Danny Che is a co-owner of Deluxe Meat Market on Mott Street, a butcher shop and grocery store that also sells homemade Chinese barbecue and prepared foods. Here, he discusses what it’s like to run his business amid the increased threat of violence against Asian Americans, and the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Deluxe is a family business. The principal owners are my dad and uncles, the first generation that came here from Guangzhou. Now the second generation — my cousins and me — are getting groomed to learn how to run it. Deluxe has been around since 2001.
For supermarkets in general, the slowest time is the summer. Then, starting in October, business picks up through Thanksgiving and all the way into Lunar New Year — that’s our busiest season. Last year, Lunar New Year happened right as the coronavirus was starting to spread. People were like, Okay, we gotta start quarantining. And then, maybe a few weeks later, it was the lockdown. So during New Year’s, we were very, very busy. Anything we put out sold out immediately — and it kept on going. Normally, after the New Year, it would die down, but we just kept on getting busier and busier. With all that news of the coronavirus, the whole team was very, very stressed. Everything that’s produced in-house would sell out. It sounds like a good thing, but it put a lot of stress on the whole team.
On top of that, we were working late, and the people who don’t live in Chinatown had to take the subway back to Queens, Brooklyn, or the Bronx. During that time, with the news saying the virus came from China, and Trump calling it “the Chinese virus,” it really affected the safety of our employees when they went home. They were harassed on the subways, and some of them were chased by people trying to rob them on the way home getting off the subway.
Slowly, people started to call out from work — they were just scared to come in. We tried to stay open for as long as possible, and during that time, the community was really good to us — everyone who came in was so appreciative that we were open. People were constantly calling, constantly asking if we were open. We told them we would stay open as long as we could, but our team started to dwindle.
During that entire time, not only was I really appreciative of the Chinese community, I was just so appreciative of our entire team. If someone was uncomfortable and didn’t want to come in, we were like, “100 percent — totally understood.” Nobody was ever going to say, like, “Hey, you’ve gotta come in!” For the people that did show up, there was a sense of closeness — like we were all in it together. It was the same sense that I had during 9/11. I remember walking away from the site, and business owners from bodegas and grocery stores would come out with, like, waters or snacks, handing them out for free. There was a togetherness — New York City staying strong. That’s the same feeling I had when I saw everyone on staff. All hands on deck. Everybody was stressed, but they were still working together and being good to one another.
At night, when we’d leave, our staff was like, “Okay, we’re gonna go to the subway together so there are a few of us. No one’s going home alone.” When there’s a group, it’s less likely that anyone will bother you or do something bad.
Eventually, during the first week of April, we had to shut down because we just literally didn’t have enough people to come in. Our staff is still cut down by a lot. After we opened back up, business was slow, and our hours were cut. Business has been down 25 percent or so, and that’s still the case today. We try to hire as many people back as possible.
All our staff eat together, normally, and our chefs cook the meals. It used to be two meals per day because we had longer hours. But with the shorter hours, we cook one meal. There’s always a vegetable, a meat dish, rice, and a soup. We take lunch in different shifts, so people aren’t crowded.
We did have two or three cases where staff members contracted coronavirus. We thought the right thing to do was to shut down the store, have everyone get tested, and then have people come back once their test results came back negative. It was the safe thing to do, even though closing down a store is a lot of work. Again, since everything we do is fresh, managing to close down is a huge, huge thing.
Fortunately for the staff that were sick, they didn’t have to go to the hospital or anything. When they got all better and tested negative again, they came back to work. There were crazy stories — I don’t know where they came from — that my cousins and uncle died from COVID. I was shocked that these things were being said.
Now we’re just taking things day by day. Everything that comes from left field, we try to deal with it as we see fit. We didn’t know what to do when the first employee tested positive. Were we supposed to shut down? Should the whole staff get tested, or just the people around that person? We never know what the city is going to do, with new regulations, but whenever things come out, we’ll just comply and hope for the best.
I think the main lesson from this past year is that no matter what curveballs get thrown at you, stress isn’t helpful. Even with the dip in business, we’re lucky that we’re in our industry and not restaurants. So many of them are closing. Even Jing Fong closed recently. That’s a place that I’ve gone to since I was a kid. That’s really sad to hear. But even though we’re in the grocery business, our own business is still down. Chinatown just has fewer people around these days — people are scared to come out.
More and more of our staff are getting the shots. None of them is scared of the vaccine, and a lot of them got their first doses already. I think people are adapting to this new environment — slower business and the safety protocols of masks, gloves, constantly washing their hands. With people getting comfortable, I am hopeful that business will get back to where it normally is. And hopefully, Chinatown stays. Hopefully, it comes back to life.