Struggling Chinese businesses prioritize helping first responders

SEATTLE — Restaurants have been decimated by the pandemic, and Chinese restaurants in particular saw a drop in customers before any others.

Now the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Washington State is trying to help small businesses survive while helping our first responders.

The Dolar Shop is an upscale hot pot restaurant in downtown Bellevue. Like most restaurants, their business has plummeted. Still, they’re finding every way they can to give back – and now they’re getting a little help too.

“We’re fortunate enough to have a solid number of customers ordering to keep us alive,” said Bruce Lin, the owner and operator of The Dolar Shop Bellevue.

The restaurant had never done takeout before the pandemic, but now that’s how they’re surviving.

Like many Chinese restaurants, their customer base started avoiding meals out long before Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced the stay-at-home order on March 23.

“Probably a month prior we saw a dramatic decline,” Lin said.

But from the beginning of the pandemic, The Dolar Shop has been cooking up meals for essential workers — for free.

On Friday, about 150 meals from the restaurant were delivered to Harborview Medical Center, Children’s Hospital and Overlake Hospital.

“It’s just been amazing, and everyone is really grateful for it,” said Tracy Gooding, UW Medicine Harborview’s director of patient relations. “It’s the thought — you’re not forgotten as you do this really hard work,” she said.

The donations are happening even as the restaurant struggles to make ends meet.

“We’re just trying to do our part,” Lin said.

The CCCWA has already been coordinating shipments of masks to local hospitals.

“At first in the United States, you couldn’t acquire enough PPE and we were able to obtain a lot of it from China through connections,” said Lili Lu, the president of the group, speaking in Chinese. She said they’ve donated more than $130,000 worth of medical supplies to local hospitals.

When the CCCWA heard about The Dolar Shop’s efforts to feed the community, they saw a chance to expand it.

“The first-line responders, they save us, defend us, help us. We need to use our heart to help them in return,” said Alex Cai, a CCCWA member.

They brought together more than a dozen Chinese and other Asian restaurants to launch a #FoodWithLove campaign, and have organized donations of nearly $400,000 worth of meals to first responders — from hospital staff to police officers.

They’ve also partnered with food delivery company, Chowbus, to get the food where it needs to go – and many of their drivers make those special trips for free.

Now they are also raising money to help the restaurants involved.

“The restaurants, they already bear a heavy burden,” Cai said.

So they started fundraising to cover some of the cost of the donated food to make sure those restaurants will still be here after the pandemic. The Washington State China Relations Council has also joined the effort.

“Any help during this crisis — we appreciate it so much,” Lin said.

The Dolar Shop is planning to reopen on the tentative June 1 date for “Phase 2,” following the state’s guidelines. But Inslee has said any spike in the number of COVID-19 cases could shift that date back.