Still, the cramped food stall of about 100 square feet, with no English-language name or advertising, has become a hit in a neighbourhood beleaguered by COVID-19 and high rents.
The key to that success is an extensive menu of warm and flaky Shandong-style shaobing, baked flatbreads stuffed with savoury and sweet fillings that have locals, some of the most exacting critics of Chinese fare, coming back for more.
In a space scarcely big enough for the two of them, Ruokun Yu and her business partner, Chunmei Tong, prepare classic shaobing containing pork and shrimp, cumin lamb and peppered beef, as well as westernised favourites like New Orleans chicken — their version of a sweet-and-savoury flavour popularised by KFC in China.
One of the women helms the register while the other stuffs heaping spoons of filling into handmade dough, then bakes them in a tiny oven. Everything is made from scratch.
The shop’s approach is emblematic of what it takes to survive in what was already an unsparing restaurant business before COVID-19: gruelling hours, tight margins and a do-it-yourself ethos that converts passersby into regulars.
The virus has flattened businesses citywide, but its effects have often been more insidious on minority-owned shops. Harassment and violence against people of East Asian descent has been on the rise since the pandemic began, and Chinese restaurants, many of them owned by immigrants, have been particularly hit hard by racism, losing customers and suffering vandalism.
That this shaobing stall has relied mostly on patrons of Chinese descent speaks to the changing buying power of communities like Flushing. You will find Yukun Shaobing only on food delivery apps that cater to Chinese-speaking customers, like Fantuan. On the counter is a poster with a QR code for the messaging app WeChat, popular among Chinese speakers.
“It’s all by word-of-mouth,” said Yu. Every Chinese region has something similar, she said in Mandarin, referring to their menu of 17 shaobing varieties. “We cater to them all.”
The partners pay $3,000 a month for the stall, and, because space is tight, another $200 to a neighboring business for the use of its prep area. The stall is inside the Landmark Quest Mall, across Roosevelt Avenue from the more popular New World Mall food court.
The two women work seven days a week and, on a good day, can sell about 200 to 300 shaobing, for $3 to $5 a piece. They also sell two sizes of lamb soup, a common pairing, for $4 or $8. Frozen bags of homemade dumplings are available, Yu said, because they were bored one night at home.
Business in neighbourhood restaurants has flagged during the two-month suspension of indoor dining in the city, which has curtailed tourism and reduced local foot traffic along the avenue. To avoid the high costs of a wholesale distributor, the partners shop for ingredients daily at a local Jmart, a popular supermarket for East Asian produce.
Yu, 41, and Tong, 50, first-time business owners, live together in Flushing, where they split a single bedroom for $1,000 a month. They’ve worked in a number of Flushing restaurant kitchens, preparing mostly northern-style baked goods and dough, said Yu, who in 2016 immigrated to New York from Qingdao, China, in search of work. Tong arrived in 2018 from Liaoning province. When restaurants closed amid the lockdown, the roommates pooled their savings and answered an advertisement to lease the tiny food stall.
Despite the pandemic, they’ve been lucky in some ways. Barbie Li, the broker at B Square Realty in downtown Flushing, said a number of businesses were wiped out in recent months, allowing rents to fall for new tenants, if only temporarily. Before COVID, Li said, similar stalls rented for $4,000 a month or more.
The pandemic has helped smaller, takeout-friendly restaurants that can adapt to delivery service, Li said, in some cases improving their business because of reduced competition. And news travels fast — she knows the shaobing stall well; her favorite filling is spicy squid.
On a January afternoon, customers arrived at the mini-mall to order from Joe’s Steam Rice Rolls, a popular Cantonese-style noodle spot that has the most prominent space in the building. But several wandered to the shaobing stall, where a mostly Chinese clientele browsed the menu.
“I was waiting for Joe’s, and some lady bought 20 in one go — so I had to try it,” said Winnie Huang, a repeat customer who was on a takeout food crawl. She said that she and her mother, both of Taiwanese descent, hadn’t seen this variety of shaobing in Flushing for more than a decade.
“It’s rare to find in Flushing,” said Ryan Chen, who drove from Long Island to pick up a cake, but was also on the lookout for good takeaway options.
A recent wave of restaurants in Flushing and other Chinatowns in the city have tended toward spicy Sichuan dishes, or hot pot. Several customers said northern-style street foods, like shaobing, have become less common. Yu said she plans to expand into a larger space soon, to take on the increased demand.
A masked woman walked up to the counter in a rush, and asked, “Any cumin lamb?”
“Give us 15 minutes,” Yu said.
The woman said she’d be back.
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