COVID-19 forced Nom Wah Tea Parlor to chart a new course through its 100th year in business — and it leads straight to your freezer.
After the pandemic shuttered the Chinatown dim sum destination, owner Wilson Tang decided to try something new: Freezing Nom Wah’s famous dumplings for patrons to prepare at home.
The resealable packages of pork, chicken, shrimp and edamame dumplings became a lifeline for Nom Wah, which opened its doors on Doyers Street in 1920 and has other locations in Nolita and Philadelphia. Thousands of orders have poured in since they went on sale in early April — thanks in part to Tang canvassing his Financial District neighbors to drum up business, he said.
“Everyone’s home. They have nothing else better to do, and they need to eat, and they don’t wanna cook themselves — or at least not make dumplings themselves,” Tang, 41, told The Post. “So people were into it, which was kind of cool to see, and it really shored up our bottom line.”
Nom Wah’s packaged offerings include house-made sauces and beverages in addition to the dumplings, which go for $19 to $24 for 18 to 23 pieces, depending on the variety. Tang hopes to eventually bring them into supermarkets and other outlets.
But the pivot didn’t inoculate Nom Wah against the pandemic. Sales sank 40 percent in February and March as people grew wary of the coronavirus — and Asian-American enclaves like Chinatown, according to Tang. Meanwhile, he said, the restaurant staff was worried about catching the virus and passing it to parents and grandparents at home.
The tea parlor shut down after its March 15 dinner service and eventually laid off its nearly 45 employees.
While Nom Wah’s fast-casual outpost in Nolita stayed open for takeout and delivery, sales in Chinatown evaporated in April and May save for “a couple thousand dollars” from merchandise such as T-shirts and gift cards, Tang said.
The eatery reopened for takeout in mid-May with federal Paycheck Protection Program loans helping to bridge the gap.
More relief came last month with the start of outdoor dining. Tang and his crew hauled out foldable furniture and snagged umbrellas from a beverage distributor to make room for about 20 seats on narrow Doyers Street. “We tried to make it look cute,” Tang said.
But that’s less than a third of Nom Wah’s normal dining room capacity. About 20 former employees have returned and sales are roughly 20 percent of what they were a year ago, Tang said.
“It’s been hit or miss,” Tang said. “Sometimes we’ll do an $800 day on sales. That doesn’t even cover rent” — more than $30,000 a month between the two NYC locations — “let alone staff and food costs and all the other miscellaneous stuff.”
While the usual summer tourists are gone, Nom Wah is still serving New Yorkers such as photographer Hidemi Takagi, who stopped by while wandering Chinatown last Sunday.
The Bed-Stuy resident and her husband were frequent diners in the restaurant’s earlier days, before tourist crowds created long lines that kept them away. But that wasn’t a problem when the couple and their daughter arrived in masks to munch on rice rolls and shumai dumplings.
“It was my first time to go to Chinatown since this pandemic started,” Takagi told The Post. “It was amazing to have a lunch without waiting and almost no people on the street.”
While Tang suspects Chinatown’s pandemic struggles aren’t over, he said the neighborhood is showing more “signs of life” each week. Nom Wah is contributing in its own way — it held a Fourth of July block party, and Tang is plotting virtual events to celebrate the October release of the cookbook he wrote chronicling the restaurant’s 100-year history.
“A lot of people come because there’s this nostalgic feeling,” Tang said. “There is like a craving that people want, and we’re just there to satisfy people’s cravings.”
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