Permanent impacts of COVID-19 on the Chinese restaurant industry

22 March 2021 / by Karen Young


Text-based dim sum menu. Many restaurants that do not use cart service will have this type of menu. Photo courtesy of Charlie Lin.

In 2020, the food service industry across Canada saw a decline of 40% or more in revenue. Restaurants across the country are adapting their services to the ever changing safety protocols as each province navigates re-openings and shutdowns. Such effects have a permanent impact on many restaurants that will outlast lockdown. CJRU sits down with current and former members of the restaurant industry to discuss these impacts.

Charlie Lin is the owner of Sky Dragon Chinese Restaurant located in downtown Toronto. Before lockdown, it was a Chinese restaurant that still offered cart service for dim sum. Cart service is part of a traditional Cantonese style dim sum experience.  Carts holding bamboo steamers with dim sum inside are pushed through the restaurant and customers can order directly from the cart. 

Cart service can be traced back to Hong Kong, formerly China, where it first started. The traditional dim sum experience is like that,” explained Duck Cheong, who is a customer of Sky Dragon and retired restaurant owner and businessman.* 

However, the indirect effects of COVID-19 have permanently affected cart service at Sky Dragon. Lin explains that cart service is more for those unfamiliar with dim sum, it is a way to sell dim sum directly to the customers. He believes that they will not do cart service in the future as customers may still be concerned about COVID-19 and the cleanliness of cart service.

“Canadian people like the cart service. They can directly see the food. Chinese people, especially the old age Chinese people, it doesn’t matter if you have the cart or not,” he says.

Sky Dragon started adapting their take out menus that have photos of dim sum. Photo courtesy of Charlie Lin.

Cart service has seen a decline in other parts of Ontario even before COVID-19.

In restaurants in Markham, Scarborough, Richmond Hill typically have menus on the table instead of the traditional cart service. Once you order your food it gets cooked. One it’s for safety and second your food is more fresh and hot,” says  Tony Dong, who is currently the Assistant Manager at  New Century Restaurant  in Markham, formerly working at Sky Dragon.

New Century Restaurant reopened after some renovations last fall. Shortly after re-opening, indoor dining was banned and the restaurant closed again. Dong shares the difficulties of maintaining a restaurant of its size. Typically this Chinese restaurant could house a few hundred customers.

There are huge effects of COVID-19 on the restaurant industry, even more so with large restaurants. The restrictions make it very hard to maintain a restaurant of this size, with rent and the number of employees we have to operate the restaurant,” says Dong*. 

Cheong shares how the dine in experience is irreplaceable.

Atmosphere is important when eating out, like being able to sit down and talk with your friends. When you order take out, the food isn’t the same. You might as well cook fresh food at home” he says.*

To support these restaurants, find them on your local food delivery app. This is the final story is a four-part series on the effects of global pandemic on the Asian community in Canada.


*This quote was paraphrased and translated from Cantonese. To hear the full quote in Cantonese, click on the embedded text.