The close of every year often prompts reflection, especially if you own a business. What did we do right? What could we do better? What will the next year bring? However, 2020 was no ordinary year, and many business/restaurant owners found themselves in predicaments they never thought they would ever have to go through.
To finish out the year on my blog, I wanted to speak to Danny Chong, friend of Eating New Jersey and also the co-owner (along with his parents) of House of Chong in Red Bank— though Middletown residents will be quick to point out it is their restaurant. They have been in business for 51 years and are known for some of the best Chinese food in Monmouth County (and one of the only such restaurants to feature a bar, making the sit-down Chinese experience so much better). Below is our conversation.
GC: This year has definitely been a whirlwind for the restaurant industry in New Jersey. How has House of Chong been holding up?
DC: I believe that “whirlwind” is an excellent way to describe the restaurant industry, as well as this year as a whole. We faced numerous challenges over at House of Chong with many highs and lows along the way, and when I look back at the timeline of this year, I get emotional. Coming into the new year, our business was truly thriving. We had plans to renovate, add new items to our menu, amongst other aspirations of keeping House of Chong a staple of authentic and fresh Chinese food in the community. As the wave of Covid-19 hysteria ensued in early February and the more I was in contact with those apart of the Chinese restaurant industry as well as the Chinese community as a whole, it was evident that people were beginning to avoid Chinese businesses. In Michael Diamond’s piece in the business section of the Asbury Park Press that was published on March 1st, I had mentioned that our turnover was roughly thirty percent down. From that point, and prior to the NJ dining restrictions, we knew that something had to change. We decided to halt our indoor dining and moved exclusively to curbside pickup on March 15th. This was a stressful time for all of us. Not only was this a challenging time from a business perspective, but a personal perspective as well. As travel restrictions became tighter, I made the decision to travel back to South Africa to be with my children during these uncertain times. For the first time in 51 years, House of Chong closed its doors on a day that was not Thanksgiving day. Upon reopening for business a couple months down the line, the support and genuine happiness we received from the community was indescribable, and continued throughout the remainder of the year as business slowly began to climb back up. House of Chong is no different than any other restaurant in New Jersey in a sense that we are all faced with the restrictions imposed on indoor dining and bar seating. From my perspective as a business owner, that just means we have to deal with the hand we were dealt and work harder with reduced margins. I’m lucky that my parents made good decisions in the past as our staff has been together for so long and they really embrace the idea of teamwork. I suppose the icing on the cake in terms of challenges faced at House of Chong in 2020 can be summed up on our busiest days of the year for decades. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. On Christmas Eve, we had a two hour wait on takeout and had to stop taking orders from 6:00pm, onwards. On Christmas Day we expected to be even busier, and were greeted with a wind storm overnight and partial power the entire Christmas holiday in the restaurant. Unfortunately, this meant our exhaust fans were not at full strength and we had to limit our customers to those who had preplaced orders and made reservations. Despite a rather more stressful holiday than usual, it still it turned out to be a memorable Christmas. It included a 104-year-old dine in customer, Mai Tai’s with colorful Slurpee straws, and feeding those who truly needed to be fed because they were stuck at home with no power and no options. When facing adversity as a small business owner, its moments like these that make me realize how special it is to be part of such a great community.
GC: What changes has House of Chong had to make in order to deal with new restrictions and customer expectations of sanitary conditions in restaurant kitchens?
DC: With the current restrictions we are limited to 24 indoor diners. Our overall capacity is 180 seats. Our spacious dining room allows us to be flexible with table reconfiguration to ensure proper distancing measures are in place. Naturally, we clean all surfaces as much as possible and limit multiple people contacting items like menus/seats. Our staff understands that masks are a part of life now, not only on the job but in their daily life as well. For our full time staff, we discussed in the very beginning about limiting our social tendencies for health reasons. It’s actually been an easy discussion about understanding who is in your own social bubble and requesting the people in your bubble to understand the potential risks and threats of spreading Covid-19.
GC: When we last met, you had just begun introducing Dim Sum and soup dumplings. How have customers reacted to them? Do you have plans of introducing any new menu items?
DC: Our Dim Sum and soup dumplings have become a very popular new menu item, as the feedback from regulars, to first time customers has been tremendous. I have been fortunate enough to be able to experience Dim Sum and soup dumplings all over the world. From eating Dim Sum and soup dumplings in places like Shanghai, Taipei, Hong Kong, London, Paris, San Francisco, & New York I believe our assortment of Dim Sum options would stack up against most if not all of these restaurants. We recently introduced a Spicy Soup Dumpling (which I almost would like to take credit for inventing it, as I have never seen it before amongst all of these locations), along with a Crab and Shrimp Dumpling. I try my best to stay away from promoting these as a take-out item, as they are best enjoyed piping hot out of our steamer in house. We also have been doing a fresh fish of the day every Friday, prepared either steamed or served ginger and scallion style. With reduced bar seating, I have found free time to experiment new cocktail items with a couple of our regular customers, and look forward to continuing to implement creative, yet delicious items across the board of our menu.
GC: We have seen restaurant owners make drastic changes this year in order to be successful, just as we have seen many long-time culinary institutions close down. In 2021, House of Chong will celebrate its 52nd anniversary. In these always changing, unpredictable, and turbulent times, what do you have to do to ensure survival while keeping your family’s legacy and the business they built intact?
DC: It would take a lot more than a pandemic to tarnish House of Chong’s legacy, and I do not mean that in a blunt sense as we are all in this together. From our grand opening nearly 52 years ago, to today, House of Chong has focused on maintaining a certain standard of Chinese cuisine that we are not only proud of, but has been backed by our community for over five decades. The way I look at is, if we continue to prove to our customers that amongst dining restrictions and all other adversity faced, House of Chong will strive to continue to provide our customers with fresh and authentic Chinese cuisine.
GC: No one can tell what the future will hold for New Jersey restaurants, but what are you preparing for as this year comes to a close? Are you taking a hopeful or hesitant outlook?
DC: If there is one thing that my friends and family will tell you, it is that I always have a positive outlook and try to see the good in all things, regardless of circumstances. We have been rolling with the punches and taking everything one day at a time, just like everyone else. Our holiday troubles aside, I would like to think that we are closing this year on an up-trend in terms of demand returning to normal (whatever “normal” may be considered these days) and would like to thank our customers for their continued and overwhelming support. Despite my optimism, I will admit that I am also fearful in a sense that larger businesses and chains will come in and capitalize on the “convenience” aspect of things in the restaurant industry, and take away from the art of the local family restaurant that we and hundreds of other small businesses pride ourselves on. While time remain uncertain, I can guarantee that the amongst other Chinese restaurants, chains, etc., no one can provide the authentic and comforting American Chinese food like the House of Chong. I look forward to proving to our customers that we will stay true to our values throughout 2021 and many more years to come.
Lastly, how are Mr. and Mrs. Chong?!
DC: My mother and father are both healthy and well thank you for asking. They have a bit a cabin fever like the rest of us, however the thoughts of spending more time with family and being able to resume traveling with one another keeps their spirits high.
I would like to thank Danny for taking the time to conduct this extensive interview to help us gain insight into the world of the restaurant industry in these strange times. Admittedly, I have not been out to eat much myself. Regular readers of this blog will note that I have not reviewed a new restaurant since October and have used this pandemic as a chance to improve my own cooking skills. Danny responded by saying that he thinks more people should cook at home and not to feel guilty. Still, I hold a special place in my heart for House of Chong and hope to visit very soon!
From all of us at Eating New Jersey, we would like to wish everyone a safe, happy, and healthy New Year!