of the total population.

Chinese bakeries originated in the Big Apple in the 1970s, when the employers at mushrooming garment factories liked to order bread and cakes for their workers for “afternoon tea.” On a Saturday, just one order could total 5,000 to 6,000 meals, Zhou told World Journal.

As New York was urbanized, clothing mills vanished, but Chinese bakeries survived and even flourished, providing staples and coffee at breakfast and lunch for millions of New Yorkers.

Today’s New York is the most densely populated city in the United States, with an estimated population of 8,622,700 in 2017. A global power city, it has been described as the cultural, financial and media capital of the world and exerts a significant impact on commerce, entertainment, research, technology, education, politics, tourism and sports.

There is a lot of money to be made here, but it is harder to make it as fierce competition forces a business operator to the edge and costs pile up before a profit can be made.

The Taipan bakery’s egg tarts

In such tough conditions there have to be innovative solutions. Bake Culture from Taiwan opened two shops in Manhattan and Flushing in February, each time inviting A-list actors from the island to attract young consumers, build up word of mouth and help highlight the brand.

Fay Da has also debuted an online service, where you can order cakes tailored to your specific demands such as size, taste and choice of ingredients. 

Similarly, Taipan has invested a lot in upgrading its bilingual website, with fancy cues and pictures to whet consumers’ appetites for more of its products. “Your one-stop bakery for your morning cravings,” reads one of its glistening headline photos.

“With the facelift, we are targeting the younger generations,” Wu told World Journal.

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